I’m not a very frequent theatre-goer, and if I don’t like a play, I leave in the intermission. But I have had the good fortune to see some excellent productions through the years, notably of Shakespeare. (It is of course entirely possible to play Shakespeare poorly too, and I’ve seen it done both by professionals and by amateurs.) I haven’t seen all his plays, and I’ve read only two, but dangle an opportunity to conveniently see more in front of me, and chances are I’ll bite.
During my recent Orkney jaunt, I read a fascinating biography of William Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt’s best-selling Will in the World (2004). This is, according to a Sunday Times reviewer, “the best one-volume life of Shakespeare yet”. As I would not be terribly interested in reading a multi-volume one, that was all I needed to know.
Greenblatt (born in 1943) is a professor of literature at Harvard and the founder of a school of thought in his discipline: “new historicism”. This is a post-modernist perspective centred on the “mutual permeability of the literary and the historical”: literary representation influencing the world it represents. Greenblatt is interested in “the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world”. He is, however, no epistemological relativist. His method in Will in the World is to paint a rich and solid historical background to Shakespeare’s life and professional activity, one where the content of the man’s own works does not actually occupy much space. This suits me well, being more of an historical than a lit’ry bent.
The book is quite fascinating. Its subtitle, “How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare”, is only partly accurate. Greenblatt devotes much space to the two brief decades when Shakespeare was busy being Shakespeare. We are treated to twelve thematic chapters, roughly chronological but nonetheless overlapping and all possible to read as stand-alone essays. They cover themes such as Shakespeare’s cultural and social background, including earlier English forms of drama; the relationship between Catholicism, Protestantism, Reformation, Counter-Reformation and royal power in the playwright’s day; Shakespeare’s views of marriage in general and his own unhappy one in particular; early contact with the hard-living University Wits circle (including Marlowe); and the influence of James I’s obsession with witchcraft on the writing of Macbeth.
Apart from introductory essays and notes to plays I’ve read, the only piece of (popular) Shakespeare scholarship I’ve read before was J. Dover Wilson’s likewise enjoyable What Happens in Hamlet (1951). If Greenblatt’s book is anything to go by, there is much to savour in the literature about Will, the genial genius.