Book: Will in the World

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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Author: Stephen Greenblatt
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Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

A young man from the provinces—a man without wealth, connections, or university education—moves to London. In a remarkably short time he becomes the greatest playwright not just of his age but of all time. His works appeal to urban sophisticates and first-time theatergoers; he turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. How is such an achievement to be explained?

Will in the World interweaves a searching account of Elizabethan England with a vivid narrative of the playwright’s life. We see Shakespeare learning his craft, starting a family, and forging a career for himself in the wildly competitive London theater world, while at the same time grappling with dangerous religious and political forces that took less-agile figures to the scaffold. Above all, we never lose sight of the great works—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and more—that continue after four hundred years to delight and haunt audiences everywhere. The basic biographical facts of Shakespeare’s life have been known for over a century, but now Stephen Greenblatt shows how this particular life history gave rise to the world’s greatest writer.

Reviews

Amazon.com

There’s no shortage of good Shakespearean biographies. But Stephen Greenblatt, brilliant scholar and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, reminds us that the “surviving traces” are “abundant but thin” as to known facts. He acknowledges the paradox of the many biographies spun out of conjecture but then produces a book so persuasive and breathtakingly enjoyable that one wonders what he could have done if the usual stuff of biographical inquiry—memoirs, interviews, manuscripts, and drafts—had been at his disposal. Greenblatt uses the “verbal traces” in Shakespeare’s work to take us “back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open.” Whenever possible, he also ushers us from the extraordinary life into the luminous work. The result is a marvelous blend of scholarship, insight, observation, and, yes, conjecture—but conjecture always based on the most convincing and inspired reasoning and evidence. Particularly compelling are Greenblatt’s discussions of the playwright’s relationship with the university wit Robert Greene (discussed as a chief source for the character of Falstaff) and of Hamlet in relation to the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, his aging father, and the “world of damaged rituals” that England’s Catholics were forced to endure.

Will in the World is not just the life story of the world’s most revered writer. It is the story, too, of 16th- and 17th-century England writ large, the story of religious upheaval and political intrigue, of country festivals and brutal public executions, of the court and the theater, of Stratford and London, of martyrdom and recusancy, of witchcraft and magic, of love and death: in short, of the private but engaged William Shakespeare in his remarkable world. Throughout the book, Greenblatt’s style is breezy and familiar. He often refers to the poet simply as Will. Yet for all his alacrity of style and the book’s accessibility, Will in the World is profoundly erudite, an enormous contribution to the world of Shakespearean letters. —Silvana Tropea

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