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     Volume 4 Issue 17 | October 15, 2004 |

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Book Review

How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Gary Taylor


Why would anyone buy yet another biography of Shakespeare? Why would publishers pay a million-dollar advance to its author? He has not discovered a single new document written by or about Shakespeare. He does not present any new evidence that would alter the scholarly consensus about which texts Shakespeare wrote, when he wrote them, or what his contemporaries thought of them.

Nevertheless, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World has been greeted, in America, as an epochal achievement: lengthily and reverently reviewed in the New Yorker, excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, extravagantly praised by critics, poets, actors. Simon Russell Beale calls it "a love letter" to Shakespeare.

It deserves such praise and I hope it outsells Harold Bloom's pompous Invention of the Human. But love letters are not known for their objectivity. Love letters construct a shared fantasy. "Let us imagine," Greenblatt begins, promising that if we "use our own imagination" we will understand Shakespeare's. "Let us imagine," for instance, a personal meeting between the soon-to-be-martyred Edmund Campion and a soon-to-be-famous young man from Stratford. Did Shakespeare meet Campion? Did Shakespeare witness the royal entertainment at Kenilworth in 1575 and did they inspire A Midsummer Night's Dream? Was his father an alcoholic, and was that wasted, loveable father the inspiration for Falstaff? Did Shakespeare leave Stratford because he was caught poaching? What matters, Greenblatt answers, is "not the degree of evidence but rather the imaginative life that the incident has". What matters is not the true story but a good story.

Greenblatt has been the world's most influential Shakespearean for a quarter of a century because he tells good stories. The alliterative title "Will in the World" is classic Greenblatt: using Shakespeare's pun on his own first name, it turns the forbidding author into an approachable "Will", while simultaneously insisting on the profound relationship between individual desire and "the crushing, glacial weight of the everyday".

Will in the World tells a better story than other Shakespeare biographies. "A young man from a small provincial town - a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections and without a university education - moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time." Like most good stories, this tale of rags to aesthetic riches is a variation on a familiar favourite, the "poor lad, hard work, get rich" myth canonised by Horatio Alger and innumerable American politicians.

At times that stale older tale comes uncomfortably close to the surface: Greenblatt briefly imagines "Shakespeare as the patron saint of parking lot attendants", getting his start in the big city holding horses for rich folks. But he quickly dismisses that image. For most people who write and read biographies of Shakespeare, the narrative of his business dealings "is not a terrible story, but it is not uplifting either. It is merely and disagreeably ordinary."

Greenblatt instead wants to write, and most consumers of literary biography want to read, a story extraordinary and uplifting. The first sentence of his preface promises "the greatest [story] of all time", and he keeps that promise. Every chapter plops dollops of hyperbole on Our Hero. Greenblatt repeatedly celebrates Shakespeare's Houdini ability "to assume all positions and to slip free of all constraints". He seems not to notice that his repeated "all" is contradicted by his own compelling argument, elsewhere in the book, that Shakespeare did not understand happy marriages or saints. But (as Shakespeare's plays show) when we're in the grip of a good story, we don't notice little inconsistencies like that.

That's not an uplifting story. It would be more generous (more Shakespearian?) to say that Greenblatt has mined his own life to supply the emotional raw materials that energise this book. Like Shakespeare, Greenblatt writes convincingly of the "complex states of estrangement" in a bad marriage, "as if the misery of the neglected or abandoned spouse was something he knew personally and all too well". Like the author of the sonnets (and me), Greenblatt knows about "the erotic virtue of mendacity", how "the age difference" between two lovers can be "a paradoxical source of excitement", and why "The woman who most intensely appealed to Shakespeare in his life was 20 years younger than he". At his best, Greenblatt understands Shakespeare so well because he understands himself. We should all be so wise.

This article was first published in The Guardian



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