Saturday, August 13, 2011

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Toward the end of Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt relates a story about Shakespeare's dealings as a property owner. When a set of wealthy landowners threatened to enclose a large area of land, some Shakespeare's, essentially transforming common land into private property, he protested the move, as it would have staunched the income he received from the tenants. Having reached a protective agreement with the landowners, however, Shakespeare quite non-heroically dropped his protest--even though the enclosure still promised to evict and impoverish many farmers. "It is not a terrible story," Greenblatt writes, "but it is not uplifting either. It is merely and disagreeably ordinary."

Merely and disagreeable ordinary--this phrase perfectly encapsulates the problem of Greenblatt's method. That is, Shakespeare's life is not particularly thrilling. While Christopher Marlowe was being assassinated by fellow spies in faked bar fights, Shakespeare quietly spent his days turning himself into a shrewd businessman, writing two or three plays a year, and avoiding his wife and children. The details we have of his life, which are extremely few, are strikingly banal.

The result is that Greenblatt's book is composed primarily of conjecture. Shakespeare may have done or seen this, if he was in this place or did that thing, and isn't it possible that that experience is reflected, here, in Much Ado About Nothing?

Shakespeare's plays then combine, on the one hand, an overall diffidence in depicting marriages and, on the other hand, the image of a kind of nightmare in the two marriages [in Hamlet and Macbeth] they do depict with some care. It is difficult not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife. Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and a writer... And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and The Winter's Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, and the very dream is a threat.

This makes for a remarkably readable and interesting biography, but what are the chances that even the most careful reader of Shakespeare--the most aloof of all writers--can sketch the map of his interiority, as Greenblatt pretends that he can do? He reminds us over and over again that this is, at best, guesswork, but that doesn't make it any more trustworthy.

Some of the surmises here seem innocent enough--it seems probable that the mobs in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus show Shakespeare's familiarity with, and suspicion of, similar occurrences in London. Some of it seems dangerous, like the long story about the show trial of Elizabeth I's once-Jewish adviser Dr. Ruy Lopez, which suggests to Greenblatt a wariness about public anti-Semitism that informs The Merchant of Venice.

Will in the World can be compelling, and convincing, and as far as biographies of Shakespeare go, it's probably the best that we're going to get. But the method of cherry-picking passages from the plays and matching them to biographical possibilities makes me deeply uneasy, not least because it is the method that leads a whole host of otherwise reasonable people to believe that Shakespeare's plays were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

It probably isn't Greenblatt's fault. It is ours, who crave to see the man "behind the plays," and who want Shakespeare to be as interesting as Marlowe or Greene or Kyd. Shakespeare's texts are so compelling, it seems inconceivable that he could be "merely and disagreeably ordinary," but that may be a fact we shall all have to accept.

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