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Volume 44, Number 4 (Fall 2006)

Shakespeare for Our Time

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt.
W. W. Norton (New York), 384 pp., $26.95 cloth, 2004; $14.95 paper, 2005.

Jeffrey Cain

book cover imageSome things we may never know about England’s greatest playwright and poet. What did Shakespeare think? Why and when did he strike out for London? With whom did he spend his time, and what did they talk about? Did he pine for the old religion? What were his politics? Did he think himself an accomplished poet or an entrepreneur on the rise? What of his wife, his children: Did he care for them, love them, or was he indifferent? The only honest answer to these questions: We don’t know. The scant historical record keeps us in the dark.

Yet we cannot help ourselves, we desire to know. In this self-satisfying and self-revelatory age, when things quite personal—confessional matters that would have made our parents blush—are set before us in a dizzying array of media, we crave more information rather than less. As social boundaries expand, the private sphere recedes, and canons of critical propriety, just like manners and morals, must also give way to our impetuousness, to our need to know. We are proud of this openness and count it a measure of our authenticity, our genuineness. So, we are left to wonder, why won’t Shakespeare open up and share with us? 

Stephen Greenblatt’s biography, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, satisfies our modern desire to know the greatest English poet on a more personal level. We meet Professor Greenblatt’s Shakespeare not as, say, Harold Bloom introduces him: a “mortal god” who invented through his glorious outpouring of characters what we today refer to as “personality.” No. Like tabloid stars on an afternoon talk show, Professor Greenblatt’s Shakespeare treads among us swapping stories, chitchatting, and revealing personal intrigues. In a familiar, rapid, and frequently therapeutic style—Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are his “lifework,” his marriage is not “fulfilling,” his plays release currents of “personal energy,” and Hamlet “relaunched his entire career”—Professor Greenblatt deftly creates for us a Shakespeare not for all time, but for our time.

Because Greenblatt is University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and was recently named general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (he has long been editor of The Norton Shakespeare), unsuspecting readers might think the 430-page Will in the World a stuffy literary biography. Professor Greenblatt is not, however, bounded by the academic and scholarly customs or conventions that his weighty titles suggest or that the genre requires. He tells his readers, for example, “the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare’s life arises from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.” True enough. But because nobody could possibly know the things Shakespeare knew “firsthand, in his body and soul,” this line of inquiry has traditionally been brief. Not so for Professor Greenblatt. For him, Shakespeare is less a creative genius than he is a created genius. We come to know Shakespeare—“his body and soul”—by knowing the social context that created him, or what the professor called in his 1989 work, Shakespearean Negotiations, his “social energy.” Greenblatt’s interest is not ultimately in what Shakespeare created, but rather in what he presumes to have created Shakespeare. His biography boldly aims to “discover the actual person . . . [and to] tread the shadowy path from the life he lived into the literature he created.”

Professor Greenblatt’s celebrity in literary studies has come, in part, from his popular academic writings, which bring together traditional historicism, post-structuralism, and Marxist materialism to create a method of literary inquiry that he terms “a poetics of culture” or, more fashionably, the new historicism. Light on theory and heavy on charismatic narrative, Greenblatt’s method proved appealing to graduate students and junior faculty in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because the new historicism attacked the language, subject matter, and conventions of traditional historical and aesthetic scholarship—no appeals to genius, no motiveless creations, no autonomous artifacts, no transcendent representation, etc.—and replaced it with a method, language, and stock of trendy phrases of its own: “there is no escape from contingency,” “social energy,” “permeable boundaries.” Above all, however, the new historicism was political; it viewed the past through the prism of the present, focusing its critical analysis on power relations, marginalized groups, and authority and transgression. Professor Greenblatt declared in 1990 that “my own practice and that of many others associated with the new historicism was decisively shaped by the American 1960s and early 1970s, and especially opposition to the Vietnam War. Writing that was not engaged, that withheld judgments, that failed to connect the present with the past seemed worthless.” As such, “attacking Henry V or Prospero,” wrote Brian Vickers of the new historicists in his 1993 Appropriating Shakespeare, “was the same kind of activity as attacking President Reagan or the White House.” New historicism’s academic practitioners would set the modern world aright by rewriting (and frequently condemning) the old world, and England’s greatest poet was their foremost cause, for as Greenblatt once put it, “Shakespeare is the discourse of power.”

To fashion a more personable Shakespeare, to give his balding and goateed likeness a name and local habitation, suits well the new historicist penchant for politicizing literature, even as it feeds our present desire to “personalize” our heroes. What history has denied us, Professor Greenblatt delivers, sometimes by reading rich biographical detail into the plays and poems (almost always a mistake), sometimes through imagination (“to understand how Shakespeare used his imagination . . . it is important to use our own imagination,” Greenblatt writes in his preface). For example, he associates Shakespeare with the recusant Alexander Houghton, a rich Catholic who lived in Lancashire. By now a standard, if highly speculative, correlation in Shakespearean biography, Greenblatt indulges himself by going one giant step further. He argues that the young poet might have met through this connection the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion, who was arrested and executed in 1581. Greenblatt imagines in considerable detail their conversation and Shakespeare’s inner thoughts during this fabricated meeting: “Shakespeare would have found Campion fascinating—even his mortal enemies conceded that he had charisma—and might even have recognized in him something of a kindred spirit.” Greenblatt qualifies his assertions with “ifs” and “mights,” but later he speculates unqualifiedly that the Protestant pope-baiting present in King John “cannot tell us what the young man felt in the presence of the fugitive Jesuit.”

Of course, nobody really knows whether or not Shakespeare ever met Campion, or whether he ever knew Alexander Houghton, or whether he ever resided in Lancashire. Neither do we know that his father’s social and financial decline were due to heavy drinking; nor that Falstaff was modeled on Robert Greene and that Shakespeare identified himself with Hal; nor that the poet “abandoned” his wife; nor that the Earl of Southampton is the young man in the first seventeen sonnets; nor that the death of his son, Hamnet, prompted him to write four sunny comedies; nor that he dreamed of escaping his origins in order to turn into someone else (“That Shakespeare had this dream is virtually certain,” Greenblatt writes). Veracity is Greenblatt’s first casualty in uncovering Shakespeare’s “actual person,” in fashioning Bloom’s “mortal god” into a personality.

Samuel Johnson wrote in his Preface to Shakespeare that there will always be those who, “being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox.” In Will in the World, Professor Greenblatt adds no truth to our storehouse of Shakespeare knowledge, and most of his conjectures turn out to be old hat (Prospero breaking his wand is Shakespeare signaling retirement, for example). Yet, by culling 430 pages of “biography” from his imagination, Professor Greenblatt’s eminence remains paradoxically intact.

Jeffrey Cain resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.

Posted: March 19, 2007

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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