Monday, March 5, 2012

Greenblatt Will in the World

Will in the World – How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. 2004. Read in December, 2009.

The book represents my first meeting with Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It has proven to be a fruitful acquaintance and I often use Greenblatt's analyses in my texts these days.
There are three (at least) strengths in Greenblatt's approach to this book: he is a materialist historian with a profound knowledge of the period, he is a profound Shakespearean and he is a very good writer.

It's fun to read this book, which is jam-packed with historical details. He opens the book with one of them, the first two lines of a nursery rhyme Shakespeare's mother might well have sung to him, “Pillycock, pillycock, sate on a hill/If he's not gone – he sits there still.” This emerges some thirty or so years later, Greenblatt tells us, in King Lear when Poor Tom sings “Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill” (p.23).

Shakespeare is placed squarely in his time in this book, a time of violence, hierarchy, disease and poverty but also a time of great change and excitement. One of the paradoxes of this society “ - art as the source both of settled calm and of deep disturbance – was central to Shakespeare's entire career...” and “he was simultaneously the agent of civility and the agent of subversion” (page 48).

The book seems to cover everything. On the speculations on Shakespeare's religious beliefs the conclusion is: “If his father was both Catholic and Protestant, William Shakespeare was on his way to becoming neither” (page 113). On the question of love, Shakespeare's view on “intense courting and pleading and longing” is shown to be “one of his abiding preoccupations, [and] one of the things he understood and expressed more profoundly than almost anyone in the world” (page 119). In relating the very complex and generally negative view of marriage in the plays to Shakespeare's own marriage to Anne Hathaway, Greenblatt lands on a very unhappy interpretation which was later refuted by Germaine Greer in her Shakespeare's Wife and I will reserve comment until I get to that book.

But we're still only halfway through the book. Another example. On the anti-antisemitism of Shakespeare's day and the difficulty some modern readers have in reading The Merchant of Venice, for example, Greenblatt writes that “”something enabled him to discover in his stock villain a certain music – the sounds of a tense psychological inwardness, a soul under siege” (page 272) and “he wanted at the same time to call laughter into question, to make the amusement excruciatingly uncomfortable” (page 278). Even though Shylock is indeed a nasty character, “the play gives us too much insight into his inner life, too much of a stake in his identity and fate, to enable us to laugh freely and without pain” (page 286). Maybe I'm emphasizing this because Hal and I are in the middle of reading The Merchant of Venice right now, but these words I find applicable to almost all of Shakespeare.

I really must stop writing or I'll end up making this review as long as the book itself but Greenblatt's ending chapter, “The Triumph of the Everyday” must be mentioned. Shakespeare chose to live out his life far from the glamor and excitement of the London theater world and retired to Stratford for his last years. We don't know why but Greenblatt gives us a reasonable explanation, found in the plays themselves. Yes, Shakespeare loved the exotic, the dramatic, the fantastical and imaginative. But what makes him still read and loved is what he shows us of the everyday, “the ordinariness in the midst of the extraordinary.” Interspersed amongst his kings, queens, nobles, arch-villains and superheros we find the “small talk, trivial pursuits, and foolish games of ordinary people”. He returned home to his wife, his remaining children, his grandchild, his neighbors, as he so often had throughout the years, for the “strange, slightly melancholy dimension, a joy intimately braided together with renunciation...[the] strangeness that hides within the boundaries of the everyday” that characterizes all of his plays, and “that is where he was determined to end his days” (pages 388-390).

This book is vital for anyone interested in Shakespeare and his world.


  1. Interesting post, and I must admit that I too greatly enjoy reading Greenblatt. One thing I often hear him reproached for though is that his way or writing is itself a bit too literary, twisting anecdotes until they bear a meaning that should by all rights be too significant for them. Put another way, the little picture is too little to suggest as much of the big picture as Greenblatt wants it to. Do you agree?

    My favourite Greenblatt is 'Invisible Bullets', do you know it? I think it really gets to the heart of Hal/King Henry, albeit by a rather circuitous route.

  2. In the case of Greenblatt's interpretation of his relationship with Anne Hathaway, his wife, I do agree (I'll be getting to that question, as I mentioned, in a few weeks). Otherwise I hadn't thought about it, nor had I heard this view before. I'll keep it in mind in the two Greenblatt books I currently have unread on my shelf.
    No, I don't know "Invisible Bullets" but I see that it's one of the chapters in one of the above mentioned books so I soon will and I'll let you know what I think.