Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt sketches out what is known about the life of Shakespeare, interspersing the meager details with background information about Elizabethan England.  He tells of, for example, the tension between Catholics and Protestants, the vilification of the Jews, the myriad ways in which the society was brutal and bloody, and King James’ beliefs on witches and prophecy.  The result is a very intriguing book with many interesting and extremely debatable propositions.

That some of the sonnets seem to be written to a man seems undeniable (see for example Sonnet XX); that Shakespeare was hired by nobles to write the sonnets in order to convince another young noble to marry a certain woman seems highly unlikely, especially since as Greenblatt himself notes, the sonnets hardly argue the merits of marriage.  Or to take another case, Robert Greene’s obvious attack on Shakespeare is immediately denounced by the people involved in it; but Greenblatt inadequately investigates why a mysterious and very powerful protector should concern himself with a player and playwright.  Or again, Greenblatt’s juxtaposition of “hamlet” with the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the deterioration of his own father is a very tenuous argument at best, but his connection of the writing of “Macbeth” with James’ paranoid obsession with witches and scrying makes perfect sense.  It is true that nearly every single statement about Shakespeare made in the book contains a qualifier like “probably,” or “it can never be certain that,” or “highly likely,” or “if;” but in the end, all these hypotheses don’t detract from the book’s purpose: to place Will Shakespeare in his world. 

four stars