"So engrossing, clearheaded, and lucid that its arrival is not just welcome but cause for celebration."―Dan Cryer, NewsdayStephen Greenblatt, the charismatic Harvard professor who "knows more about Shakespeare than Ben Jonson or the Dark Lady did" (John Leonard, Harper's), has written a biography that enables us to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan life; full of drama and pageantry, and also cruelty and danger; could have become the world's greatest playwright. A young man from the provinces―a man without wealth, connections, or university education―moves to London. In a remarkably short time he becomes the greatest playwright not just of his age but of all time. His works appeal to urban sophisticates and first-time theatergoers; he turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. How is such an achievement to be explained?
There's no shortage of good Shakespearean biographies. But Stephen Greenblatt, brilliant scholar and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, reminds us that the "surviving traces" are "abundant but thin" as to known facts. He acknowledges the paradox of the many biographies spun out of conjecture but then produces a book so persuasive and breathtakingly enjoyable that one wonders what he could have done if the usual stuff of biographical inquiry--memoirs, interviews, manuscripts, and drafts--had been at his disposal. Greenblatt uses the "verbal traces" in Shakespeare's work to take us "back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open." Whenever possible, he also ushers us from the extraordinary life into the luminous work. The result is a marvelous blend of scholarship, insight, observation, and, yes, conjecture--but conjecture always based on the most convincing and inspired reasoning and evidence. Particularly compelling are Greenblatt's discussions of the playwright's relationship with the university wit Robert Greene (discussed as a chief source for the character of Falstaff) and of Hamlet in relation to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, his aging father, and the "world of damaged rituals" that England's Catholics were forced to endure.Will in the World is not just the life story of the world's most revered writer. It is the story, too, of 16th- and 17th-century England writ large, the story of religious upheaval and political intrigue, of country festivals and brutal public executions, of the court and the theater, of Stratford and London, of martyrdom and recusancy, of witchcraft and magic, of love and death: in short, of the private but engaged William Shakespeare in his remarkable world. Throughout the book, Greenblatt's style is breezy and familiar. He often refers to the poet simply as Will. Yet for all his alacrity of style and the book's accessibility, Will in the World is profoundly erudite, an enormous contribution to the world of Shakespearean letters. --Silvana Tropea
Interview with Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt about what make Shakespeare Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate us endlessly.
This much-awaited new biography of the elusive Bard is brilliant in conception, often superb in execution, but sometimes—perhaps inevitably—disappointing in its degree of speculativeness. Bardolators may take this last for granted, but curious lay readers seeking a fully cohesive and convincing life may at times feel the accumulation of "may haves," "might haves" and "could haves" make it difficult to suspend disbelief. Greenblatt's espousing, for instance, of the theory that Shakespeare's "lost" years before arriving in London were spent in Lancashire leads to suppositions that he might have met the Catholic subversive Edmund Campion, and how that might have affected him—and it all rests on one factoid: the bequeathing by a nobleman of some player's items to a William Shakeshafte, who may, plausibly, have been the young Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Norton Shakespeare general editor and New Historicist Greenblatt succeed impressively in locating the man in both his greatest works and the turbulent world in which he lived. With a blend of biography, literary interpretation and history, Greenblatt persuasively analyzes William's father's rise and fall as a public figure in Stratford, which pulled him in both Protestant and Catholic directions and made his eldest son "a master of double consciousness." In a virtuoso display of historical and literary criticism, Greenblatt contrasts Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Elizabeth's unfortunate Sephardic physician—who was executed for conspiracy—and Shakespeare's ambiguous villain Shylock. This wonderful study, built on a lifetime's scholarship and a profound ability to perceive the life within the texts, creates as vivid and full portrait of Shakespeare as we are likely ever to have. 16 pages color illus. not seen by PW.
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For all his generosity in enriching world literature with deathless characters--Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff and Bottom, Hamlet and Othello--Shakespeare kept his own personality remarkably hidden. A Harvard scholar here sheds penetrating light on this enigmatic genius, teasing out the mystery of artistic transformation by carefully connecting the Bard's brilliant verse to his times and circumstances. We see the importance of probable early encounters with Marlowe, Watson, Nashe, and other prominent dramatists, and at the other end of Shakespeare's meteoric career, Greenblatt discerns the alchemy that converted fears of old age into the fury of King Lear and transformed mingled pride and misgivings over a lifetime's work into the autumnal poise of The Tempest. As the same spirit of sympathetic inquiry--by turns subtly speculative and candidly skeptical--plays over other key episodes in Shakespeare's life, readers finally glimpse the exceptional man who turned poetry into a panoramic mirror for all of humanity. A valuable resource for both professional and casual Shakespeareans. Bryce Christensen
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Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including Tyrant, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us,The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.