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Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Hardcover – 7 Oct 2004
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Why should we read Stephen Greenblatts Will in the World? There have been innumerable biographies of William Shakespeare, but the greatest of all writers remains the great unknowable. We know about the petty business dealings, the death of his son, his career as a man of the theatre, and (of course) the seemingly contemptuous bequeath to Anne Hathaway of his second best bed. But any biographer is left scratching for much more than that--apart, of course, from adducing what can be read of the man's characters from his work (an enterprise fraught with danger). Shakespeare is not Hamlet, Lear or Benedict--though, of course, he is also, in a real sense, all three.
What makes Greenblatt's account the most valuable in many years (literally so, since famously massive advances were paid for it) is the synthesis of incisive scholarship, immense enthusiasm for the subject and an unparalleled ability to conjure up the Elizabethan world with colour and veracity. If the author's conclusion's about the genius at the centre of his narrative are open to question, Will in the World is none the worse for that--Greenblatt enjoys provoking the reader, and the result is an energetic conjuring of a brilliant man and those around him (Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson are evoked with enviable skill, as are such figures as the prototype for Falstaff, Robert Green).
With something of the vigour of the Bards writing, Greenblatt takes us through the bawdy, teeming Bankside district (centuries before it became a tourist destination), and the Machiavellian, dangerous world of the court--in fact, all the splendour and misery of the Elizabethan age--and at the centre of it all, its greatest artist. The Will we meet here may owe much to Greenblatts very personal interpretation, but the portrait is fascinating.--Barry Forshaw
The most complexly intelligent and sophisticated, and yet the most keenly enthusiastic, study of the life that I have ever read -- Adam Gopnik's 6-page review in the New Yorker (the 1st review)See all Product description
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I have read a few other popular biographies on Shakespeare including the popular biography by Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare, written in 1970 and the 2003 book by Frank Kermode The Age of Shakespeare. These are aimed at average readers and they are both relatively easy to read and both give some insights into the man and his times. The latter book is similar in goals to the present book but it is much shorter and has a more awkward writing style than the present book.
The present book is far above these two earlier popular books, both in detail, information, insights, and ease of reading. Also, the bibliography at the rear that must contain at least 200 other references. The bibliography is in a "notes" format, it is about 16 pages long, and includes many comments and opinions by the author.
The outstanding feature of the present book is that it is very rich in detail and the author is able to interpret many things in Shakespeare's personal life by working backwards from phrases, characters, religious references, school references, alcohol, etc found in his plays and other writings. Following a rough chronological sequence, the author makes the link to Shakespeare's off stage life, including his father, his childhood, religion, later his children, business, marriage, etc.
Many readers will appreciate the book for all its detail. It has a lot of detail and photographs in the almost 400 pages. But the book is a lot more than just detail. It interprets the plays and gives meaning and interpretation to the passages and presents us with ideas on how Shakespeare decided to write a certain passage or why a certain character is in the play, or why they have a certain demeanor, or phrase, or word, or line and why the actor is dressed a certain way or acts in a certain fashion, and how they are connected to external events.
For example, and this must be just one of at least one hundred or two hundred comments and connections, the author explains that lurking in Shakespeare's subconscious are likely many thoughts on his father, the former mayor and powerful Stratford figure who later in life becomes a failure eventually succumbs to financial pressures and must sell off his wife's family farm properties to stay solvent, or simply to make end meets, or to buy alcohol. The following is one of many connections to those thoughts of his father, and his failings as a person. This is typical of Greenblatt's writing and style in the book.
After the author explains the connection he quotes (sometimes two or three different plays - but here one for example):
"God save thee, my sweet boy" says the father figure Falstaff to the young Hal
"Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
(2 Henry IV, 5.5.41, 45-49).
For myself that is a clear explanation that almost anyone can understand, and it is typical of the clarity found in the book. This type of example is repeated over and over again and make up the theme of the book, that is, a series of connections and discussions and comments linking Shakespeares creative writing to the possible sources of inspiration in his background and family.
The book has received a number of outstanding book reviews from Shakespeare experts, artistic directors, professional book reviewers, etc. When you read the book you will understand the attraction of the book. It is easy to read, very easy to read, surprisingly easy to read, but it is also a complicated and well thought book that will delight a broad cross section of readers each with different levels of knowledge about the plays, the man, and his times.
Well, I will make two cases for the merits of this book, but neither of them has anything to do with the book's claim to be a biography of Shakespeare. On that front it is pretty dreadful: there is a great deal we don't know, and to fill this much space with so little hard evidence requires a good deal of creative thinking to say the least.
However, this book does provide two very useful services. On the one hand it gives an engaging and lively account of the social and intellectual milieu in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, and on the other, it gives a useful introduction to the primary concerns of Shakespeare's work, grounded in a deep understanding of the culture in which they were produced. As such, it will be of use to a great many readers, from students of Shakespeare as an engaging starting point (to be given a good intellectual kicking later), to amateur readers looking for some up-to-date scholarship that is not couched in language which revels in its own obscurantism. If you want either of these, then this is a good book. It will not tell you what Shakespeare thought of his wife, because, to be honest, we'll never know.
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