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Mystery Man

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 430 pp., $26.95

1.

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, one of the most brilliant cultural critics of our time, writing about Shakespeare in precisely the ways that Lieutenant-Colonel Hamley was mocking.

Will in the World, Greenblatt’s much-anticipated new book on Shakespeare, is his contribution to the ever-flourishing industry of Shakespeare biography. This book is not intended to be the place to go for a clear exposition of the facts of Shakespeare’s life. The date of Shakespeare’s baptism, for example, is first mentioned in passing on page 93 and the exact date of his birth, a question that long vexed biographers, is only referred to as a matter of speculation in a note to the reader on page 412. Perhaps it is petty to note that on occasion Greenblatt is a little unsure of the facts he does use: when he describes Richard Quiney’s letter to Shakespeare as “one of the rare surviving letters to the playwright,” he is being optimistic, for it is the only letter addressed to Shakespeare to have been found.

But such choices to minimize the presence of dates and such accidents as produce these slips of the pen really do not matter to Greenblatt’s project. To make pedantic complaints would be to miss the point. It may even be misguided to mention that at least once Greenblatt gets the plot of a play wrong: when, writing of Shakespeare’s hesitancy about the “long-term prospects for happiness” of lovers in the plays, he comments that Demetrius and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “will cherish each other as long as the love juice sprinkled in their eyes holds out,” perhaps it is churlish of me to point out that the love juice is never applied to Helena’s eyes and that she, like Hermia, is not drugged into love.

Obviously this is not a conventional biography. Instead, it is a search for “How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” a quest to which Greenblatt gives some surprising answers. At one point he considers, thoughtfully and subtly, what effect William’s relationship to his father may have had on his ambitions and on his plays. John Shakespeare, whose rise in wealth and status in Stratford-upon-Avon was breathtakingly fast, hit financial troubles during William’s childhood, ran so heavily into debt that he mortgaged and lost his wife’s inherited lands, and was forced to break the law by avoiding going to church regularly just in case he was served with writs for his debts. How could this not have had an effect on William? How could Shakespeare’s aspirations to gentility not have been formed in part by his father’s ambitions and failures?

Strikingly early in his professional career, in 1596 William satisfied a yearning for status by becoming a gentleman, something he automatically achieved through gaining for his father the coat of arms for which John had first applied twenty years earlier. There is nothing new in this notion of Shakespeare’s aspirations to gentility, though Greenblatt explores it with fine sensitivity. But then he turns to Hamlet’s comments on the Danes’ reputation for heavy drinking and starts to wonder whether John Shakespeare had a drink problem:

Is this a further clue to the cause of the father’s decline? Did the man who served in 1556 as the borough ale-taster drink himself into deep personal trouble?

Greenblatt has only one piece of evidence outside the plays to offer: in the mid-seventeenth century the archdeacon of Rochester noted that someone told him that Shakespeare’s “old father” was “a merry-cheeked old man.” Of course Greenblatt knows the evidence is too late to be reliable and, in any case, is hardly explicit about the cause of those merry cheeks, but he still asks whether John Shakespeare was, “possibly, ‘merry-cheeked’ from something more than good humor or advancing age.” Perhaps the guess is correct but the archdeacon’s word is too thin to serve as plausible evidence.

But what of the plays themselves, which include so many passages describing drunken behavior, show so many drunk characters, so often consider the effects of drink? It is a topic in Shakespeare studies that has not really been investigated and it is an intriguing one. Greenblatt’s own work has taught us the kinds of questions we might ask of this repeated interest in alcohol abuse: What did early modern culture think of excessive consumption of drink? Were there differences between the official view (for example in church homilies or legislation) and the popular ones? Was alcoholism frequent in the period? What does drunkenness say of early modern concepts of the nature of human reason and the fears and pleasures of a loss of control? Understanding early modern drinking would seem a valuable route to making more sense of ways in which that culture is like or unlike our own.

But that is not Greenblatt’s way in Will in the World. Less a matter of Shakespeare within his own culture than of Shakespeare as found in his plays, less Will in the world than the world found in Will, Greenblatt’s Shakespeare is confidently detected from the evidence of the drama. Noticing the frequency of the concern with the effects of drink is then a reinforcing justification for the biographical stimulus that is assumed to have driven it. Shakespeare’s dramatic interest in drink must be caused by something in his life. The argument climaxes with an example that is given especially potent weighting. The powerful and moving relationship in the Henry IV plays between Prince Henry and Falstaff, a man deeply into heavy drinking, is something that, for Greenblatt, we cannot “register…without sensing some unusually intimate and personal energy”—that is, Shakespeare’s energy.

There are many ways of thinking about the implications of this statement. On the one hand it strongly suggests exclusivity: if you don’t find that special energy to be a sign of Shakespeare’s presence, then you are a failure as a reader or spectator of the plays. Good readers and good spectators or even just competent ones will apparently share that recognition that here we are especially close to Shakespeare himself. On the other hand it denies the presence of a reader or watcher projected into the scene. But perhaps, an opposing argument might run, we find that energy in the moment because it speaks of us, not of Shakespeare, because the brilliance of the writing and the ways in which that works with the brilliance of actors in performance enable us to see ourselves and our relationships with our fathers there (at least, if we are male). Moved as I always am by the scenes of the prince and the drunken knight, I find they speak to me far more of my relationships to my sons than of my links to my father—or is that because my sons have more often seen me drunk than I ever saw my father? The plays speak also, that is, of our being Falstaff as well as being Prince Henry. And in that case, why should we assume that it does not show Shakespeare present as Falstaff as well? Was it Will who drank too much and wondered what his son Hamnet thought of him?

But there is a third concern that Greenblatt’s view of the personal in Shakespeare provokes. His Shakespeare seems to me a lesser Shakespeare, a writer often, for Greenblatt, at his best precisely because he is writing about his own personal experience. The power of this encounter between Falstaff and Prince Henry is seen as emerging directly from its intimate connection with Shakespeare’s own feelings. This Shakespeare seems mainly to know about life by living it. A post-Romantic Shakespeare of the kind the Victorians loved, a writer who transmutes the materials of his life into art, he is also oddly close to the kinds of Shakespeares that Victorian critics began to create: the one who knew about law by having been a lawyer, who knew about the sea by having been a sailor, and who knew about Italy by having traveled there. Shakespeare’s biography has long been annexed by special-interest groups, lobbyists for their version of the person, for their creation of the Shakespeare that best appeals to them.

Shakespeare certainly knew about the law, for some of the records of his life that have survived attest to his use of the law to pursue the repayment of small debts. Shakespeare knew about the sea, but his knowledge is of the kind that could have been learned from books and from conversations with seamen (and early modern London was a trading port of immense economic importance). What Shakespeare knew about Italy did not need a European journey and his mistakes about Italian geography suggest that he never went there at all. Is it really the case that a great writer, the greatest of all dramatists, could write superbly about fathers and sons primarily because of his relationship to his own father or to his son?

For Greenblatt Shakespeare is Prince Henry and not Falstaff; he is present, that is, in one character but not in another, able to be only one role at a time rather than imaginatively and creatively inhabiting all the people of the play. What is distinctive about the link of Prince Henry to Falstaff is not its originality as an idea, for the link of prince and reprobate was there in Shakespeare’s sources, like the one that survives only in the corrupt text published as The Famous Victories of Henry V in 1598, and its prototypes can be found in countless plays, for Falstaff’s dramatic genealogy depends on the miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier, in Plautus’ Roman comedy which Shakespeare would probably have read at school.

Shakespeare’s scenes mine the two characters with astonishing brilliance, profoundly charting the strata of their two selves, those aspects of their being that bind each to the other and also deeply separate them. Quite simply, Shakespeare does this better than anyone else had done or would do. But to limit his creativity in such cases to his own experiences is strangely naive about the complex cultural formations that make writing possible, exactly that complexity which Greenblatt’s other work has so excitingly taught us to search for in early modern England and to look to for our understanding of the sources of a writer’s work.

In the film Shakespeare in Love, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard created a Shakespeare who can only write Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love and who cannot know the end of the story until midway through rehearsals. Hollywood cannot allow a Shakespeare who had read Arthur Brooke’s long and dreary poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, first published in 1562, at least as early as when he was writing The Two Gentlemen of Verona some years earlier, and who then transformed Brooke’s poem into a play in 1594 or 1595. In that sense, Hollywood’s Shakespeare cannot read; he certainly cannot be conceived of as writing with Brooke’s poem open on his desk in front of him. Greenblatt’s Shakespeare certainly reads but does not seem greatly interested in reading, even if he did borrow books from Richard Field, a schoolfellow from Stratford who became a London printer. The movie’s Shakespeare and Greenblatt’s have to live it in order to write it.

As far as I know, no one has suggested before that John Shakespeare drank too much. New to me, too, was Greenblatt’s idea that Falstaff was in some way a portrait of Robert Greene, a playwright and pamphleteer that Shakespeare may well have met when he first started to move in the circles inhabited by playmakers. Greenblatt is at his usually brilliant best in reminding us of the dramatists whose success Shakespeare had to outdistance: Christopher Marlowe, of course, but also George Peele and John Lyly and a clutch of Thomases, Thomas Watson, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare was involved with plays by all the members of this crowd at various stages in his career. Recent research has confirmed (as far as it can) that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus with George Peele, something that says a great deal about Shakespeare’s relations with his established contemporaries, working with them as a collaborator rather than as a competitor and rival, though Greenblatt undervalues this point.

But seeing how a contemporary’s explorations of the possibilities of dramatic form or dramatic language could be transformed by Shakespeare’s own brilliance into something better than Lodge or Peele ever glimpsed is one thing. The plays can sit side by side and the transitions and echoes traced and weighed. Greenblatt goes further and argues that Shakespeare “performed a miraculous act of imaginative generosity, utterly unsentimental and, if the truth be told, not entirely human” when he “conferred upon Greene an incalculable gift, the gift of transforming him into Falstaff.”

This may be one of the nastiest comments ever made about Shakespeare. Greene died in desperate poverty and his final pamphlet has rude things to say about many people, Shakespeare included. Like many others, Shakespeare may well have ignored Greene’s needs—and there is no indication they were ever friends, no reason to think Shakespeare had any particular cause to help him. There are not even any especially close parallels between Greene’s life and Falstaff, nothing that shows why Greene should lie behind or within Falstaff’s ample girth. To argue that Shakespeare changed Greene into Falstaff makes dramatic creation a belated response but to see it as “an incalculable gift” requires us to accept that it was somehow to Greene’s benefit to be so transformed. But what does Greene receive by becoming Falstaff? Not immortality, since people have not recognized the change. More perplexingly it argues that Shakespeare could not have created Falstaff without Greene, that he needed Greene, and that this cold act of use is itself the mark of genius. If this is aesthetic generosity, I fervently hope no one ever confers it on me.

All biographies seek to make their mark by some special angle on their subjects. Moments like these are the ones out of which Will in the World makes distinctive its contribution to Shakespearean biography, where it is not simply rehearsing elegantly and thoughtfully what has to be accepted about that mysterious life. But it is at these moments that Greenblatt is most unconvincing. He is right to argue that many of the couples who end the comedies heading toward marriage might not seem likely to have long and happy marriages. But does that help to prove, as Greenblatt argues, that there were problems in Shakespeare’s marriage? What seems to me oddest about these couples—Viola and Orsino, Rosalind and Orlando, Perdita and Florizel—is that the men are so much less interesting than the women. One could argue that it is a sign of Shakespeare’s sense of his own inadequacy, of a male inferiority to female intelligence and social control. Whether that might reflect on Shakespeare’s own marriage is a matter on which it is impossible—and perhaps pointless—to speculate.

Compare Greenblatt on John Shakespeare or Robert Greene with his comments on Shakespeare’s development as a writer of soliloquy, the ways in which he learned how to represent an interiority of thought, and the distance is striking. Greenblatt develops the idea that Shakespeare discovered in the writing of Hamlet the advantages of incompletion, that

he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays…if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold.

This definition of technique, which Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity”—and which he finds in Othello and Lear as well—shows exactly why he is such a fine close reader of texts. It is also a moment at which his understanding of Shakespearean language seems especially aware of how drama works. The modern post-Stanislavskian actor, keen to fill in subtext and back-story, to find the history of the character in the fragments of self revealed in speech, has no problem seeing in that opacity a set of clues to a particular reading of a role. Whereas Will in the World often seeks to close down interpretation of the plays, narrowing meaning to a single fact, Greenblatt’s idea of “strategic opacity” in Hamlet provocatively opens a space in which meaning is itself open, in which how to read through and into the gaps that Shakespeare has created becomes a crucial question of method, and directly illuminates the play.

2.

For at the heart of the problem of Will in the World is exactly the difficulty of reading out from the plays, especially when his argument is framed as a way of reading into them, of making the external apparent in the words that now survive only on the page. The difficulty is not in any way restricted to Stephen Greenblatt’s work. It is as sharply, though differently, present in Richard Wilson’s extraordinary new book, Secret Shakespeare.1 Wilson has been at the forefront of the movement to apply the work of historians of the Counter-Reformation to Shakespeare, to argue, in brief, that Shakespeare was a “church papist,” a man outwardly conforming to state Protestantism while secretly holding to his particular version of the old faith. Wilson is both extremely well read in the latest scholarship of the ways in which forms of Catholicism survived across England under Elizabeth and James and astonishingly inventive in the ways he reads the evidence into the plays or reads the plays as evidence. When Macbeth waits for the night and the news of the murder of Banquo, Shakespeare gives him a wonderful description of the transition from day to night:

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

(III.2.51–54)

For Wilson the passage cannot simply be the evocation of a natural phenomenon. Instead, noting that Jesuits were often characterized as crows, he sees this as a covert allusion:

In fact, the picture of the Jesuit “black-robe” as a carrion crow was one which Shakespeare would himself use to dissociate from papist terrorism, when he wrote of the evil hour when “the crow/ Makes wing to th’ rooky wood” …in denunciation of the Masses hosted by the conspirator Ambrose Rookwood at Clopton House, near Stratford, in the darkening days before the Gunpowder Plot.

The use of “in fact” says it all, boldly but lamely asserting the truth of this explanation of the passage, one which might conceivably have meaning for the very few people in the London audience of the play who had heard of Rookwood but which would have been incapable of being decoded by anyone else then or since. You would need to have been an extraordinarily alert listener at the Globe Theatre to have caught the reference, a listener as subtle as Richard Wilson himself.

By turns exhilarating and madden- ing—and hence cumulatively unconvincing—Secret Shakespeare depends on an art of reading into the most unprepossessing lines an astonishing density of contemporary allusion. Conspiracy is everywhere in Wilson’s Shake- speare and the critic becomes detective in finding the clues to the hidden codes. In a culture that has become overexcited by The Da Vinci Code or the “truth” behind the assassinations of presidents or the identification of the real author of the plays of Shakespeare, Secret Shakespeare is one more account from the early modern equivalent of the grassy knoll.

The Victorian Shakespeare was, among other things, the sign of the triumph of Elizabethan Protestantism. We know now that the culture was far more complex than that, that the state religious orthodoxy coexisted with pockets of covert but strong Catholic identity, that the settlement Elizabeth achieved was fragile at best, that the state could not impose a single, unified pattern of belief on a society that had lived through too many reversals in the legislation of religious practice. Of course Shakespeare’s work reflects that troubling, unsettled mixture. Greenblatt, by contrast, is rather more aware of just how difficult it is to pin down early modern religious views. When he describes the young Will Shakespeare’s imagined responses to a possible encounter with the Catholic priest Edmund Campion in 1581 he hedges the responses with cautious doubts: “If he actually saw Campion in 1581 Shakespeare would even then have shuddered and recoiled inwardly.”

Exciting though much of the material that Wilson accumulates undoubtedly is, it needs a far more measured approach than he ever offers in order to explain how the plays cope with this religious diversity. The work of Robert Bearman has cast two of the prime pieces of evidence for Shakespeare’s connections to Catholicism deeply in doubt: the likelihood that William Shakespeare was the “William Shakeshafte” referred to in the will of the recusant Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire in 1581 is extremely remote and the long-lost copy of the Spiritual Testament purportedly belonging to John Shakespeare, taken as proof that William’s father stayed committed to Catholicism, now looks most probably an eighteenth-century forgery.2 Though Shakespeare’s own Catholicism will now be widely believed to be proven, especially as a consequence of Michael Wood’s adopting the argument in his BBC/PBS series In Search of Shakespeare, with its accompanying book,3 the academic jury is still out.

And why would it matter anyway? My problem with Wilson’s work is not the inherent improbability of many of the explanations of passages in the plays. Rather, it is the ascription of the decoded, uncovered Catholicism to Shakespeare himself rather than a willingness to see the plays as texts which were open to reading, watching, and interpretation as tolerant of religious dissent in conflicting ways in a conflicted culture. Greenblatt and Wilson read between the works and the biography in ways that militate against the acceptance of the sheer difficulty of such reading. What, in the end, is most perplexing about Will in the World is its reluctance to let the plays exist in the world in a sufficiently multilayered way, to be part of the multiplicity and complexity of the social understanding of meaning.

Will in the World answers the question of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare primarily with respect to Shakespeare’s life. But Greenblatt surely knows full well that there is another way of understanding the title’s implications. Shakespeare also became Shakespeare because of his works’ afterlives, all those manifold ways in which different societies at different times have made their own Shakespeares, have made of Shakespeare not a single universal entity but a historically contingent construction of meaning that works in particular ways within the culture that makes that particular version of Shakespeare. If Shakespeare became Shakespeare largely because of what happened after his death, then Greenblatt’s version of how we are to understand his works is in a fundamental sense an impossible one.

Even if Lieutenant-Colonel Hamley were by accident “right” and Shylock was based on a moneylender in Stratford, the fact of the source would not begin to account for the peculiar potency that Shakespeare’s Jew has had. Even if Robert Greene were the ultimate observable source of Falstaff, that would not explain the hold Falstaff has had on the imaginations of so many different people in different places and times (including most recently and memorably Orson Welles’s and Harold Bloom’s different self-identifications with the role). While Harold Bloom wanted to prove in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human that Shakespeare made us, we are more likely to accept that we made Shakespeare. Greenblatt’s and Wilson’s Shakespeares take their place as their constructions of Shakespeare, their remakings of the writer, in the long line that reaches to the biographers’ equivalent of “th’ crack of doom” to which the line of kings stretches in that appalling vision that the witches show Macbeth.

There will be others, for instance James Shapiro’s study of a single year in Shakespeare’s life, 1599, to be published next year, and promising a genuinely original and fascinating kind of micro-biographical view of the interconnections of many different aspects of early modern society with Shakespeare’s day-by-day life in London. If Shapiro’s work changes our biographical understandings as fully as it promises to achieve, then it will do so by making the breadth of early modern existence appear in ways that the partial views of Greenblatt and Wilson cannot offer. But it will still do so only by drawing on our own various views of Will’s world; it will suggest only a temporary, contemporary way of understanding how Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

  1. 1

    Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance (Manchester University Press, 2004). 

  2. 2

    See Robert Bearman, “‘Was William Shakespeare William Shakeshafte?’ Re-visited,” S hakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 53 (2002), pp. 83–94, and “John Shakespeare’s ‘Spiritual Treatment’: A Reappraisal,” Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 56 (2003), pp. 184–202. 

  3. 3

    Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare (BBC Worldwide, 2003). The television series is available on DVD. 

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