Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

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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.

Audiobook Review

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.

Reviewed on March 9, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve never read a biography about Will Shakespeare, but every year my teachers always get a big kick out of telling us that in his will he left his best bed to his daughter and his second best bed to his wife.

  • Christina, yeah, Greenblatt points out the very shocking cultural significance of his doing that. Shakespeare essentially reduced Anne’s share of his property from 33% by default to just the bed. If he hadn’t mentioned his wife at all, she’d have gotten 33% of his estate. Seems he was really trying to stick it to her….

  • This sounds really interesting and like something I should check out. For my birthday this year I received the complete works of Shakespeare (it was a very cool gift!) so my goal is to eventually read my way through them all. Fortuitously, without realizing what Tony was giving me, my good friend also gave me a book on Shakespeare that I’ll need to dip into at some point. I also have Harold Bloom’s book on Shakespeare, which you might enjoy given that you’re working your way through his “How To Read & Why”.

  • Steph, I’ve considered Bloom’s Shakespeare book, but I suspect I will be rather tired of him by the end of this project. I’m already getting tired of him, although I do like the “reading list.” Greenblatt’s book is, I think, a pretty easy approach — while he certainly is a scholar, it’s written for a layman. Although, from seeing some of the reviews on Amazon, apparently some people think Greenblatt speculated a bit too much. I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to reading Shakespeare’s complete works too!

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