Shakespeare in the Imagination

Will in the WorldCan you infer anything about a writer’s biography from what he or she has written?  As a writer of fiction, I have to say, yes you can make valid inferences at a high level of abstraction, but no, you can’t infer much about specific experience. I write literary fiction, mysteries, and science fiction even though I’ve never shot anyone, met a space alien or lived in the nineteenth century.  Non-writers of fiction may underestimate the power of imagination. Writers of fiction make stuff up and then convince you it could be true. That’s the job.

On the other hand, all fiction is to some extent autobiographical. The characters and the motives that interest me are expressions of my life and times. I am not wracked with doubt over whether Catholicism or Protestantism is the true religion. I don’t worry much about witches casting spells on me or anyone else. I write and think in the language I inherited and I assume a certain physical and social reality that is hard to escape. So I necessarily do express myself in my work.

Greenblatt, one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars in the world, imagines that he can infer a lot of detailed information about Shakespeare’s life, mind and attitudes from his plays and sonnets, and I find that that thesis unconvincing and undemonstrated by the book.

The historical record on the life of William Shakespeare is remarkably sparse and the few fragments of information that survive have been dissected in excruciating detail since the first biographies of the bard began to be written in the 1600’s. Historians have scoured every particle of Shakespeare’s life and times and everyone who lived anywhere near him. There is nothing new to add to the historical record. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing new to say.

Greenblatt’s contribution is to take his vast knowledge of Shakespeare scholarship (15 pages of detailed and annotated bibliographical notes), and his thorough knowledge of the body of Shakespeare’s work (he has written and edited many books on the subject), and combine those into an exercise of the imagination. The book is not a story of how it was, but a fantasy on how it might have been. The reader is invited to imagine Shakespeare’s life and, as the subtitle says, “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” (It should have been, “How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.”)  I think it is a worthy project that Greenblatt is uniquely qualified to undertake, and read in the right spirit, the book can be fascinating.

Plenty of history and biography in the text is interesting if tangential, especially for the non-specialist. I was interested to learn about the filth and crudity of life in London at that time, the economics and beliefs, the religious tensions, the clothing and food, and how theater was conducted and enjoyed. For example, it used to be that after a performance, the actors would take their hats in hand to the audience, asking for pennies. A huge innovation was to charge a penny at the door. Many theater-goers objected. “Why should I pay when the play could turn out to be no good? It’s unreasonable!”

Greenblatt’s story is roughly chronological, starting with Shakespeare’s early life in a rural village and his shotgun marriage to Ann Hathaway. In the 1580’s young Will, perhaps seventeen, a barely educated country bumpkin, suddenly abandons Ann and the twins, rides to London and very quickly becomes the greatest poet and playwright of all time. The main challenge to Greenblatt is to answer the question, how was that possible? His answer is that Shakespeare had an immensely strong imagination.

For me, that answer commits a logical fallacy called “assuming the consequent”: Shakespeare was, in fact, the greatest playwright of his time, therefore he must have possessed an extraordinary imagination despite his humble background and meagre education.  The problem is, there is no independent information to suggest that Shakespeare had extraordinary talent. We can only conclude that he “must have had.” Greenblatt constructs a fanciful history for Shakespeare in which his father took him to plays from which he learned “how to do it.” Even if true, would that have been sufficient? I am skeptical.

Greenblatt notes that nowhere in all of Shakespeare’s plays do we see a happy marriage. In every case where marriage is depicted it is one of strain, tension, and often bloody murder. That must indicate, Greenblatt speculates, that Shakespeare’s marriage to Ann was miserable.  That’s a thin thread to pull on, in my opinion. More likely is the possibility that Will soon discovered he was gay and bolted. Greenblatt allows later, in discussing the sonnets, that Will might have been gay, but doesn’t draw any far-reaching implications (male homosexuality between an older patron and a boy was widely practiced and tolerated, as it had been since classical times).

Some of Greenblatt’s fanciful speculations are more convincing than others. For example, he makes a fairly good case that the anti-Semitic themes found in The Merchant of Venice reflect attitudes prevalent in Elizabethan society, even while acknowledging that there were virtually no Jews in London at the time, following an earlier expulsion.

The best chapter is perhaps on Hamlet, in which the author speculates that Shakespeare’s “radical” (as he calls it) turn to interiority, as in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” was motivated by both Shakespeare’s father’s imminent or recent death and by the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, a decade earlier. To me, it’s a plausible speculation.

This is a purely fanciful book, not a proper biography or history, so you have to come to it with appropriate expectations. As a work of creative non-fiction, I found it mildly interesting. I would have enjoyed mention of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and powerful member of Elizabeth’s court. Some revisionists suggest that de Vere was the author, in whole or in part, of Shakespeare’s work and that Shakespeare was merely the well-compensated front-man. I don’t buy the grand conspiracy and cover-up story that Shakespeare = de Vere, but it seems likely to me that there is more to William Shakespeare’s biography than Greenblatt’s invocation of an “immensely strong imagination.”

Surprisingly, Will in the World won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist.  It includes 16 pages of illustrations (black-and-white in the paperback edition).

Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Simon and Schuster. 430 pp.

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