Book Review: Picturing Will Shakespeare

By David Stenhouse

Stephen Greenblatt’s acclaimed biography of Shakespeare is filled with fascinating speculations.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton)

King Lear’s coaxing plea to Cordelia that “nothing can come of nothing” has always offered a stark challenge for biographers of William Shakespeare. On the page or on the stage no playwright seems as present as the Bard; spend an evening watching a professional performance of Shakespeare and you will likely leave with the sense that you have encountered one of the greatest minds in English literature. Complex, subtle, richly imagined — no writer in English can come close.

But as a historical figure, Shakespeare just isn’t there at all. His name appears, inconsistently spelled, on just a handful of legal documents. His famous will, with its bequest of his second best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway has been pored over, not by the lawyers who would happily contest it now, but by biographers and literary scholars desperate to read into it a tale of unhappily married life, or of callous husbandly neglect.

There are no diaries, no private letters, and few trustworthy reminiscences. On the stage, Shakespeare’s imagination is luminously accessible, but the private Shakespeare seems irritatingly closed off. The playwright who laid bare the soul of kings offers no revelations about his own. Faced with such a massive absence, each age has created its own Shakespeare: early biographies suggested that the humbly born son of Stratford was a front for one more illustriously sired; Victorian biographers overlooked the second best bed, or twisted it into a sign of paterfamilial devotion. Shakespeare has become the ‘tabula rasa’ on which each age has written its own concerns.

Stephen Greenblatt, Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, could have been expected to take such gaps in his stride. New Historicism, the academic school of literary interpretation which he made famous, aims to illuminate the dark corner of texts by placing them with meticulous care and research within their historical context, often using a veritable library of other sources, from newspapers to wills and the record of law proceedings. It has also been fascinated by the subversive strains in history, the complex sub-plot which works against the main narrative rather than the headlining tale.

In Will in the World, the biography for which he was awarded a record million dollar advance, Greenblatt shows off both techniques with masterly skill. He digs into Shakespeare’s plays by way of a meticulous recreation of contemporary events (for example, the portrayal of Shylock is fruitfully shown against the real-life execution of Roderigo Lopez, hanged as a spy, and possibly, poisoner) and plays up the subversive elements in Shakespeare’s own story, like his supposed Catholicism, which has been a subject for scholarly speculation for decades but is suddenly getting a lot of contemporary attention. To Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Catholicism is more than a hypothesis; it’s a determining fact, which may partly explain Shakespeare’s reluctance to leave legal traces of his existence.

Sometimes this approach pays real dividends, as when Greenblatt describes the pageant staged by the Earl of Leicester for the visiting Elizabeth I in 1572. The biographer plausibly argues that Shakespeare, then a young boy, was in attendance, and independent accounts of the performance shed illuminating light on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

And yet, even intelligent readings, from an analysis of the relationship between the mysterious decline of Shakespeare’s father and Falstaff’s drunkenness to an exploration of why there are no happy marriages in the plays, no matter how fresh, rewarding, and ingeniously done can make up for the fact that this biography is light on new facts and weighed down with speculation.

In a market where the newly discovered killer fact sells books, Greenblatt hasn’t discovered a single thing about Shakespeare which wasn’t known before. There are no previously overlooked letters, no unattributed poems, no surprising legal documents, no uncovered diary entries, nothing. As a result, this biography is hedged around with weasel words; there are so many might have’s, could’s, and must-have’s in this book that the eyes swim. The result makes even the most secure realities provisional and uncertain.

Greenblatt would undoubtedly describe this web of speculation as a series of educated guesses about his subject. Educated they may be. Guesses they remain. At least Greenblatt makes no attempt to disguise when he is speculating; in fact his credo is to play up these gaps, and draw the reader into an implied compact; “let us imagine” he begins before leading the reader into an elaborate mixture of scholarship and speculation.

It’s fascinating, but is it biography? The reader of a new biography has a reasonable expectation of discovering something new about the life of the subject. Greenblatt has given us lots of teasing, fascinating new readings of the work, but Shakespeare the man remains as mysteriously opaque as ever; this book might bill itself as Will in the World; a more accurate subtitle would be “Will in the Work.”

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