Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.
It is worth mentioning that writing about this particular imaginative genius requires the biographer to call upon colossal reserves of his own imagination! Speculation. It is as if to know about the man who wrote the immortal lines, one must read between them. The sparcity of source documentation regarding Shakespeare’s life would send anyone less hardy than Greenblatt running for other topics to ponder! Other books to write. But Greenblatt wrote this one. And man, the result is fine.
He has succeeded in sifting through a wealth of incidental knowledge and historically-based inference to provide any attentive reader with a coherent, chronological life of the Bard that reads like an epic novel.
Is every shred of it factual and unable to be presented in a different light?
No biography is.
But such is perhaps especially the case with Shakespeare, extant documentation being as fragmentary as it is. In uncountable details he will forever be a mystery, but what a blasted good interpretation Greenblatt has given us here.
Everywhere, and by that I mean on practically every page of these 390, the author employs phrases such as “it seems likely that,” or “this being the case, Shakespeare would have,” or “Then, sometime in the mid 1580’s,” or “it is possible that hints may lie...” in order to get the point across. In this sense, there is nothing positively dishonest in these pages, but rather, we see an almost constant reference to the author’s need to be speculative.
His method is to begin each chapter with some bare-bones or otherwise undisputed sort of “fact” [if you will] and then proceed onward, enfleshing this skeleton with the sinew and muscle of corroborating evidence.
Is some of it hearsay?
But for me, [someone who is convinced that being any sort of Shakespearean purist is a waste of time], I just merrily flip the pages, reading like a voracious tiger. And tiger-like, blissfully oblivious of what I do not know. When it comes to Will-ology, if someone like Harold Bloom is frustrated “not because we do not know enough, but because there is not enough to know…” then, surely to God, I myself am not going to lose any sleep over the issue of Bard-bio accuracy!
Greenblatt’s Shakespeare emerges as a man capable of forming the most passionate love stories and poems, while he himself endures an unhappy marriage, and enjoys few amorous adventures. Here is a man who creates the raucous Falstaff, and is himself not necessarily the life of the party. A man who associates with the greatest revelers of his day, and yet does not seem to succumb to the same depths of debauchery and criminal low-dealings as did they. A man who rose from ignoble beginnings to the heights of fame, success, and riches. An enigma in so many ways, from start to finish. The glovemaker's son, destined to command entire sections of modern-day bookstores, four centuries on. That is who you meet here.
I could go on and on about specifics of the book, but I won’t. There are many synopses you can find that would be better than mine. Perhaps the most useful thing I can say is that reading literary biography can be about as exciting as eating a bowl of dust. This book was not like that at all. It was exciting, and engaging, from page one to 390. And fun.
Not that I’ve read very many, but for now I am going to conclude that this is the best book about Will.
In the world!
Some former words on the subject...