Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2005  



Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World
How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Stephen Greenblatt; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004, ISBN: 0-393-05057-2, 430 Pages (hardcover), $26.95


(Swans - April 25, 2005)   Stephen Greenblatt's extended flight-of-fancy entitled Will in the World appears to have roiled many of his scholarly colleagues in the Shakespeare community. Thomas A. Pendleton, editor of The Shakespeare Newsletter, described it as "almost all gratuitous speculation" and author Jonathan Bate, writing in the London Sunday Telegraph, complained, "The perennial problem with an approach of this kind is that the choice as to which bits of Shakespeare are based on his capacious imagination and which on his actual experience is entirely arbitrary."

Academic bardolators, as we know, are neurotically possessive about Shakespeare and often a mangy lot of tenured troglodytes who cling tenaciously to that part of the turf they have marked out for themselves. The spectacle of a critic, and particularly one like Greenblatt, associated with the New Historicist approach to the canon, coming in with unsettling theories, is enough to make their blood percolate and boil over. In this instance, the knowledge that Greenblatt was helped on his way with a high six-figure advance from his publishers W.W. Norton may well have added some acid to the smoldering resentment. Envy, backbiting, and hidden agendas are par for the course here, as anyone associated with academia knows only too well.

The one point most Shakespearean scholars tend to agree upon is that although we know more about Shakespeare than we do many of his contemporaries, it is scant knowledge based largely on anecdotage and scrounged excerpts from letters, church documents and official records, all of which draw a highly inconclusive picture of the man. Assuming, of course, we are talking about the "Man From Stratford" and not Edward De Vere, Christopher Marlowe or Sir Francis Bacon. This is why so many biographical studies of the playwright feel like recycled rewrites of books we have all read before. If that is the case, if what we know is little and that little is dubious, it seems to me a speculative leap into the murky life of Shakespeare, using one's knowledge of the period, hints from the collected works and a creative use of conjecture, is a perfectly legitimate endeavor. If the speculations are provocative, if they open up trails which have not been previously explored, if they propose assumptions that are credible even though unsubstantiated, they achieve what any really stimulating reinterpretation achieves on stage. They enhance our enjoyment of Shakespeare by bombarding us with new conceits on a subject which has a depressing tendency to be shopworn and repetitive.

Greenblatt's connections are similar to those that a really sharp psychiatrist might winnow out of an analysand supine on a couch. He provides insights that startle his patient and reveal suppressed or previously unrecognized associations which cause little bulbs of pure white light to ignite in the brain.

There is a sufficient amount of evidence to suggest that John Shakespeare may well have been a recusant and secretly loyal to the Catholic faith and that elements of that belief may have trickled down to his son. There is less to suggest that he was an alcoholic and that his son's attitude to drink was in some way formed by a tippling father. Given the narrow parameters of London society in 1594, there is every reason to believe Will would have been acquainted with the case of Roderigo Lopez, the converted Jew who was accused of trying to poison Queen Elizabeth and brutally hanged for it.

Whether Shakespeare witnessed the actual hanging or not (Greenblatt believes he did), given what we know of his sensibility from the plays, it is entirely plausible he would have commiserated with Lopez's fate and that might well have conditioned his treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. It is just as plausible that, having seen Marlowe's savage cartoon in The Jew of Malta, his artistic discretion would have guided him away from a coarse and villainous depiction of the money-lender to one which was more moderate and humane.

Personally, I can't buy the proposition that the vindictive and corrupt Robert Greene was the model for Falstaff, given the fact that there had been a dissolute knight named Sir John Oldcastle some hundred or so years before and that Shakespeare originally named the Falstaff character after him. The crapulous knight is the epitome of rollicking humanism and cynical good humor whereas Greene was a cantankerous old sot, who was heartless to his wife and family and, on his deathbed, contemptuous of the up-and-coming Shakespeare. But it is a provocative connection I had never made before and I found myself weighing it carefully before rejecting it.

In his chapter on Merchant of Venice, Greenblatt does a major liposuction on the play pumping out the accumulated flab of circular argument which has turned a crystalline masterpiece into an overweight sow. Using the Lopez case as a probe, he arrives at startling revelations about the disturbing repercussions this play always leaves behind. "He wanted, it seems," he says of its author "to excite laughter at a wicked Jew's discomfiture -- not to be sure, in a play about international intrigue, but in a play about money and love -- and he wanted at the same time to call the laughter into question, to make the amusement excruciatingly uncomfortable." Whether that was or was not Shakespeare's conscious intention, the insight goes a long way towards explaining the shudder that many spectators feel after Shylock is led away from the trial scene and into a forced conversion. The issue is not does this jibe with Shakespeare's actual intent, but does the assumption open up a new dimension of understanding about the play.

Greenblatt is excellent in divining the way in which Shakespeare developed his techniques of playwriting using what he calls "strategic opacity"; that is, leaving out explicit motivation and rationales in a character's behavior and thereby creating an ambiguity which makes that character more compelling and psychologically complex. Analyzing the great leap forward in Hamlet, Greenblatt writes: "He had rethought how to put a tragedy together -- specifically, he had rethought the amount of causal explanation a tragic plot needed to function effectively and the amount of explicit psychological rationale a character needed to be compelling. Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar reassuring explanations."

This is the most lucid explanation I have come across as to what it is in the mature Shakespeare that sets him apart form the author of those plays leading up to and including Richard II.

Greenblatt's sensitivity to the issues contained in Shakespeare's plays coupled with a comprehensive knowledge of episodes in his life which may have seeped into his work, is what makes Will in the World such a devouring read. Behind every notion there is a psychological insight or a wodge of social incident for an insight to rest on. Speculation that leads to perceptions which are eye-opening and unexpected, whether verifiable or not, is what the Shakespearean Experience is all about. It enters into a creative collaboration with our own psyches and we come out of a good performance enriched in the way we come out of a good dinner party where we have spent an hour or two in the company of a stimulating conversationalist who has laundered our brains. Is it a concise and verifiable history of William Shakespeare? No, it isn't! It's better than that. It's a priceless addition to all we know -- or think we know -- about the genesis of the plays and the interaction between the author's private life and the times in which he lived. Will in the World takes its place beside Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare as one of the two indispensable products of the indefatigable and overworked Shakespeare industry.


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Stephen Greenblatt; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004, ISBN: 0-393-05057-2, 430 Pages (hardcover), $26.95

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Published April 25, 2005