Today’s blog is written by John from Circulation.
April, which was also “National Poetry Month,” had me thinking about my favorite poets. Of those I love, and there are many, my two personal giants are Homer and Shakespeare. Homer made an ancient world forever new with glorious words, even though he probably never knew how to read or write. Shakespeare dragged the world into a new way of thinking, even though he himself had little formal education and never attended university. His facility with words amazes me. Many scholars think most of us can get by on a vocabulary of about 9,000 words. Shakespeare’s vocabulary exceeded 28,000 words. Of course, that is because he seems to have felt quite at ease in inventing new words! April 23, 2012 marked Shakespeare’s 448 birthday. That such an eminent poet’s birthday occurs in the midst of “National Poetry Month” makes sense. That it is still cause for celebration is remarkable. Only a handful of writers are remembered centuries after they cease working. Perhaps that is because the work they produced while living never stops working in us. Shakespeare’s influence on literature is enormous. Characters he invented generate more speculation and analysis than many historical figures. His accomplishments are so remarkable that simply referring to him as “The Bard” is enough to identify who one means. Yet precious little is known about his life.
Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World sets out to change that. But it is an unusual “biography” because it narrates Shakespeare’s life through descriptions of the world he lived in and how the poetry and characters he created reflected that world. Greenblatt is a noted Shakespearean scholar and professor of Humanities at Harvard, but this biography is anything but dry. It is a readable, lively, witty, and utterly engaging look at events we know happened in Shakespeare’s life and times—but always through the lens of what he wrote. Thus, Greenblatt makes some brilliant observations about Shakespeare’s marriage based almost completely on the marriages we see in his plays. Along the way, as Greenblatt progresses play by play, we enjoy similar observations on humor, last wills, witchcraft, property, ambition, depression, joy, in short a whole world wholly created by a master craftsman.
Although it’s not his primary objective, Greenblatt ends up making a compelling argument for Shakespeare as the sole author of the plays. Great art, he argues, although it can be influenced by learning and discipline, sometimes simply appears out of truly gifted individuals with the talent, desire and opportunity to present it. By showing how Shakespeare keenly observed the world in which he lived and worked, Greenblatt presents a new dimension to Shakespeare’s genius. That world, in turn, influenced Shakespeare’s art, craft, and stagecraft. Those cross connections demonstrate just how Shakespeare evolved into a great playwright. Like all great writers, he wrote about what he knew and because he had lived it, it rang true.
Although Greenblatt bases many observations and conclusions on deduction and supposition, he also draws intelligent and accurate conclusions about Shakespeare. At times he speculates (mostly hitting the mark but not always convincingly) on how Shakespeare used the world that formed him to, in turn, form his great works. Greenblatt also explains some popular Latin works which Shakespeare often used including some basic plot elements. This is not unlike the Greek playwrights of their era, who relied so heavily on Homer and the myths for their source material. With Shakespeare, the two greatest sources for much of his work, in addition to the Holinshed Chronicles for historical facts, were mythology and the Bible.
Like historians, biographers draw conclusions from evidence informed by the bias of their time. This is true of Greenblatt’s work. Nevertheless, he makes many significant observations and his insights into Will’s world will leave you thinking about the plays and sonnets in a whole new way. Ultimately, that’s the value of a cultural and historical biography like Greenblatt’s. While many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy, fortunately we have his great plays, even though they have been through many hands and editors over the years. These masterworks continue to resonate with great insights about human nature. Greenblatt’s book will reshape your thinking about the genius behind Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. Of course, there will be times you’ll find yourself in total disagreement with him. But that’s the draw of a great biography—to create an atmosphere where discussion adds new fuel to the fire of interpretation and insight.
Check the WRL catalog for Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Or try this book on audio CD