I see I taste I write Links What?
January 27, 2007

Will in the World

How Shakespeare became Shakespeare
Stephen Greenblatt – ISBN – 97803932737X

This book, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is an engrossing read. Acclaimed as “a magnificent achievement” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the most complexly intelligent and sophisticated . . . study of the life and work [of Shakespeare] I have ever read,” by the reviewer at The New Yorker.

Having never read a bio—or indeed much of anything--about the man, I have no opinion about the relative value or comprehensive nature of the work. I know only that I enjoyed it immensely. It is rich in detail, and admirably achieves the suggestion in the subtitle: to explain just how Shakespeare became the man who wrote all of those things which have made him one of the most prolific and revered writers of all time . . . in any language.

Greenblatt, a Humanities professor and authority on Shakespeare, explains English culture of the times, its impact upon his subject, and fills in a lot of blanks for me. While he never addresses the age old question of whether or not Shakespeare was Shakespeare—or a pseudonym for someone else--he amply refutes any alternative interpretation. He details many events of the period and explains how these events created the narratives of his plays and the characters therein. And it is fascinating!

Palace intrigue, the vicious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and other relevant history, eerie legends of witches and other dark events, societal norms regarding marriage, etc. are all discussed. He discloses Shakespeare’s origins: a mother distantly related to royalty, a father who was an impressive entrepreneur and a locally distinguished man, though he ruined it all with alcohol (the operative presumption) which created the insecurity which stimulated William to be prudent in all his endeavors and investments . . . dying a quite wealthy man.

His marriage to an older woman of means, orphaned and uniquely situated as a woman in control of her own life—unusual for Elizabethan women plays heavily on his life. Greenblatt addresses the fact that William visited home frequently, but lived, frugally, in London for most of his productive years.

This was a crucial period in English history: the development of the English language, the translation of the “King James” version of the Bible, and the cataloguing of words . . . without which “it is difficult to imagine William Shakespeare.”

Often, line by line, he explores Shakespeare’s dialogues, reviewing relevant historical issues which seem rather clearly related to the thought concept/plot. He explains events which provided Shakespeare the raw material which permitted him to explain the psychology and theology of why people behave the way they do. Much of the instability of rule in the era was authored by the Guy Fawkes event.

Another ‘fer instance: King Lear at its core is the great fear which haunted the playwright’s class . . . the fear of humiliation and abandonment . . . loss of identity in the wake of retirement . . . Lear’s madness and rage were a response to his daughter’s vicious ingratitude and the horror of his being turned into an ordinary man begging for charity from his children. Yet, in Shakespeare’s case he left virtually his entire estate to the most intensely appealing woman in his life . . . his daughter Susannah.

And there is a lot more. Overall a very interesting read.

Posted by respeto at January 27, 2007 3:04 PM