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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Hardcover – September 17, 2004

4.2 out of 5 stars 238 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

There's no shortage of good Shakespearean biographies. But Stephen Greenblatt, brilliant scholar and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, reminds us that the "surviving traces" are "abundant but thin" as to known facts. He acknowledges the paradox of the many biographies spun out of conjecture but then produces a book so persuasive and breathtakingly enjoyable that one wonders what he could have done if the usual stuff of biographical inquiry--memoirs, interviews, manuscripts, and drafts--had been at his disposal. Greenblatt uses the "verbal traces" in Shakespeare's work to take us "back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open." Whenever possible, he also ushers us from the extraordinary life into the luminous work. The result is a marvelous blend of scholarship, insight, observation, and, yes, conjecture--but conjecture always based on the most convincing and inspired reasoning and evidence. Particularly compelling are Greenblatt's discussions of the playwright's relationship with the university wit Robert Greene (discussed as a chief source for the character of Falstaff) and of Hamlet in relation to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, his aging father, and the "world of damaged rituals" that England's Catholics were forced to endure.

Will in the World is not just the life story of the world's most revered writer. It is the story, too, of 16th- and 17th-century England writ large, the story of religious upheaval and political intrigue, of country festivals and brutal public executions, of the court and the theater, of Stratford and London, of martyrdom and recusancy, of witchcraft and magic, of love and death: in short, of the private but engaged William Shakespeare in his remarkable world. Throughout the book, Greenblatt's style is breezy and familiar. He often refers to the poet simply as Will. Yet for all his alacrity of style and the book's accessibility, Will in the World is profoundly erudite, an enormous contribution to the world of Shakespearean letters. --Silvana Tropea

Interview with Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt shares his thoughts about what make Shakespeare Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate us endlessly.

From Publishers Weekly

This much-awaited new biography of the elusive Bard is brilliant in conception, often superb in execution, but sometimes—perhaps inevitably—disappointing in its degree of speculativeness. Bardolators may take this last for granted, but curious lay readers seeking a fully cohesive and convincing life may at times feel the accumulation of "may haves," "might haves" and "could haves" make it difficult to suspend disbelief. Greenblatt's espousing, for instance, of the theory that Shakespeare's "lost" years before arriving in London were spent in Lancashire leads to suppositions that he might have met the Catholic subversive Edmund Campion, and how that might have affected him—and it all rests on one factoid: the bequeathing by a nobleman of some player's items to a William Shakeshafte, who may, plausibly, have been the young Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Norton Shakespeare general editor and New Historicist Greenblatt succeed impressively in locating the man in both his greatest works and the turbulent world in which he lived. With a blend of biography, literary interpretation and history, Greenblatt persuasively analyzes William's father's rise and fall as a public figure in Stratford, which pulled him in both Protestant and Catholic directions and made his eldest son "a master of double consciousness." In a virtuoso display of historical and literary criticism, Greenblatt contrasts Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Elizabeth's unfortunate Sephardic physician—who was executed for conspiracy—and Shakespeare's ambiguous villain Shylock. This wonderful study, built on a lifetime's scholarship and a profound ability to perceive the life within the texts, creates as vivid and full portrait of Shakespeare as we are likely ever to have. 16 pages color illus. not seen by PW.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 386 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (September 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393050572
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393050578
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (238 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #408,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Shakespeare's life is frustratingly beyond our sight. Aside from the plays (which, in many cases, come down to us in different versions), we have a slim scattering of legal documents, marriage and birth records, and vague secondary accounts.

As the world's preeminent Shakespeare scholar, Greenblatt has managed to assemble all these sources and, with a healthy dose of conjecture, arrive at something resembling a biography of the world's greatest dramatist. More than that, though, this work is a biography of the age in which Shakespeare lived and wrote---Elizabethan and Jacobian London---and how the major events of this time affected Shakespeare's plays. For example, the writing of King Lear may have been encouraged by a trial in 1603 in which two sisters tried to have their father declared insane so they could take control of his wealth and estate, while the youngest daughter (named Cordell) tried to stop them---a story uncannily similar to what is considered to be the Bard's greatest tragedy.

What impressed me the most about this biography is how ORDINARY Shakespeare seemingly was. He didn't seem pretentious or snobbish, as some people envision him. He was born to a humble family and lived frugally, despite dying a rather wealthy man.

Although Greenblatt's writing is clear and accessible, he makes the assumption that you have already read Shakespeare's plays, or at least are VERY familiar with them. I have read about two thirds of them and felt a little behind when he discussed plays I hadn't read, so if you haven't read more than, say, ten of his plays, the major ones, you need to crack open the Norton Shakespeare (of which Greenblatt is the editor-in-chief) before you approach Will in the World.
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Format: Hardcover
Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World is a marvelous "biography" of sorts. Greenblatt's world relies as much on what is known about Shakespeare and the world that he lived in. Is it possible that a man without a university education and without serious political connections and wealth could have written the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare? Yes and to assume otherwise would be the same as assuming that Paris Hilton could become the greatest actress of our generation by virtue of the fact that she's wealthy and hangs out a crowd that includes talented artists. Just because you've got social advantages (or disadvantages)doesn't necessarily mean you'll change the world. Greenblatt indirectly creates a compelling argument for Shakespeare as the author of the plays under his name.Great art can appear out of anyone with the talent, desire and opportunity to present it. Greenblatt's biography shows through his cross connections and supposition just how Shakespeare might have evolved into the great playwrite that we, the audience, know and love. By looking at the world that shaped Shakespeare, Greenblatt proposes a world that shaped Shakespeare's writing and helped shape the theatrical world around him as well.

Although Greenblatt bases a lot of his observations and conclusions on deduction and supposition, he makes a lot of intelligent and accurate observations about the world that shaped William Shakespeare. He also, in turn, speculates (sometimes hitting his target and sometimes not)how Shakespeare used the world that formed him to, in turn, form his great works. Are all the conclusions perfect and ironclad?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For any actor playing Shakespeare, the identity of who wrote the plays is really a moot point. You simply can't approach any of his roles with a headful of scholarship & dramaturgy. As for the Bard's true identity---some will say it's Marlowe, some furiously maintain it is the Earl of Oxford. Greenblatt seems content with the glove-maker's son theory. Which is fine by me.

What makes this book a cut above any "biographies" is the fact that Greenblatt is more intent on raising questions than passing any of his well informed suppositions off as fact. And interesting questions they are. For instance, why is Shakespeare's wife virtually left out of his last will & testament? Bequeathing her only a "2nd best bed" after 30+ years of marriage & nothing else? What Greenblatt does here is take what little historical records we have, coupled with the politics of the age & tie them into Shakespeare's work. What emerges is an ever so faint pencil sketch of a shrewd, practically minded opportunist who despite his phenomenal success, sought to call as little attention to his personal affairs as possible. In other words, a deliberate cipher. Someone who took in the the sundry world around him & put it all on display in the conveniently ironic guise of Fiction. But someone who seems to have consciously left little or no record of himself beyond his work. So what little we know may actually reveal more than we think. Greenblatt reminds us what a dangerous time Shakespeare was living in. One had to be extremely cautious lest the celebrity of one's words wind up on the end of a pike on London Bridge. Thoughout it all, Greenblatt wisely never leaves the realm of speculation but does a masterful job of aligning current events alongside Shakespeare's words.
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