Shakespeare's Universe: Will and His World
Book Review by Stuart Mitchner
Leaving behind his wife and children, a young actor and playwright comes to the big city. Every day, as he crosses London Bridge on his way to the playhouse, he sees severed heads of Catholic martyrs on pikes looking down at him, followers of the religion his family secretly espoused. His plays are acted in what preachers and other defenders of Elizabethan moral values denounce as "a temple to devilish pagan deities," where playgoers learn to deceive their mates, murder, disobey, blaspheme, and sing "filthy songs of love," where the Word of God is mocked and piety held up to ridicule, where respectable matrons are lured to their downfall, men are tempted by seductive boy actors playing women, and authority figures are mercilessly burlesqued. Luckily for us, and for William Shakespeare, public theaters, actors and playwrights were under the protection of powerful aristocrats and the Queen herself.
Flash forward from the 1590s to 2005, and the temple of sin is everywhere the media goes; the entertainment is far more licentious than anything the Elizabethans ever dreamed of; and while the playwright-hacks of tabloid culture are busy feeding the public's appetite for pedophile priests and rock stars, murdered wives and babies, "fair and balanced news," and dehumanizing reality shows, the defenders of American moral values are busy denouncing the exposure of a woman's nipple and suppressing a children's television show in which an animated bunny named Buster visits a family where both parents are female.
How miraculous, then, that at a time when bad taste sells and morality's gone south, an immaculately learned book about Shakespeare makes the best-seller list.
The book, of course, is Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (Norton $26.95), and already it's been denounced by authority figures defending the religion called Shakespeare Studies in terms contrived to make it sound as shallow as any other product being hyped in today's media sideshow. In a review in the Independent subheaded "The Chat Show Bard," Colin MacCabe claims that this is "the Shakespeare of a celebrity booker for the Oprah Winfrey show," while Colin Burrow, in the London Review of Books, tells us "it does not take long for the suspicion to dawn that Will in the World is the literary-biographical equivalent of Coca-Cola. The sweetness gets too much after more than a couple of swigs, and after a while it starts to produce a build-up of gas which eventually squirts right up your nose." Those dumbed-down analogies tell you all you need to know about the taste and intelligence of those two reviewers. There is also more than a hint of sour grapes money-envy in the Burrows review, which is headed "Who Wouldn't Buy It?" and which makes its point by doing some fancy footwork online to tell us that Green- blatt's biography is "ranked 271 in Amazon's U.K. sales list (41 in the U.S.), while the Arden edition of King Lear is ranked 13,791 (309,493 in the U.S.)." From this the reviewer cleverly deduces that people are more likely to buy books about Shakespeare than they are to buy books by Shakespeare. Considering that British and American households with a one-volume Complete Works within reach are probably in the millions, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why a scholarly edition of a single play ranks in the low 300-thousands. After some token praise, Jonathan Bate, writing in the Daily Telegraph, spends the last three paragraphs of his review quibbling about porcupines and hedgehogs. If you want dramatic evidence of how petty and specious this quibble is, read Greenblatt's chapter on Hamlet, which all by itself is good enough to redeem the book if the book needed redeeming.
Why are the British so sneeringly protective of the Bard? You might blame it on Anglo-American rivalry, but if this were so, what made them choose a Yank named Gary Taylor to co-edit a new edition of the Oxford Shakespeare when the same Gary Taylor's claim to fame was the discovery of a lost poem by the Bard that most reasonably perceptive students of Shakespeare knew after one reading could never have been written by him. The same Gary Taylor has done a reverse Marc Antony in the Guardian by burying Will in the World while seeming to praise it. Like his British counterparts, his way of knocking the book is to devalue it with lightweight analogies. Greenblatt's Shakespeare is a "rags to aesthetic riches" variation on "Horatio Alger and innumerable American politicians" where every chapter "plops dollops of hyperbole on Our Hero." How about that for asinine assonance? It's easy to see why the author of such tone-deaf prose would think an anonymous poem that begins "Shall I die? Shall I fly?" was written by the same poet who wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream and the sonnets.
The mission of any true believer in the literary divinity of Shakespeare should be to awaken the unenlightened to his greatness a potentially life-changing event that is too often spoiled or impeded by the Classic Works of Literature bureaucracy of boring teachers, pretentious or boneheaded productions of the plays, and the Lit Crit Book Chat miasma exuded by reviewers such as those mentioned here. True lovers of Shakespeare should celebrate the commercial success of a book that treats the man and his work with intelligence and respect and does so readably enough to attract a large audience. There's always the chance that a book like Greenblatt's might also inspire people to read or reread the plays and perhaps even help them to comprehend the miraculous scope and depth and complexity of the myriad uncannily rhyming, resonant elements composing the universe Shakespeare created. However many inspired teachers and interpreters of the work may be out there making the truth known, my guess is that most people still discover on their own, with no prompting, that Shakespeare's supremacy has not been in the least exaggerated.
Rachel Donadio's recent essay in the New York Times Book Review titled "Who Owns Shakespeare?" mentions Will in the World's appearance on the Times best-seller list and goes on to say "whether it belongs on the nonfiction list, where it was, or the fiction one, is a matter of some debate." No one who reads Greenblatt's carefully researched, reasoned, and structured meditation, with its use of material evidence in a fine balance with passages and concepts from the works themselves, will think the book has been misclassified. As to who owns Shakespeare, it's like asking who owns literature or music or weather or the Himalayas. Every year would-be interpreters and commentators, celebrants and pedants, set out to ascend Mt. Shakespeare. There's room for everyone up there, the brilliant and the banal, and as noted in Ms. Donadio's essay, at least four more biographical studies are due out in 2005 and 2006. As for mountains, you could make an impressive model of one from all the books and articles that have been written about Will and his world.
Greenblatt's subtitle, How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, signals that this is not going to be a conventional biography. He is interested in biographical suppositions only as they affect and are affected by the writings. Although Will in the World should of course be read chronologically, if you want to appreciate the author's intentions and his achievement, you should look first at the Hamlet chapter, "Speaking with the Dead," and then go back to the beginning. A majority of reviewers have chided Greenblatt for having so little to say about the great works that follow Hamlet. If this were a true critical biography, that would be a legitimate complaint, since we would expect numerous additional pages on, at the least, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. While Greenblatt does offer two concluding chapters that pay special attention to Macbeth and The Tempest, there is an atmosphere of anticlimax about them not surprisingly, since the last one involves Shakespeare's retirement to Stratford and death, and, most of all, since both chapters follow the excitement the author brings to "Speaking with the Dead"; if this were a work of fiction, the Hamlet chapter would be the denouement. Since it is not a novel, however, I won't be giving the plot away to say that Greenblatt justifies the book's careful delineation of the clandestine Catholicism of Shakespeare's family by making it understood in this climactic passage:
"The Reformation was in effect offering him an extraordinary gift the broken fragments of what had been a rich, complex edifice and he knew exactly how to accept and use this gift ... Shakespeare drew upon the pity, confusion, and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals (the world in which most of us continue to live) because he himself experienced those same emotions at the core of his being. He experienced them in 1596 at the funeral of his child, and he experienced them with redoubled force in anticipation of his father's death. He responded not with prayers but with the deepest expression of his being: Hamlet."
As his reference to "the world in which most of us continue to live" suggests, Stephen Greenblatt has responded with the deepest expression of his being: Will in the World.