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Customer Review

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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