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Thursday, November 18th, 2004


Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt

Bad Will Hunting

A review by Richard Jenkyns

Why do we want to know about Shakespeare's life? The basic answer is simple enough: we have a natural desire to find out what we can about those we admire, and a less elevated itch for gossip about the famous. Yet a more ambitious claim can also be made: that the knowledge of an author's life may illuminate his work, and that conversely (and more dubiously) the work can reveal the life. Stephen Greenblatt's biographical study of Shakespeare rests upon both these propositions.

How much light the life sheds on the work must vary from one writer to another. Some authors impress their individuality on their writing -- Milton, for example, or Dante. Others are invisible or opaque, like Homer. Dramatists are more likely to be opaque, because they do not speak in propria persona, but even among their company there is some variation: one could learn a good deal about George Bernard Shaw the man from his plays alone, but about Sophocles one learns nothing. And Shakespeare seems to be one of the most opaque of all.

Ironically, we might be persuaded that we had a better sense of the man if less of his work had survived. If only The Phoenix and the Turtle had survived, we would think him cerebral and metaphysical. If only the non-dramatic poems had survived, we would posit an aristocratic and courtly temperament. If only A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing had survived, we would think him a blithe spirit. If only King Lear and Timon of Athens had survived, we might have thought him pessimistic to the point of neurosis. Whether or not Shakespeare is the greatest of all writers, he is assuredly the most versatile, and he is unmatched for imaginative engagement with people very unlike himself and experiences very unlike his own. To take an obvious example: no one has explored the thoughts and feelings of women with deeper sympathy and understanding, but Shakespeare was not a woman. As Coleridge said, he was "myriad-minded," unsurpassed in his ability to escape the prison of his days and get outside himself.

Any attempt to relate his life and his work, therefore, demands caution and judgment. Besides, people are complicated, and apparently commonsense presumptions about writers' lives may be wide of the mark. The external evidence about Shakespeare is indeed surprising. It is hard to believe that what the author of King Lear and Twelfth Night really wanted in middle age was to become a West Midlands businessman, but that seems to have been more or less the case. Had he not dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to the earl of Southampton, we would scarcely have guessed that he had connected himself to high aristocracy. How close the connection was, we do not know. (Many scholars have supposed it to have been very close.) Most of what is in Shakespeare's plays he cannot have experienced himself -- but it may seem tempting to take the residue and derive that from personal experience.

Yet such an approach is highly subjective and easily self-fulfilling. The point may be illustrated from a small mistake that Greenblatt makes. In Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare describes a warrior with so many arrows stuck in him that he looks like a porcupine, and Greenblatt comments that "as a country boy, he had almost certainly seen his share of sharp-quilled porcupines." Not so. There were no porcupines in England, nor any animal like them. This image is certainly something that Shakespeare got from pictures. Nothing much hangs on this particular example, but it suggests how arbitrary such speculation is, and how little it informs us. It tells us only that Shakespeare might have seen what he might have seen.

Greenblatt's book is skillfully written, with spirit and verve. It gives a vivid picture of the Elizabethan world, and it has fine and illuminating things to say about particular aspects of Shakespeare -- about the blend of disclosure and concealment in the sonnets, about the development in the playwright's use of soliloquy and his deepening ability to represent inwardness, about the ambivalence in his portrait of Shylock. Yet much of the book is silly. It shows small understanding of how to weigh historical evidence; and its notion of the creative process, and of the relation between a writer's work and a writer's life, is naïve.

Consider the following argument (it is my own fabrication). Some people have birthmarks, and so Shakespeare may have had one. If he had a birthmark (and this cannot be proved), it would have added to his self-consciousness when he came to London. In romances, the lost princess is often identified by a birthmark, but Perdita, the lost princess in The Winter's Tale, is identified by some tokens; and this at once becomes explicable if Shakespeare was sensitive about his birthmark. When Shakespeare withdrew from London to Stratford in his mid-forties, he was doubtless moved by personal considerations, such as the desire to live the life of a gentleman and also sensitivity about a birthmark.

Everyone will recognize that this is an absurd type of speculation; but Greenblatt constantly proceeds in this manner, especially in the first half of the book. (The later parts improve considerably.) Recurrently, he starts with a speculation that cannot be disproved. This is then allowed to evolve into a serious possibility, and then into a likelihood, and sometimes it is even presented as a fact. In some cases, it does not matter much. Greenblatt muses several times on what gave the teenaged Shakespeare erections: this seems pretty pointless, and somewhat prurient, but the pointlessness is, so to speak, on the surface. Elsewhere, though, more is at stake.

A well-known theory places the young Shakespeare for a time in the household of recusant Catholics in Lancashire. Greenblatt takes this as probable. It derives from the record that a William Shakeshafte was in the household, and from family tradition, and from John Aubrey's story that Shakespeare had been a schoolmaster in the country. My own view is skeptical: there seem to be too many flimsy links in the chain of speculation. Shakeshafte, a name found elsewhere in Lancashire, is different from Shakespeare. The Shakeshafte in question is described as a servant who will need a new master after his present master's death. A country schoolmaster is different from a private tutor. And why should choice or compulsion have exiled Shakespeare so far from prosperous middle England to a remote and backward part of the north?

More generally, there is, I think, a mistake of method here: the presumption that where we have only one story available to us, that story has a good chance of being true. Aubrey (a late and unreliable source) tells us that Shakespeare's father was a butcher, and that as a boy the future bard used to share in the slaughtering, uttering heroic speeches over the corpses; but we reject this, because we know that Shakespeare's father was a glover. Aubrey tells us that he was a schoolmaster in the country, and some accept this, because they have no alternative version to set against it. And indeed it is possible. Yet one might doubt even this much. Schoolmasters in Shakespeare's plays are buffoons; he shows us the tedium of school from the pupil's point of view. (Who can forget the "school-boy ... creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school"?) The interrogation of the schoolboy William by his master in The Merry Wives of Windsor does seem, unusually, to contain a private joke; but still we miss any note of sympathy for the poor teacher coping with his reluctant charges. If Shakespeare had taught boys, we might expect to have found that somewhere.

When he finds the theory of Shakespeare in the north plausible, Greenblatt is in good company, but he wants to go further. There were Catholic priests active underground in late Elizabethan England, and if they were captured, they were tortured and then executed by the hideous method applied to traitors. The most famous of them was the Jesuit Edmund Campion. If Shakespeare were living in a recusant family, Greenblatt wonders, might he have met Campion? Several pages of pure fantasy follow about how Shakespeare and Campion must have felt about each other "in this version of events." A little later we hear about "the moment when Shakespeare may have encountered Campion" -- a moment, remember, for which there is no evidence whatever; and a page after that we read "if he actually saw Campion in 1581." Finally, "Shakespeare never referred openly to Campion," but Edgar in King Lear (we learn from Greenblatt) may be a recollection of him.

In this way Greenblatt constructs a highly dramatic scenario. In his account, Shakespeare was so passionate a Catholic that he risked torture and death to consort with Catholic priests, and maybe with the most wanted man in England. Then he completely reversed himself, quickly returned to Stratford, and starting sleeping with Anne Hathaway -- "as if to mark his decisive distance from Campion," Greenblatt speculates some more. It is a sensational story of emotional turbulence, with a dramatic lurch from one extreme to another; and it is entirely Greenblatt's fiction.

It is also an improbable fiction. Shakespeare's religion is a famously puzzling matter. Past generations have noticed, often with reluctance or regret, the lack of religious expression in him. Others have admired it: Kenneth Clark, in Civilization, saw in Shakespeare a new dimension of human experience, a man without piety who had outstared the emptiness. It has been said that but for the sonnet "Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth" (oddly ignored by Greenblatt) one would not know that Shakespeare was a Christian at all. And even this, Shakespeare's most intensely spiritual utterance, contains no explicitly religious word, not even the name of God. The more Elizabethan literature one reads, the more striking is Shakespeare's paucity of religious reference. It is unlikely that he had a strongly devout temper at any stage of his life. And that is probably as much as we can say.

Shakespeare drew Falstaff from life, Greenblatt tells us: his model was Robert Greene. This is bizarre. Greene, a wild bohemian, dead at thirty-two, was the author of plays, poems, romances, and an account of the London criminal underworld, but he is now perhaps best remembered for attacking Shakespeare as a conceited "Shakescene." Falstaff is old, a soldier, a gentleman, sociable, robust, a survivor; whereas Greene was young, a poète maudit, of humble birth, disturbed, bitter, self-destructive -- more like Rimbaud than Sir John. It is hard to see that Greene and Falstaff have anything at all in common, apart from frequenting taverns where whores might be found, which was not particularly rare in Elizabethan London. There is another fallacy here: the supposition that people of whom we have heard mix mostly with other people of whom we have heard. If Shakespeare did haunt London's taverns, he will easily have met a dozen people who were more like Falstaff than was Greene. But Greene's name is in the history books, and the others are unknown.

Anyway, Greenblatt seems to have forgotten that he has already found the source for Falstaff in a radically different place: in Shakespeare's father. It is difficult, he says, to account for the "overwhelming power and pathos of the relationship between Hal and Falstaff" unless the dramatist was drawing upon intimate and personal experience. (Notice the peculiar belief that Shakespeare was short of imagination. If we apply this principle consistently to his plays, he must have led a colorful life indeed.) John Shakespeare got into financial difficulties, and Greenblatt suggests that he might have turned to the bottle, to his son's revulsion. There is no evidence at all for this -- nil, zilch. Greenblatt then picks up a late and secondhand anecdote about someone visiting Stratford and meeting a merry, rosy-cheeked old gentleman who turned out to be the poet's father. Greenblatt seems to recognize that the anecdote is unlikely to be true, but still he runs with it. Perhaps the red cheeks came from too much booze, he suggests. But the jolly old toper and the alcoholic saddo are quite different conceptions -- and both of them are inventions.

Such fantasies lead us away from what we actually can infer about Shakespeare's creative processes. Falstaff seems to derive from the braggart soldier of Roman comedy and the buffoonish Vice of medieval plays, fused in the crucible of the playwright's imagination with his knowledge of human nature and with his artistic freedom. This is a more interesting story, as well as a likelier one. In general, Greenblatt neglects Shakespeare's reading: he says very little about the Bible (though he does acknowledge its importance) and even less about the Latin literature on which the poet was brought up. In one or two places this leads him to give far-fetched explanations for allusions that an educated Elizabethan would have recognized at once.

The sonnets are notoriously a hunting ground for amateur sleuths, sentimentalists, and complete loonies. Greenblatt is none of these; and in his writing about these poems he is rather wise, asserting that they cannot be taken as direct reports of the poet's private life. Truth to tell, he is not wholly consistent, falling back in the end on the view that the young man is Southampton and the dark lady a particular though unidentifiable person in Shakespeare's life; but his earlier stress on the fictionality of the sonnets remains valuable, and it is made with subtlety.

It is remarkable how many well-read people, who would not treat any other literary text in this way, take a fundamentalist approach to the sonnets -- that is, they assume the sonnets to be a more or less straight reflection of the actual life of William Shakespeare. Yet there are strong reasons to doubt this. There was a short but intense craze for sequences of love sonnets in the 1590s. Are we to suppose that at almost the same time half the major Elizabethan poets suddenly fell in love with captious, changeable women who gave them hell? Of course not -- and in most of these cases scholars agree that the love stories are largely or wholly fictional. Shakespeare's sonnets in fact offer more evidence of fictionality than most, because the setup is so schematic: the virtuous, ennobling, non-sexual love for a fair male is contrasted with a sinful, embittered, sexual love for a dark woman. Life is seldom so tidy. My own guess (and a guess is all it is) is that the element of historicity in the sonnets is small, and certainly far smaller than the popular idea would have it. The sonnets were compared in their time to Ovid, and the Latin love elegists are indeed a key, for they wrote first-person fictions on a base of reality -- fictions in which they are themselves the protagonists. There is no narrative as such, and only the poet speaks, but we get partial glimpses of an ongoing story that is not fully told to us. It is an aesthetic that the Elizabethans understood.

Shakespeare wrote his deepest tragedies in the early years of the seventeenth century, and many have wondered if some darkness came over his spirit at this time. Greenblatt suggests that the tragedies are his response to the death of his son Hamnet in 1596. The glaring difficulty with this is that Hamnet's death was followed by the greater number of Shakespeare's most brilliant comedies. Greenblatt's answer is that the trauma took some years to emerge. He adds that Shakespeare's father might have pressed him to find a priest to say a mass for Hamnet, and this could have produced family tension. If John Shakespeare was ill in 1600 (he was to die a year later), this might have stirred the psychic disturbance that led to Hamlet.

The theory is certainly not impossible. But it is not necessary either. We know too many other cases of artists producing sparkling work at times of desolation, and of the opposite. Shakespeare no more had to be grief-stricken to write Othello than Verdi had to be to set it to music. Tragedy was in vogue, and not all the Jacobean dramatists will have been writing out of personal pain. In Shakespeare's case, we might distinguish between plays that depict particular misfortunes, such as Othello or Antony and Cleopatra, and those in which the idea is presented that the whole world is altogether weary and stale, or cruel, or disgusting -- Hamlet, King Lear, Timon of Athens, perhaps Macbeth. Even in this latter class, however, it is one or more of the characters from whom these sentiments spring, and it is not certain that they speak for the author: most of Shakespeare's tragedies end with some qualified hope.

Greenblatt reasonably points to the large difference between Hamlet and anything Shakespeare had written before. Yet the mid-thirties is a natural time for a great leap forward: this is when Beethoven wrote the Eroica Symphony and Michelangelo attacked the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. The correct answer to the question of whether Shakespeare's personal feelings turned him toward tragedy may seem disappointing, but it is inevitable: we just do not know.

Greenblatt is in search of "clues to unravel the great mystery of such immense creative power." "How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained?" he asks. "How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?" But he is addressing a problem that does not exist. We could ask the same about any exceptional human being, and about some more forcefully than about Shakespeare. How did a boy from the backwoods of Stagira become Aristotle? How did an overworked organist produce the St. Matthew Passion? How did an uneducated boor from Bonn come to compose the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets? Chance -- or genes, or whatever -- sometimes throws up extraordinary talent. Shakespeare, it might even be said, was rather well placed for literary success, with a reasonably secure middle-class background, a solid schooling, and a life that gave him early experience of country, town, and city; the son of a peasant or a peer would have found it much harder to break into playwriting. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Newton, Einstein are all astonishing, but they are not mysterious, except in the sense that all rare capacity is mysterious.

Greenblatt's happy admiration for Shakespeare is engaging, but it is strangely combined with a low estimate of his imaginative capability. He presents Shakespeare as a man who infects his plays with his own hang-ups. Hamlet complains about the drunken revels at his father's wake because Shakespeare is disgusted by his father's alcoholism. Prospero warns Ferdinand and Miranda against sex before marriage because Shakespeare was bitter about his shotgun marriage. Shakespeare was a snob and a social climber who became an actor because he could dress up and indulge his fantasies of being grand. Well, Shakespeare the man may or may not have been attractive, but Shakespeare the artist surely writes out of a generosity of imagination -- from an overflowing spirit, not a cramped or imprisoned one.

The danger of simple biographical readings of the plays, raw psychological correspondences, is that they may steal the richness from them. Consider the matter of marriage. Shakespeare's marriage, most probably, was not a success, and Greenblatt sees this reflected in the plays, which do not, he says, portray good marriages, because their author is cynical about the possibility. But the depiction of happy marriage is rare in all literature, as Greenblatt himself allows -- not because it has been thought unimportant or unattainable, but because it is undramatic and very hard to depict well. If we look more carefully, moreover, the idea of good marriage is indeed present in Shakespeare. A subtler criticism will see that the Macbeths' marriage is, in its perverse way, a success. The scene between Portia and Brutus in Julius Caesar does not show a marriage lacking true intimacy, as Greenblatt supposes; on the contrary, Portia's distress is at finding a good marriage damaged by the awakening sense that her husband is hiding something from her. Othello depicts the destruction of a good marriage (as Verdi understood so well).

Greenblatt refers to Hamlet's revulsion at his mother's rampant middle-aged sexuality: "spousal intimacy in Hamlet is vaguely nauseating," he remarks. But the revulsion is Hamlet's, not Shakespeare's; and the scene brilliantly anatomizes the difficulty that the young face in accepting their parents as sexual beings. We lose a whole dimension of this great scene if we do not feel the poignancy of Gertrude's passion for Claudius. To suppose that Shakespeare is fretting over Anne Hathaway here is to suck the humanity and wisdom from his portrait.

I learned a great deal from Stephen Greenblatt's book about the poet and his world. But I owe my profit in reading it to my willingness to disbelieve much of it and to doubt still more. Its liveliness is not enough to compensate for its capriciousness. Will in the World is an amusing title, but What You Will would have been closer to the mark, or As You Like It, except that they have already been taken.

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