I heard Stephen Greenblatt speak about his book Swerve about a month ago. His presentation was more a university lecture than a book promotion; yet incredibly interesting and the amount of information he shared was overwhelming. I haven’t snagged that book yet, but I had also seen snippets of Greenblatt on Shakespeare Uncovered so I thought I’d read Will in the World first.
The subtitle of the book is “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” Greenblatt takes what is known about Shakespeare’s life (not a lot really) and what is known about the historical period and finds links to these facts in the plays and sonnets. What is known is that his father was successful in Stratford up to a point and then fell into debt.Shakespeare had what appeared to be a loveless marriage (he expressly disinherits his wife Anne in his will). He had three children, his son Hamnet died at about age 12. He was also a successful businessman, making money at the theater while others failed and invested that money in land back in Stratford. What we don’t have is any direct communication from him, no personal letters, nothing about himself. All that is left are his literary works. Greenblatt uses what is known and finds references in his plays and sonnets to show us Shakespeare’s world.
This book fit well with the book I recently read: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Her books are set during the reign of Henry VIII and his break with the Catholic Church. Shakespeare lived during Elizabeth’s reign, during which this transformation was still evolving. Conspiracies against the queen were continually uncovered. Suspected traitors were tried, brutally executed and their heads spiked on the London Bridge. What this might have taught Shakespeare was to “keep control of yourself; do not fall into the hands of your enemies be smart, tough, and realistic; master strategies of concealment and evasion; keep your head on your shoulders.” Greenblatt demonstrates that Shakespeare did all of these things to great success.
Greenblatt never directly addresses the claims that Shakespeare was not in fact the author of his body of work, but does devote a few chapters about how Shakespeare likely was educated and how he might have started acting and writing. Greenblatt asserts that his skill for writing for the stage came from being an actor himself. Shakespeare had a lot of material to draw from: other plays, legends, history books in circulation. He borrowed heavily from many sources, which apparently was the norm. (not a lot of copyright litigation back then). What made his work good was that he knew how to write for his audiences. What may have made them last is that his audiences were not so different than us.
There’s a lot more, including how Shakespeare evolved as a playwright. This is a book for people who really like Shakespeare or have a strong interest in Elizabethan culture. If neither interests you much, don’t read this book.