Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Stephen Greenblatt.
W. W. Norton (New York), 384 pp.,
$26.95 cloth, 2004; $14.95 paper, 2005.

book cover imageSome things we may never know about England’s greatest
playwright and poet. What did Shakespeare think? Why and
when did he strike out for London? With whom did he spend
his time, and whatdid they talk about? Did he pine for the
old religion? What were his politics? Did he think himself
an accomplished poet or an entrepreneur on the rise? What
of his wife, his children: Did he care for them, love them,
or was he indifferent? The only honest answer to these questions:
We don’t know. The scant historical record keeps us
in the dark.

Yet we cannot help ourselves, we desire to know. In this
self-satisfying and self-revelatory age, when things quite
personal—confessional matters that would have made
our parents blush—are set before us in a dizzying array
of media, we crave more information rather than less. As
social boundaries expand, the private sphere recedes, and
canons of critical propriety, just like manners and morals,
must also give way to our impetuousness, to our need to know.
We are proud of this openness and count it a measure of our
authenticity, our genuineness. So, we are left to wonder,
why won’t Shakespeare open up and share with us? 

Stephen Greenblatt’s biography, Will in the World:
How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
, satisfies our
modern desire to know the greatest English poet on a more
personal level. We meet Professor Greenblatt’s Shakespeare
not as, say, Harold Bloom introduces him: a “mortal
god” who invented through his glorious outpouring
of characters what we today refer to as “personality.” No.
Like tabloid stars on an afternoon talk show, Professor
Greenblatt’s Shakespeare treads among us swapping
stories, chitchatting, and revealing personal intrigues.
In a familiar, rapid, and frequently therapeutic style—Shakespeare’s
plays, for example, are his “lifework,” his
marriage is not “fulfilling,” his plays release
currents of “personal energy,” and Hamlet “relaunched
his entire career”—Professor Greenblatt deftly
creates for us a Shakespeare not for all time, but for
our time.

Because Greenblatt is University Professor of the Humanities
at Harvard University and was recently named general editor
of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (he
has long been editor of The Norton Shakespeare),
unsuspecting readers might think the 430-page Will in
the World
a stuffy literary biography. Professor Greenblatt
is not, however, bounded by the academic and scholarly customs
or conventions that his weighty titles suggest or that the
genre requires. He tells his readers, for example, “the
whole impulse to explore Shakespeare’s life arises
from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring
not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew
firsthand, in his body and soul.” True enough. But
because nobody could possibly know the things Shakespeare
knew “firsthand, in his body and soul,” this
line of inquiry has traditionally been brief. Not so for
Professor Greenblatt.For him, Shakespeare is less a creative
genius than he is a created genius. We come to know
Shakespeare—“his body and soul”—by
knowing the social context that created him, or what the
professor called in his 1989 work, Shakespearean Negotiations,
his “social energy.” Greenblatt’s interest
is not ultimately in what Shakespeare created, but rather
in what he presumes to have created Shakespeare. His biography
boldly aims to “discover the actual person . . . [and
to] tread the shadowy path from the life he lived into the
literature he created.”

Professor Greenblatt’s celebrity in literary studies
has come, in part, from his popular academic writings, which
bring together traditional historicism, post-structuralism,
and Marxist materialism to create a method of literary inquiry
that he terms “a poetics of culture” or, more
fashionably, the new historicism. Light on theory and heavy
on charismatic narrative, Greenblatt’s method proved
appealing to graduate students and junior faculty in the
1980s and 1990s, in part because the new historicism attacked
the language, subject matter, and conventions of traditional
historical and aesthetic scholarship—no appeals to
genius, no motiveless creations, no autonomous artifacts,
no transcendent representation, etc.—and replaced it
with a method, language, and stock of trendy phrases of its
own: “there is no escape from contingency,” “social
energy,” “permeable boundaries.” Above
all, however, the new historicism was political; it viewed
the past through the prism of the present, focusing its critical
analysis on power relations, marginalized groups, and authority
and transgression. Professor Greenblatt declared in 1990
that “my own practice and that of many others associated
with the new historicism was decisively shaped by the American
1960s and early 1970s, and especially opposition to the Vietnam
War. Writing that was not engaged, that withheld judgments,
that failed to connect the present with the past seemed worthless.” As
such, “attacking Henry V or Prospero,” wrote
Brian Vickers of the new historicists in his 1993 Appropriating
, “was the same kind of activity as
attacking President Reagan or the White House.” New
historicism’s academic practitioners would set the
modern world aright by rewriting (and frequently condemning)
the old world, and England’s greatest poet was their
foremost cause, for as Greenblatt once put it, “Shakespeare
is the discourse of power.”

To fashion a more personable Shakespeare, to give his balding
and goateed likeness a name and local habitation, suits well
the new historicist penchant for politicizing literature,
even as it feeds our present desire to “personalize” our
heroes. What history has denied us, Professor Greenblatt
delivers, sometimes by reading rich biographical detail into
the plays and poems (almost always a mistake), sometimes
through imagination (“to understand how Shakespeare
used his imagination . . . it is important to use our own
imagination,” Greenblatt writes in his preface). For
example, he associates Shakespeare with the recusant Alexander
Houghton, a rich Catholic who lived in Lancashire. By now
a standard, if highly speculative, correlation in Shakespearean
biography, Greenblatt indulges himself by going one giant
step further. He argues that the young poet might have met
through this connection the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion,
who was arrested and executed in 1581. Greenblatt imagines
in considerable detail their conversation and Shakespeare’s
inner thoughts during this fabricated meeting: “Shakespeare
would have found Campion fascinating—even his mortal
enemies conceded that he had charisma—and might even
have recognized in him something of a kindred spirit.” Greenblatt
qualifies his assertions with “ifs” and “mights,” but
later he speculates unqualifiedly that the Protestant pope-baiting
present in King John “cannot tell us what
the young man felt in the presence of the fugitive Jesuit.”

Of course, nobody really knows whether or not Shakespeare
ever met Campion, or whether he ever knew Alexander Houghton,
or whether he ever resided in Lancashire. Neither do we know
that his father’s social and financial decline were
due to heavy drinking; nor that Falstaff was modeled on Robert
Greene and that Shakespeare identified himself with Hal;
nor that the poet “abandoned” his wife; nor that
the Earl of Southampton is the young man in the first seventeen
sonnets; nor that the death of his son, Hamnet, prompted
him to write four sunny comedies; nor that he dreamed of
escaping his origins in order to turn into someone else (“That
Shakespeare had this dream is virtually certain,” Greenblatt
writes). Veracity is Greenblatt’s first casualty in
uncovering Shakespeare’s “actual person,” in
fashioning Bloom’s “mortal god” into a

Samuel Johnson wrote in his Preface to Shakespeare that
there will always be those who, “being able to add
nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of
paradox.” In Will in the World, Professor
Greenblatt adds no truth to our storehouse of Shakespeare
knowledge, and most of his conjectures turn out to be old
hat (Prospero breaking his wand is Shakespeare signaling
retirement, for example). Yet, by culling 430 pages of “biography” from
his imagination, Professor Greenblatt’s eminence remains
paradoxically intact.

Jeffrey Cain resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with his
wife and three children.