Mystery Man

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 430 pp., $26.95


In April 1873 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published a short play called Shakespeare’s Funeral written by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hamley, author of a standard study of military strategy, The Operations of War (1864), and a regular contributor to Blackwood’s on matters military and imperial. As the play opens on April 25, 1616, the Warwickshire poet Michael Drayton and Young Raleigh, son of Sir Walter Raleigh, arrive in Stratford-upon-Avon only to hear the sad news that they are too late and that Shakespeare has died two days earlier.

The two stay for the funeral that day and, as they move around the town, Drayton points out to Raleigh various local townspeople. There is Sir Thomas Lucy, the source of Shakespeare’s Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and his nephew Master Thynne, the prototype of Master Slender in Merry Wives. Here is a local moneylender, Master Sherlock, not a Jew like Shylock but with the verbal tic of saying “well, sir” at the end of his sentences that Shakespeare heard and copied. They meet Shakespeare’s old family servant Adam, whom Shakespeare put into As You Like It, and Cicely Hacket, the maidservant at Shakespeare’s great house New Place, who is referred to in the induction to The Taming of the Shrew.

At the funeral they see the eight local blue-collar workers whom Shakespeare has carefully and jokingly chosen to act as pallbearers at his own funeral: Bardolph and Corporal Nym (from Henry V), John Rugby (from Merry Wives) and James Gurney (from King John), Thomas Wart (whom Falstaff recruited in Henry IV Part 2) and Sly, the drunk in the induction to Shrew, and two of the workers who in Shakespeare’s Athens performed “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Snug the Joiner and Nick Bottom, a Stratford weaver.

There is an old tradition that Shakespeare took revenge on Sir Thomas Lucy in creating Justice Shallow, a tradition that, like most such stories, has conspicuously little evidence behind it. But Lucy apart, Hamley’s supposed “discovery” of the local sources for some of Shakespeare’s characters is a witty and well-managed joke, gentle mockery of the search for Shakespeare’s sources that scholars indulge in. If Shakespeare is for Victorians above all “fancy’s child,” the natural genius whose lack of formal university education was no constriction on his creativity, then surely, Hamley suggests, he looked around his home town and observed the kinds of people whose individuality would spark their transformation into those characters that the world (for Hamley presumably a space of the same extent as the British Empire) knows and loves.

For all its cleverness, Shakespeare’s Funeral might seem nothing more than a relic of a different age, a time when career army officers wrote plays (and Hamley later became a successful novelist) and the complex ways in which an author works with the cultural materials of his or her time were barely glimpsed. It comes as something of a shock then to find Stephen Greenblatt,…

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