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Book Review 

by Michael Bowen

Everybody knows that Shakespeare's plays weren't actually written by Shakespeare. Unless they were. Which, of course, is what the historical record proves to everyone not wearing Super-Duper Elizabethan Conspiracy Spectacles. The question isn't "Who was he?" The question is "How did he develop from the man we know he was into someone capable of creating those plays?"

In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt has written the first macro-level New Historicist biography of Shakespeare. (Long Boring Footnote: The New Historicist approach agrees with the Old that literary works are cultural products. New Historicists, of whom Greenblatt is the godfather, don't agree that Shakespeare's plays uphold a tidy Elizabethan World View in which God's in his heaven and all's right with the groundlings; instead, they detect the rumblings of power struggle throughout the Renaissance world in which the plays are embedded.)

New Historicists like to align the plays with historical minutiae and then politicize the connection -- and Will in the World often trades in conjecture. But Greenblatt's educated guesses -- merely suggestive, hardly incontrovertible -- nevertheless outdo other scholars' best hypotheses. Writing for both scholarly and general audiences -- and bearing out his subtitle, How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare -- Greenblatt assembles bare outward hints into plausible assertions about the man's psychology and the plays' inner workings.

Thus a brush with crypto-Catholicism -- Catholics in the 1590s being like Communists in the 1950s -- led to the playwright's aversion to self-disclosure. The financial and social decline of the his father John led to the dream of restored families that dominates the late romances. The unexpected sympathy for Shylock derives from the ugliness of the crowd's laughter when a Jewish doctor, convicted of attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth, was drawn and quartered. Hamlet's despair and self-probing burst the boundaries of tragedy because of three heartbreaks in the playwright's own life: the prohibition on Catholic funeral rites of public grieving, John's imminent death, and the actual, unbearably sudden death of Hamnet, Shakespeare's 11-year-old son.

Greenblatt's biography illuminates how Shakespeare became the man who actually wrote the plays -- and how, all too often, the world thwarted its Will.

Publication date: 11/18/04

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