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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Humanizing the Myth

In spite of its scary New Age subtitle, this book is not a road trip to self-actualization, 16th-Century style. The author is a Harvard humanities professor, and as such, provides the reader with a context for Shakespeare's world as well as pertinent text analysis. Greenblatt's academic repertoire details how relevant court cases, the effect of the bubonic plague, the nuts and bolts of set construction, the vagrant life of the actor, and English status games all provided the backdrop for Shakespeare's works.

The character motivations in the Bard's plays, Greenblatt theorizes, spring from Shakespeare's family. His father was at various times a money lender, a municipal office-holder, a wool reaper, mead tester, and glover. This itinerant life forced Shakespeare to build a solid imaginary realm peopled with the occupational worlds of his father. Shakespeare's unhappy shotgun marriage to Anne Hathaway shows why no evidence of believable coupling appears in Shakespeare's comedies. The two lived apart for most of Shakespeare's life. In an age where the average bride was two years younger than her mate, Hathaway was eight years older. She was pregnant when they married. Greenblatt implies that Shakespeare regretted his dash at love and so his comedies also bear forced marriages. The death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet propelled the poet into his tragic period. There is even one chapter, "Shakescene", devoted to the rivals in Shakespeare's life: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, and George Peele, to put Shakespeare's dramas in the context of what was being written at the time.

Although the book is replete with allusions to Shakespeare's plays, they are usually from the more well-known ones. If the book were a jukebox, it would only contain top 40 hits. It was as if the publisher told Greenblatt that he shouldn't waste time trying to teach who Cymbeline or Troilus and Cressida are to the reader. As such, the book is more user-friendly but a more advanced Shakespeare student might wince at an all too familiar reference to The Merchant of Venice. This is not a "teaching" book. There is no analysis of iambic pentameter, no trumpeting of Shakespeare's skills. The book does not have a heady Harvard tone. Instead, the book humanizes the myth. If you had to decide between eight pints of ale, or a pound of raisins, or a pack of paper, Greenblatt says, you had to have the drive of William Shakespeare to say no to the amenities of everyday life to lay money down for the paper.

The publisher doesn't skimp on color folios; 24 prints put faces and locales to the names. The pictures are culled from private trusts and small English libraries. Furthermore, the book was a finalist for the National Book Award last year.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 429 pages, hardback