Magazine article The Spectator

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Magazine article The Spectator

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Article excerpt

Will-o'-the wisp for ever WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE by Stephen Greenblatt Cape, £20, pp. 320, ISBN 022406276X £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Literary biographies almost always disappoint. Instinctively, we want to learn all we can about individuals whose creations have moved us, and with and through which we have lived. Time and again a writer's own behaviour proves not only to have been not only much less admirable than that of his persona or characters but also much less interesting. In this sense, Greenblatt's decision to conclude his study with the statement that Shakespeare was 'determined to end his days ... within the boundaries of the everyday' serves as a preemptive strike. If the records show a Shakespeare who was somewhat commonplace, even a bit of a bore, let him at least have desired strongly to become such a man.

Earlier in the book Greenblatt attributes some inner musings to his hero of staggering banality: 'He must have said to himself something like "You are not in Stratford any more" or "Whatever else I am ... I am not Marlowe." ' Despite Shakespeare's exceptional brilliance in articulating emotions of great complexity - or, as I Greenblatt has it, 'opacity' - his biographers have to face a deficit of extra-literary expressions of tender feeling.

The last major document, the will, is notable both for negative emotions, such as bequests to old friends struck out, and a lack of endearments. Even his elder daughter fails to rate a 'dear' or a 'loving'. Famously, his wife nearly got left out altogether. Yet we do know from Thomas Heywood in 1612 that Shakespeare was very angry with a printer who had pirated some of his poems, and from his 'cousin' Thomas Greene in 1613 that he refused to worry about the plight of the Stratford poor should more common land be enclosed for pasture. As all biographers must to some extent do, Greenblatt copes with the absence of personal documents by means of quasi-novelistic speculation. For instance, we know nothing whatsoever about Shakespeare's reaction to the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet in August 1596. On p. 289 Greenblatt remarks that 'the father presumably saw his son buried'. Actually, he may not have done, for it could have taken three or four days for the news to reach him in London, and a further three or four days to travel to Stratford, by which time the burial had probably taken place. However, on p. 312 Greenblatt tells us that 'Shakespeare undoubtedly returned to Stratford ... for his son's funeral'. …

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