October 2004

Where there’s a Will, there’s a play

By Stephen Greenblatt
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For many years, my long hot summers have culminated in the sweet words of a man who's been dead for half a millennium. I'm lucky enough to live in a city where, as each August wanes, a plucky troupe of actors entertains with one of the Bard's works. Outside. Under the stars. Stephen Greenblatt is a Harvard professor, a world-renowned authority on English literature and a well-published author. After reading his latest book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, however, I've got the feeling he's a fellow groundling at heart.

Over the centuries, some scholars have claimed that Shakespeare was an uneducated commoner who couldn't possibly have written such monumental works. Greenblatt doesn't deign to mention these charges, much less address them. Instead, he paints such a vivid portrait of the man that there can be no doubt that William Shakespeare, actor and entrepreneur, wrote the works attributed to him. Greenblatt presents the available evidence within the context of Shakespeare's culture and times; this cautious extrapolation of historical events and environmental influences from the Bard's work is what makes Will in the World so powerful.

Romantic love in the canon is a prime example. While Shakespeare's comedies, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to As You Like It, feature an assortment of couples coupling, Greenblatt makes the cogent point that there are comparatively few words in Shakespeare's work about marriage. Those marriages Shakespeare does portray end tragically, from Romeo and Juliet, to Othello and Desdemona, to Lord and Lady Macbeth. Greenblatt makes an obvious connection to Shakespeare's own dysfunctional marriage to Anne Hathaway, but he points out that Shakespeare's flight to London might also have been driven by his closet Catholicism in the face of an "English Inquisition" sweeping Stratford-upon-Avon. Greenblatt even speculates that the stifling anti-Catholic climate of the times may explain why Shakespeare left no personal paper trail.

Greenblatt's most compelling arguments concern the tremendous burst of creativity late in Shakespeare's career, when he wrote some of his greatest works: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Again, Greenblatt draws a personal connection the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet but he goes further, interweaving the political and religious events of the times and showing how they turn up in the plays. He portrays the sophistication and boldness of a well-established playwright at the top of his game, who made the brilliant conceptual leap of portraying the inner life of the mind by deliberately obscuring what motivates that mind.

Artists often say they really don't create a work of art; instead, they bring out what was already there by illuminating the space around it. Greenblatt has done just that in Will in the World. By illuminating the space around the Bard, he has brought William Shakespeare to vivid life.

This summer James Neal Webb enjoyed The Comedy of Errors in the park.

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Will in the World

Will in the World

By Stephen Greenblatt
ISBN 9780393050578

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