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  • Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
  • Rebecca Gillis
Stephen Greenblatt , Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2004. 430 pp.

A bibliographical search under the rubric "Shakespeare Biography," excluding the more esoteric and narrowly focused works, yields a modest ninety-three items. There is a massive disproportion between this outpouring of scholarship, spanning the last four centuries, and what is actually known of Shakespeare's life. Nevertheless, as Stephen Greenblatt acknowledges, "assiduous, sometimes obsessive archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers" (391) have produced a proliferation of biographical studies, translating every scant detail into insightful observation. While some of the biographies tend towards the novelistic and fanciful, such as Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun, most reflect an evolving tradition of archival documentation, the best known later examples of which are S. Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (later telescoped into A Compact Documentary Life), and Park Honan's 1998 Shakespeare: A Life. More recently the scarce details of the bard's life have gone on film in the BBC's 2003 documentary Shakespeare, written and presented by Michael Wood, who published a book to complement the series. All of these acknowledge their debt (as does Greenblatt) to the work of E. K. Chambers as well as to the early eighteenth-century biographer Nicholas Rowe and the nineteenth-century Biographical Essays by Thomas De Quincey. The obvious question then seems to be "why write another one?"

In his Preface, Greenblatt explains that his book "aims to tread the shadowy paths that lead from the life [Shakespeare] lived, into the literature he created" (12). In this he draws upon his New Historicist method, reading the plays in terms of early modern cultural realities. In fact, the shadowy paths in the book are two-way: they use aspects of the life in an attempt to account for the work, and they delve into the work in an attempt to fill in the "huge gaps in knowledge that make any biographical study of Shakespeare an exercise in speculation" (18).

Will in the World is "exercise in speculation" that is both entertaining and scholarly. Having avowed this at the start, Greenblatt is free to mine the archives, the biographies, and above all the plays and poems in his attempt to create a coherent and vital picture of the poet. Beginning, [End Page 189] tellingly, with "Let us imagine," the book is ordered chronologically. The early chapters deal with Stratford and the surrounding Warwickshire countryside of Shakespeare's childhood; the little which is known of his father, the glover John Shakespeare, and his wife Mary, both of whom signed their names with a mark; Will's grammar-school education; the morality plays he may or may not have seen and the Plautine comedies he may or may not have acted in. Here as throughout, when the archival material peters out, Greenblatt turns to the plays for evidence to support his story. Thus, for example, drink is suggested as a possible cause of John Shakespeare's deterioration from respected Bailiff of Stratford to impecunious citizen who stayed away from church to avoid being arrested for debt. Supporting evidence is gleaned from Hamlet's concern about the Danes' reputation for heavy drinking which "indeed takes / From our achievements, though performed at the height, / The pith and marrow of our attribute" (1.4.184-86, cited in Greenblatt 66), and from Hal's disdain for Falstaff's drinking in Henry IV, Part One and his rejection of the "old man" in Part Two.

An entire chapter is devoted to discussion of the climate of fear produced by the Reformation, and its possible effect on the Shakespeare family and on young Will himself. Greenblatt joins the widespread speculative debate as to whether the upstanding alderman, John Shakespeare, who oversaw the removal of all trace of Catholic worship from the local church (cf. Ben-Tsur 2005), was in fact himself a closet believer in the old religion. The period of Shakespeare's life known as "the lost years" is filled out with a detailed but speculative description of his possible stay in Lancashire, working as a schoolmaster...


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