Much of the life of William Shakespeare is a mystery. He carefully did not keep a diary nor send love letters to his wife. Shakespeare, the prolific writer who, in just over 50 years wrote an almost unbelievable number of remarkable poems and plays, did not leave many personal details of his life beyond public records (which are spotty 400 years later). There was not a market for biographies of famous playwrights in the 1600s, and many details of his life were not written down until he was long gone.
Yet, in Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt attempts to explain Shakespeare’s life by reading what he did write: his plays. In a truly remarkable way, Greenblatt ties the Bard’s life into the context of Victorian England by visiting the context of his plays.
Despite being an English major, I am not very familiar with most of Shakespeare’s work, let alone his life. I found Greenblatt’s look at Shakespeare’s life through his plays be utterly fascinating. Even if none of the suppositions Greenblatt provides were true, understanding the cultural context of the plays will help me in my future studies of the plays. I loved this “literary” biography, and I’d highly recommend it to those interested in the cultural context of the Bard.
Reading about New Historicism
When I was a geeky English major, one of my favorite ways of looking at literature was from the perspective of New Historicism, which looks at literature as a part of history. Harmon and Holman share the following thoughts about New Historicism:
The New Historicism tends to be social, economic, and political, and it views literary works … as instruments for the displaying and enforcing of doctrines about conduct, etiquette, and law. In a dynamic circle, the literature tells us something about the surrounding ideology .. and the study of the ideology tells us something about the embedded literary works. (A Handbook to Literature, eighth edition, page 346)
Stephen Greenblatt is even called “the most influential practitioner” of New Historicism.
The Life of the Bard
Will in the World definitely fits New Historicism approach to literature: it looks at Shakespeare’s plays as an instrument for recording Shakespeare’s life.
For example, to describe Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, Greenblatt turned not just to the remaining public records but to Shakespeare’s writing. The public records show their marriage and the birth of their first child six months later; the public records show that Will left essentially nothing to her after her death but his “best bed”, even though tradition gave widows at least a third of his property. As for Shakespeare’s writing, there are, remarkably, no remaining letters from William to Anne. Greenblatt turns to the poems and plays, examining various attitudes toward women at various points in Will’s life. Suffice it to say that it appears Will didn’t have a great relationship with Anne.
To me, this literary dissection was a fascinating way to learn about a literary giant. As I mentioned, much of Greenblatt’s conclusions are suppositions: there is no long-lasting record of the facts. But Greenblatt’s familiarity with all of the Bard’s works, let alone the works of his contemporaries, makes his conclusions completely believable and fascinating.
The audiobook I listened to was recorded by Peter Jay Fernandez, an experienced Shakespeare actor. It was a great experience to listen to the book because he adjusted his voice to fit the given Shakespeare character whenever Greenblatt would quote from a play. It was a wonderful reading of the book. That said, this is one book I wish I read in paper: there were so many wonderful insights and quotes I wanted to mark down.
I’m glad I read Will in the World early in my Shakespeare studies. I feel my reading will be greatly impacted by the insights Greenblatt shared. I now intend to read Shakespeare’s complete works. After I do so, I want to revisit Will in the World and learn again the cultural context of the plays.
I highly recommend this literary biography.
I read this as part of the BiblioShakespeare Challenge.
Have you read a fascinating biography of the Bard? I’d love to read more about this mysterious man.
If you have reviewed Will in the World on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.