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on 11 January 2014
Clear, succinct and one of the best books on Shakespeare. Great for anyone with an interest in the Bard of Stratford.
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on 5 November 2004
This is a strongly written, thoughtful, sometimes a little too conjectural study of Shakespeare by one of the pioneers of New Historicism. Greenblatt understands the Renaissance milieu superbly, which allows plenty of valuable insights into the background to the plays, such as his knowledge of the glove trade and his Catholic sympathies. There are perceptive readings of the plays, but this is a book that visualizes Shakespeare as a person, rather than just as the mind behind a canon of texts. The chief value of the book is in its grasp of the relationship between the plays and the Elizabethan and Jacobean world.
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on 9 August 2005
Greenblatt's approach is to take the life of Shakespeare, about which we know so much less than we'd like to, and allow himself to speculate, based on his knowledge of the times and Shakespeare's works, in order to flesh out the bare-bones story.

In some cases this works, in others it doesn't. For me the most exciting chapters dealt with Shakespeare's being involved in the pellmell world of Elizabethan playwriting. When Shakespeare arrived in London to begin his career as a writer, he found himself caught up in a revolution in stage-craft, led by a group of Oxford wits, foremost among them being Marlowe, the inventor of the "mighty line". Greenblatt speculates on how Shakespeare, not university educated, would have fit in with this crowd first as an interesting newcomer, then as something of an upstart whose talent offended those (like Robert Greene) who were so obviously inferior to him.

A chapter that didn't work for me, on the other hand, was the one on Shakespeare's marriage. Greenblatt concludes, from evidence in the plays, that Shakespeare's marriage was an unhappy one. The trouble is, to make his point, Greenblatt has to ignore any alternative interpretations, and so although he admits he is speculating, there is no real feel that he is covering all the options. For instance, Greenblatt damns Shakespeare's infamous final will (in which he leaves his wife his second-best bed), without considering the alternative interpretation that this was a common occurrence for the time, the second-best bed being the one they had shared throughout their married life, as the best one was left for guests.

This is certainly not an exhaustive survey of Shakespeare's life. It stands back and considers Shakespeare the man, focusing only on those details which throw light on certain aspects of his character. This makes it a good read to add to other readings about Shakespeare, but certainly not "the best one-volume life of Shakespeare yet", as quoted on the cover.
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on 13 January 2005
This book manages to be both an easy read for average readers plus appeals to Shakespeare experts. It is not necessary to read Shakespeare's plays to understand the present book - although the book motivates one in the direction of seeing them again or for the for the first time - but few books combine the present level of insight with the easy to read popular writing style as found here.
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
Hal replies:
"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.
5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 9 October 2008
This book has been very well reviewed several times, with many people coming to different conclusions. Some are very enthusiastic for the book's lively style, and others find that same style itself a hindrance, encouraging Greenblatt to reach conclusions that are little better than idle conjecture. So what's left to say?

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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 September 2006
"Will In The World" draws the reader into the fascinating world of William Shakespeare. Drawing on the scanty information known about the Bard, author Stephen Greenblatt constructs the skeleton of a biography on which to anchor his book. He then proceeds to flesh out his work with inferences from things known about Shakespeare's world as well as insights from his work. Much of this work is speculation, but Oh, such enthralling speculation! We will never know whether characters and events in his plays reflect

Shakespeare's own life and thought, but they make for fascinating thinking. Greenblatt presents his theories as to Shakespeare's religion, relationships with his wife, other playwrights and several individuals known or suspected to have crossed his paths. From time to time the reader must remind himself that much of this book may or may not be true, but then set aside his admonitions and go on enjoying it!

This book is a great read for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or the daily and cultural life of Elizabethan England.
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on 5 February 2008
I would agree with the reviews above. This is a very fine book that would serve anyone apporoaching a serious engagement with Shakespeare's play for the first time very well indeed.

Greenblatt is a major figure in late 20th century criticism, with his 'Renaissance Self-Fashioning' being a foundation text of the much vaunted (and to my mind highly necessary) New Historicist perspective.

It's good to see that the chapter of this book that focuses on Hamlet draws deeply on Greenblatt's book 'Hamlet in Purgatory' which shows the depth of Greenblatt's perception of the 16th century mind.

This is a very refreshingly unsentimental biography of Shakespeare. Sound textual evidence and common sense readings illuminate the probable reality of the greatest writer Western civilization has ever produced: a lovless marriage, a cheery father seeking refuge in drink as his business collapsed; a homoerotic relationship with a young arisotcrat; a sound businessman with an eye to his retirement; a retired writer seeking refuge in the complexities and disappointments of his daughter's marriage.

I do have a real love for Michael Wood's command of detail and his boundless enthusiasm - (Grenblatt's spare but superb bibliography gives Wood a distinct nod) but this is the work of a critic at the pinnacle of his skill, and is a masterly act of synthesis. Given to a receptive reader, this book could trigger a lifetime enthusiasm for the 'real' Shakespeare.
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VINE VOICEon 9 November 2010
Biographies of Shakespeare that are both enthralling and (relatively) fiction-free are understandably rare. When done well, however, they add exhilarating new dimensions. Greenblatt's Will in the World joins Bate's Soul of the Age as a scholarly and inspiring contender for the 'definitive' biography for our times prize. Readers looking for a biography that does more than simply retread the familiar documentary path and which tries to find some compelling connection between the life and work should take note.

This biography is particularly valuable for the light it sheds on the 'university wits' that Shakespeare would have encountered in London at the end of the 1580s, and for the possible influence upon his work that such a dangerous, talented, élitist and arrogant coterie may have had. Chief amongst these writers were Nashe, Peele, Watson, Marlowe and, above all, Robert Greene. Ever sensitive to slights Shakespeare, as a non-university man and a 'base' actor, may well have felt excluded from such company. In any case, Greenblatt speculates that Greene's slighting reference to Shakespeare (as an 'upstart crow beautified with our feathers') may have been the result of a death-bed request for money from the Stratford man. Such a request, he conjectures, was declined, hence the barbed comment in his posthumously published pamphlet. More interestingly still, Greenblatt than goes on to suggest that Shakespeare's ultimate revenge on Greene was not so much Polonius' jibe in Hamlet ('beautified is a vile phrase') as the character creation of Falstaff which, based primarily on the larger-than-life Greene himself, helped cement Shakespeare's reputation as the pre-eminent playwright of his day, eclipsing all of the university wits - most of whom had met violent or squalidly impovershed ends by 1595 anyway.

Greenblatt extends Jonathan Bate's idea (outlined in The Genius of Shakespeare, 1998) that Shakespeare deliberately diluted the motivation of characters he took from his sources in order to make his characters more enigmatic and kaleidoscopic. This 'excision of motive' and the creation of the 'dark hole' within the core of protagonists like Othello and Hamlet and within the action of King Lear, he thinks, led to the emergence of a new kind of character and a new kind of theatre. The great tragedies expressed Shakespeare's understanding of what should be said and what should be left unsaid. Shakespeare's preference was for opacity and untidiness, not neatness or resolution.

More objective biographies - like those of Park Honan and Samuel Schoenbaum - are worthy enough, but this one convincingly puts flesh on those all too bare bones in the crypt at Holy Trinity.
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VINE VOICEon 25 May 2006
As someone fascinated by the Shakespeare authorship question I enjoyed Greenblatt's attempt to flesh out the emotional life of the Stratford man, his motivations political, romantic and literary. While the Michael Woods and Anthony Holden biographies are very readable, I thought Greenblatt did a better job of getting under the skin of his subject. Of course he has to admit that there is a lot of speculation and his analysis of the sonnets is a little weak, as well as his unconvincing portrait of Mrs Anne Shakespeare and the playwright's immediate family. However there is a lot of interesting and credible speculation about the effects of the cultural and political climate under Elizabeth and James on Shakespeare's career and the author meshes the themes of the great plays well with what is known about the Bard's life events. Nothing new then and many questions remain unanswered but a few fascinating glimpses of the man behind the mask.
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on 7 February 2005
Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed Michael Wood's book that accompanied his BBC documentary entitled "In Search of Shakespeare", I was of the opinion that, as a biography of the Bard, it could not be bettered.I was wrong.
This book by the Harvard professor is a rich, encyclopaedic treasure house that analyses each significant detail about Will's life and produces a portrait of a complex but entirely credible character.
Where there is supposition, you can rely on Greenblatt's background knowledge to bring you, at the very least, a plausible explanation. A case in point is his examination of the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne - an analysis that will not please any romantics.
In addition, there is a clear look at the contentious and endlessly analysed relationship between Southampton and the Bard.
I found myself looking forward to picking up the book so that I could resume the pleasure of following Shakespeare in the company of a biographer who, one feels, is in command of his material.
It may interest anyone who reads this to learn that Tony Bennet (yes, the veteran American singer) was asked in an interview for a Sunday supplement what book he was reading at the time. His answer was "Will in the World", and he was enjoying it so much that he had decided to start reading it once again immediately upon finishing!
And in a review in the "Mail on Sunday" (Feb. 6th 2005) Roger Lewis had this to say at the end:"....possibly the best all-round biography of Shakespeare we have had for a hundred years". Now what about that for a compliment? (And he gave it 5 stars.)
One final snippet of information: Peter Ackroyd is completing a biography of Shakespeare (for Chatto, I think) which is due out in October. That should be quite something, especially as Mr.Ackroyd is given to producing books of such staggering detail and length. My hard-backed copy of his biography of Charles Dickens weighs in at a hefty 3lbs 12ozs. I am preparing for his Shakespeare by visiting the gym!
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