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Bardolatry made easy.

Stephen Greenblatt Will in the World. W. W. Norton, 386 pages, $26.95

Who among us hasn't read, heard, or uttered the complaint, "Isn't it too bad that we know so little about the life of Shakespeare?" Actually, we know more about Shakespeare than about most of his contemporary playwrights; new biographies of him keep appearing, some of them even yielding new facts or insights. Recently, there has been Peter Levi's Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, Ian Wilson's Shakespeare: The Evidence, I. L. Matus's Shakespeare in Fact, Stanley Wells's Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life, Garry O'Connor's William Shakespeare: A Popular Life, and, a little more tangentially, Frank Kermode's Age of Shakespeare. Now comes Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, which has been garnering mostly enthusiastic reviews and has been crowned by The New York Times Book Review one of the ten best of 2004, helping it to become a bestseller.

Will in the World is indeed a very clever book, which is meant half as praise, half not. Its 390 pages of text are smartly unencumbered with flyspeck-like numerals referring you to footnotes or endnotes that are often of negligible interest. It does contain a further sixteen pages of "Bibliographical Notes," but these, by their very designation, absolve the nonacademic reader from consulting them.

Above all, there is Greenblatt's style: breezy, almost conversational, not unlike that of a current fiction bestseller, which in a sense it is. What distinguishes the book, for better or worse, is its freedom to be as supposititious as it pleases. I estimate it to be 10 percent hard fact, 15 percent interesting but not strictly relevant facts (about the era, not the man), 5 percent soft facts (e.g., Shakespeare's famously leaving his wife his second-best bed, whose exact significance has been endlessly debated, but cannot be conclusively resolved), and 70 percent supposition--intelligent, frequently shrewd, but still only guesswork.

Such pseudo-facts are always prefaced with a small, graceful disclaimer, but if a conjecture is developed in great detail and often enough repeated--and if the author is the Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, as well as the editor of the Norton Shakespeare and the author of a number of books (among them the enticingly titled Hamlet in Purgatory)--nothing is easier than to fall under its sway. Such background knowledge, general erudition, and affably insinuating ways begin, at 400 pages, to smack of gospel truth.

Consider only the savvy title, "Will in the World": this author is on intimate terms with his subject (Will) and his interaction with his era and history (the world), insights extending no doubt even to our world. Here may be truths going beyond strict biography. Now for the subtitle, "How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare": instructing us on how one becomes a legend--a popular brandname, The Bard--encrusted with myth and echoing ever more loudly down the ages. Transcendence, if you will, for Will. So this book, largely a tissue of pleasant fabrications, worms its way into plausibility, encouraging easy leaps from credibility into credence. And perhaps there is nothing all that shady about this, when we consider how much of history, the farther back we go, is based on questionable testimony and outright invention. As Jonathan Shaw puts it in "The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare;' his celebratory article in the Harvard Magazine about the book and its author, Greenblatt is "the founder of a critical approach to literature known as New Historicism [and] has spent 40 years in scholarly study of the period's history, sociology, and anthropology." But does this make him the inventor of a New Historicism? Or is it just the old historicism recycled after the mauvais quart d'heure of structuralism and semiotics?

There are huge questions to grapple with in Shakespeare biography. How did the provincial glovemaker's son manage, with no more than a grammar-school education, to know that much? (Forget about ascribing authorship to others; as an inadvertently pertinent schoolboy blunder once put it, "The plays of William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare or another man of that name.") Was he a secret Catholic? (Greenblatt fantasizes a whole session for Will with Edward Campion, the Jesuit martyr.) Did Will marry at eighteen the undistinguished and eight-years-older Anne Hathaway because he got her pregnant? What did he do during the so-called "lost years" from 1585 to 1592, between his leaving Stratford and arriving in London? Was he that William Shakeshafte, a household employee in Lancashire with one or two families of Catholic sympathizers? Once in London, how much of a relationship did he maintain with his wife, son, and two daughters in Stratford? Was the effeminately beautiful Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, also the Mr. W. H., dedicatee of the sonnets? And was he likewise the male love object of those sonnets? And who was the female beloved, the Dark Lady? Or were they both figments of a sonneteer's fantasy? Or was Shakespeare, actively or literarily, bisexual?

Further, how could the fairly inauspicious early work lead to the later sublime heights? And why, without his powers perspicuously falling off, did Shakespeare retire to Stratford? And, most pertinently, how much autobiography can be read out of--or into--the plays and poems? Again, why do we have only a few signatures in his handwriting, plus, perhaps, the so-called "Hand D" in the collaborative manuscript of the censored and never-produced play about Sir Thomas More? Moreover, why have the few pictorial or sculptural likenesses of Shakespeare been contested as unreliable? (Granted, they make him look uncharismatic.) Lastly, what of Shakespeare's will, in which the wife and younger daughter, Judith, inherit so little, and the older daughter, Susanna, so much?

Greenblatt does come up with putative answers to such questions, but all, inescapably, are conjectural. Well-informed guesses as they are, based on decades of scholarly pursuit and a lively imagination, they nevertheless reek of oversell. "Among more recent biographies" Greenblatt writes in a note, "the most thorough, informative, and steadily thoughtful is Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1998), which I have frequently consulted." It thus behooves us to compare how Greenblatt and Honan treat a particular incident.

As Greenblatt writes, the climax of Queen Elizabeth's 1575 progress was a nineteen-day stay at Kenilworth, some twelve miles north of Stratford, the castle of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. But, as Greenblatt concedes, the poet's father, John Shakespeare, was a mere alderman, too insignificant "to have got very close, in all likelihood, to the elaborate entertainments that were staged for the queen." Yet he avers, "it is certainly conceivable that he took his son Will to glimpse what they could of the spectacles" and he squeezes seven continuous pages, plus scattered references, out of describing some of the various Kenilworth offerings, and drawing parallels between them and passages in Shakespeare's plays. Then, however, he has to admit that they might have been as readily derived from published accounts, rather than, as he would prefer to think, from the eleven-year-old boy exulting amid the ecstatic crowd.

Conversely, Honan devotes less than half a page to the Kenilworth event, starting with, "There is no evidence that [John Shakespeare] went afield for reasons other than business or the law, or that he took William ... to the royal entertainments at Kenilworth" Still, Honan says, as does Greenblatt, the boy may have merely heard an account of those goings-on. In short, Honan makes much less of this possible biographical datum, and so, too, of much else. His speculations are much more succinct, and more openly conjectural, than Greenblatt's.

Greenblatt's method is often dubious even when dealing with critical rather than biographical matters. He can be, to be sure, perceptive, as in his discussion of the Shakespearean soliloquy, which evolves in the plays towards greater, psychologically telling inwardness. He also discusses the number of new words with which Shakespeare has enriched the English vocabulary. What has been hailed as the book's greatest critical contribution, however, is rather more specious, even if hailed by, among others, Peter Holland, in The New York Review of Books.

Greenblatt's alleged discovery is that Will
 found that he could immeasurably deepen the
 effect of his plays, that he could provoke in his
 audience and himself a peculiarly passionate
 intensity of response if he took out the
 key explanatory element, thereby occluding the
 rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that
 accounted for the action that was to unfold.
 The principle was not the making of a riddle to
 be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity.
 This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an
 enormous energy that had been at least partially
 [more properly, partly] blocked or contained
 by familiar reassuring explanations.

This is what some, like the overzealous Jonathan Shaw, have called "perhaps the most interesting assertion Greenblatt makes ... that there is a relationship between events in Shakespeare's personal life--including the death of his eleven-year-old son Hamnet, whom he effectively abandoned when he moved to London, and the impending death of his own father--and an aesthetic strategy that appears in his plays after 1601." Even Holland, who dismisses Greenblatt's argument that the bibulous playwright Robert Greene and the alleged toping of John Shakespeare were the models for Falstaff, concedes,
 This definition of technique, which Greenblatt
 calls "strategic opacity"--and which he
 finds in Othello and Lear as well [as in
 Hamlet]--shows exactly why he is such a fine
 close reader of texts. It is also a moment at
 which his understanding of Shakespearean
 language seems especially aware of how drama
 works.... Whereas Will in the World often
 seeks to close down interpretation of the
 plays, narrowing meaning to a single fact,
 Greenblatt's idea of "strategic opacity" in
 Hamlet provocatively opens a space in which
 meaning is itself open, in which how to read
 through and into the gaps that Shakespeare
 has created becomes a crucial question of
 method, and directly illuminates the play.

Even if we accept this, it has much more to do with criticism than with biography, though I find it doubtful even as the former. Too much is being made of allegedly planned gaps in the plays. It seems to me that Shakespeare was in some cases a bit sloppy, as, in different contexts, numerous critics have pointed out. In other cases, he was merely uninterested in the Why, and in haste to get to the What and How. Iago's explanation of his hatred for Othello, whom he believes to have cuckolded him, is indeed rather too perfunctory and far-fetched for the ensign's so-called "motiveless malignity," Cordelia's refusal to gush about her father may also be somewhat underdeveloped. But the playwright's eagerness to get on with his main story may be a sufficient albeit mundane rationale for what is grandiosely labeled "strategic opacity."

And Hamlet? Greenblatt asserts, "Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, [Shakespeare] fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions." Granting all this, we still remain unconfronted by any serious opacity, nor do we really see any "enigma of the prince's suicidal melancholy and assumed madness?' No matter how much critical ink has been wantonly expended over the centuries about these matters, the assumed madness is a manifest strategy sufficiently explained by the text; the melancholy is simply one of the four temperaments the age believed in (nowadays, we would call it depression), and there is no earthly reason why Hamlet, like so many Scandinavians and a good many others, should not suffer from it. Assuredly Shakespeare had an "inner structure," but I don't see much evidence of his "tearing away the structure of superficial meanings," beyond the fact that, as in all good drama, character matters and, ultimately, becomes plot.

But even in the writing there is a troubling element. Why does Greenblatt refer to Plautus's Menaechmi as Menaechmuses? (As an analogy, perhaps, with platipuses?) Why the misuse of "anxious" for eager, and the repeated "from whence," normal enough for Shakespeare's uncodified times, but pleonastic for ours? We also get "different than," the grating repetition of "deeply marked" and "deeply skeptical" within two lines, the self-contradictory "near-universal consensus," the nonagreeing "to the ordinary degree of hazard ... was [sic] conjoined the ravages of epidemic disease," the uncalled-for British "e" in "bingeing." Also the solecistic "mutual acquaintance"; "the companies were not large enough to exempt one of its [sic] named actors"; and, most disturbingly from a University Professor at Harvard, "Richard ... lay about him with a broomstick."

One of Greenblatt's interesting but unsubstantiated contentions is that even though King James, a believer in witchcraft, ordered the burning of all copies of Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft, a skeptical and remarkably enlightened response to this superstition, Shakespeare seems to have got hold of a copy and put it to use in Macbeth. Now although the use of the witches in the play has been much debated, they do concoct spells and exhibit uncanny clairvoyance. That strikes me as witchcraft enough, even if it does not challenge such arguments as Scot's about the impossibility, pace Lucian, of witches' transforming a man into a donkey or giving him an ass's head (think of Bottom). I find the following in my cherished reprint of Scot's book: "The bodie of man is subject to divers kinds of agues, sicknesses, and infirmities whereunto an asses bodie is not inclined: and mans bodie must be fed with bread & c.; and not with hay?' It seems to me that Greenblatt tries to feed his readers an awful lot of hay, digestible only for his kind.
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Author:Simon, John
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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