Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice

Books

October 03, 2004|By Michael Ollove

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Green-blatt. W.W. Norton. 384 pages. $26.95.

He put words to our tenderest yearnings and to our darkest desires, yet the eternal frustration about our greatest writer is the paucity of information William Shake-speare left about himself. No journals, no letters, no diaries exist that satisfy our curiosity about the life of our most revered chronicler of human endeavor.

As well, there are barely any contemporary accounts of him either. We are left mainly with legal documents pertaining to Shakespeare and his family -- birth and death announcements, legal documents, real-estate transactions.

And, of course, the rich record of his plays and sonnets, which Harvard Renais-sance scholar Stephen Green-blatt mines to create a shaft leading back to the living, breathing, vibrant Shake-speare. But Greenblatt also travels from the little that is known about Shakespeare and the much known of his place and time to illuminate his writings. It is an elegant work of scholarship, imagination and -- it's got to be acknowledged -- speculation. But always fascinating.

Take for instance Green-blatt's depiction of Shake-speare's marriage to Anne Hathaway, from whom the writer lived mostly apart. Greenblatt assumes the union unfulfilling -- one piece of evidence is that in his will, the prosperous Shakespeare left Anne only their "second best bed." That marital unhappiness, Greenblatt contends, is reflected in Shakespeare's almost wholly unflattering depiction of marriage in play after play.

"There is no end of longing, flirtation, and pursuit, but strikingly little long-term pro-mise of mutual understanding." The lone exceptions are, in Green-blatt's view, "unnervingly strange" -- Claudius, who kills his brother to marry his sister-in-law Gertrude in Hamlet and the murderous Macbeths.

Shakespeare lived in dangerous times of anti-Catholic persecution, palace intrigue, and routine public beheadings. Greenblatt portrays the insatiable Shakespeare as appropriating these events but, through his transcendent literature, making them entirely his own. In the process, Green-blatt restores to us a man of singular acuity who was irresistibly "drawn to the world."

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