Arts & Culture

Greenblatt teases out a knowable Shakespeare

6 min read

Scholar finesses many views of Bard into a discernible portrait

Some years ago, before Stephen Greenblatt made the move from Berkeley to Harvard, a screenwriter named Marc Norman came to see him. Norman wanted to write a screenplay about William Shakespeare and had come to interview Greenblatt about the playwright’s life.

“I discouraged him,” Greenblatt said with a shrug. “I told him I didn’t think Shakespeare’s life was very dramatic. I suggested that he write about Christopher Marlowe instead because Marlowe had a fabulous life.”

He thought little about the encounter until 1998. “And then, lo and behold, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ [co-written by Norman and Tom Stoppard] came out.”

Greenblatt found the movie highly entertaining, although he thought the premise that Shakespeare had been inspired to write “Romeo and Juliet” by his romance with an independent-minded young gentlewoman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, was extremely implausible.

Nevertheless, he realized that the movie had put its finger on an important critical question: “How did Shakespeare make the leap from ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ to ‘Romeo and Juliet’? The movie perceives intuitively that it must have had something to do with the way he was living his life.”

The problem that critics who have sought to interpret Shakespeare’s works in the light of his biography have always faced is that the data are meager and filled with uncertainties. No Shakespearian diaries or correspondence survive. His life is well documented, but the material is largely impersonal – church records, legal documents, citations in t

Shakespeare illustration by Terry Murphy

he writings of his contemporaries, anecdotes collected years after his death by later biographers. It isn’t the sort of stuff that lends itself to penetrating psychological analysis.

What is known has led some to question whether Shakespeare was even the author of the works that have been attributed to him. That a middle-class youngster from the hinterlands, without wealth, connections, or a university education, could become the most popular playwright in London and arguably the greatest writer who ever lived seems almost unbelievable and has led to theories, little regarded by most serious scholars, that the plays and poems were the work of others, with candidates ranging from Francis Bacon to Elizabeth I.

Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, is no anti-Stratfordian, as such theorists are called. But he realized that such skepticism pointed to a gap in Shakespeare studies – biographical criticism that drew firm connections between the writer’s life and the language and themes of his plays.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about the relationship between life and art, the embeddedness of art in the social and historical background of the creator. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is Shakespeare’s work, but it’s a legitimate scholarly question, how did this work come about? By answering that question we might learn something about the nature of human creativity.”

Greenblatt attempts to answer the question in his book, “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). Writing in a lively, accessible style that belies his detailed familiarity with the vast universe of Shakespeare scholarship, Greenblatt deftly guides the reader through the welter of facts, hypotheses, and speculations that define the parameters of Shakespeare’s life. Although many of the scenarios he constructs are based on no more than educated guesses, Greenblatt manages to present a probable Shakespeare who is as real and convincing as historical figures who have left behind far more intimate traces of themselves.

For example, Greenblatt does a masterful and suggestive job of filling in

John Cogan University Profesor of the Humanities Stephen Greenblatt: “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is Shakespeare’s work, but it’s a legitimate scholarly question, how did this work come about?” (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Shakespeare’s “lost years” between leaving school in the late 1570s or early 1580s and showing up as a professional actor and playwright in London about 10 years later. Greenblatt weaves together a likely story from fragments of inconclusive data that have been scrutinized and argued over by scholars for centuries.

An old story says that Shakespeare spent several years as a schoolmaster in the country. But where? The question remained unanswered until a 20th century scholar suggested that the young Shakespeare might have worked as a tutor for a wealthy Catholic family in Lancashire. There is evidence that Shakespeare’s family may have been secret Catholics in a country where allegiance to the Pope and the practice of Catholic ritual had been declared illegal. Greenblatt weaves together these theories, fashioning a portrait of a young man whose talents and character caused him to choose a life in the theatre rather than possible religious martyrdom.

If Shakespeare had Catholic connections, and if he taught in Lancashire, he might have met Edmund Campion, an undercover Catholic priest who is known to have been sheltered by Shakespeare’s hypothetical employer and who was later executed for his subversive missionary activities. Did Shakespeare meet the charismatic priest? Did Campion try to recruit the teenage Shakespeare for his dangerous work? We will probably never know the answers to these questions, but Greenblatt does conclude, from the evidence of the plays, that Shakespeare had little admiration for religious zealots like Campion. In all his writings, there are hardly any sympathetic portraits of saints or fanatics, characters who are willing to go to any lengths for a cause.

“He is a remarkably unfanatical writer,” said Greenblatt. “He doesn’t like ideological heroism or suicide missions.”

The struggle between Protestants and Catholics comes up again in Greenblatt’s discussion of “Hamlet.” Greenblatt notes that Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet had died shortly before his father began work on the play. Shakespeare would have been in Stratford for the boy’s funeral, and it might have been possible that Shakespeare’s Catholic father urged his son to have prayers said to speed the child’s release from purgatory.

The problem was that purgatory had been abolished by the ruling Protestants, and saying prayers for the dead declared illegal. Hence, the possible dilemma for Shakespeare, and for many English people who still felt strong ties to Rome, was whether to risk punishment by praying for their deceased loved ones or obey the law and allow those souls to languish in flames.

This anxiety regarding one’s obligations to the dead, Greenblatt suggests, lies behind Hamlet’s indecision about whether to obey his father’s ghost and take revenge on his uncle Claudius.

Greenblatt’s biographical and historical approach not only sheds light on many aspects of Shakespeare’s work but succeeds in bringing the man himself to life, to help us understand what it was like to be a professional writer and actor in Elizabethan London.

“Part of the challenge,” Greenblatt said, “is to make it new, to turn this data into a key that will unlock a door. The book was difficult, but it was also pure pleasure to write. It’s an unbelievable privilege to work with this material.”