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How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

A-WillintheWorldWe know precious little about Shakespeare, undisputedly our greatest playwright and poet. He married and left Stratford-on-Avon in the late 1580s, turning up in London around 1590. What did he do during those missing years? What (or who) inspired him to act and playwright? While Greenblatt has no definite answers, he has plenty to say about the historical context that shaped this enigmatic genius and his works. By placing Shakespeare in the political unrest following the Reformation, the onset of Renaissance pageantry, and London’s dynamism, he dissects Shakespeare’s shadowy life. Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff, and Hamlet of course have cameos, as do Shakespeare’s family and colleagues in this fusion of biography, history, and criticism.
Norton. 384 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0393050572

Chicago-Sun Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The result is thoroughly researched but casual feeling—Will in the World is a successful attempt to be the layperson’s Bard bio of choice for the next decade. … Still, making sense of Shakespeare’s late career—the explosion in vocabulary, the leap into more inward-looking plots—baffles Greenblatt as much as it has other scholars." Mark Athitakis

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Greenblatt’s Shakespeare is a man steeped in the world, fluent in its loftiest and its basest dialects, and yet distant from most of his family, elusive in his faith, politically careful, prudent to a fault in his business dealings … Will in the World … is determined to take seriously the reader’s unscientific curiosity about who Shakespeare was and how he did it, questions that seem perfectly natural, perfectly ordinary, but about which scholarship has lately been shy." Jeff Dolven

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Greenblatt brilliantly evokes the world in which Shakespeare lived and worked … While Greenblatt’s version of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare is at times rather speculative and extravagant (which Greenblatt clearly is aware of), nevertheless Will in the World is an impressive accomplishment ..." Earl L. Dachslager

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… one of the most persuasive reconstructions of Shakespeare’s life and career I have encountered. … Greenblatt reconstructs How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare much like the filmmakers of Shakespeare in Love, whom he advised, did, taking free hold of events, people and influences that, if they didn’t enter Shakespeare’s life at any one known time, surely did at some time or another." David Walton

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Greenblatt’s chapter on The Merchant of Venice is one of his best, immensely informative on anti-Semitism, money, Shylock’s language, ducats and daughters, but it achieves its splendor by the methods of literary criticism, ignoring the paths that supposedly lead a biographer into the play. … Thus the book shows a divided allegiance between biographer and critic, but it becomes a magnificent achievement by negotiating the division with such intelligence and forbearance." Denis Donoghue

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The opacity surrounding [Shakespeare] adds to the mystery of his work, which is all we have, save a few poor and rather useless facts of his life. Greenblatt would, perhaps, be the first to admit that this is enough to be going on with." Colm Tóibín

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lining himself up with a growing group of scholars, Greenblatt offers this religious persecution as the crucial background to Shakespeare’s missing years after he left school, as well as his later motive for leaving Stratford. … Will in the World resumes many of Greenblatt’s earlier brilliant ideas about Elizabethan society and Shakespeare’s place within it, and it moves nimbly and lucidly through scrupulously marshaled scraps of material." Marina Warner

Critical Summary

Greenblatt, a professor at Harvard, embraces the New Historicism. Intimidating? Not really. This school of thought, which privileges social, political, and economic forces, locates individuals in their larger contexts. Given the prolific nature of Shakespeare scholars and the limited information about their subject, Greenblatt offers few new facts. Nonetheless, he takes an original tack on Will’s life, speculating convincingly about his life and motives. He argues, for example, that religious persecution formed a crucial background to Will’s youth. Many critics note Greenblatt’s divided attention to both biography and criticism; in drawing out Will’s life, he necessarily analyzes some texts. Most agree this approach only heightens the book’s power. Colm Tóibín, author of the fictionalized biography of Henry James, The Master ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004) is wary of the considerable amount Greenblatt is forced to speculate due to the lack of historical documentation. There can be no real biography of the Bard—only exemplary efforts like this to explore a life. Academic but accessible, sound and sympathetic, Will in the World casts Shakespeare in luminous light, reminding us of his timeless talents.

Supplemental Reading

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets | Helen Vendler (1997): Harvard scholar Vendler provides a close examination of each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and includes a CD with her readings of 65 of those sonnets.