STEPHEN GREENBLATT’s biography attempts to fill the gap between Shakespeare’s life and the literature he created.
“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,
Into a thousand parts divide one man
And make imaginary puissance.”
- Chorus’ prologue to ‘Henry V’ (ACTI, Prologue)
by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was a remarkable playwright whose works form the cornerstone of English literature and yet he remains an unknown figure. Huge gaps in his life, some of which were unearthed in the 19th century, makes any biographical study at best an ‘exercise in speculation’. As Pulitzer prize literary critic Stephen Greenblatt bewilderedly observes: “His work is so astonishing, so luminous that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” His life shrouded in mystery has even led contemporary Hollywood films to speculate on whether or not the celebrated ‘Anonymous’ (*) and ‘Amorous’ (**) playwright born in Stratford-Upon-Avon is the actual author of the 37 masterpieces printed seven years after his death in the ‘First Folio of 1623’.
Author of a new book on William Shakespeare, Greenblatt strongly believes that key details of the Bard’s personal life are deftly embedded within the plays and sonnets. Setting his histrionic findings against their theatrical backdrop, a compelling ‘imaginary’ biography emerges.
Verbal traces left behind by Shakespeare and his contemporaries reveal the playwright’s humble beginnings, patronized as an ‘upstart crow’ by Robert Green (a model for Falstaff), followed by his ‘life transforming’ introduction to the sensual sonority of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘blank verse’ in “Tamburlaine”. It is the sight of theatrical performances known as ‘morality plays’, often backed by local ‘Lords’ and ‘Earls’, which, Greenblatt believes, triggered Shakespeare’s primal ‘sexual arousing’ whilst sealing his dramaturgic ambitions as well as enduring fascination with royalty and aristocracy. His father’s fall from grace as ‘bailiff’ (mayor) of Stratford, Greenblatt argues, could explain the playwright’s obsessive pursuit of social respectability for which he acquired a ‘coat of arms’ attesting of his ‘noble’ pedigree, shortly followed by an early retirement as a country ‘gentleman’ and ‘landlord’ in his own right. Further more John Shakespeare’s financial misfortunes could explain why “shipwrecks” so often appear as a recurrent metaphor in such plays as “The Tempest” or “The Merchant of Venice”.
Other plays seem to mirror Shakespeare’s own failure to achieve marital intimacy and family harmony. How else, argues Greenblatt, can one explain the contrast found in the Bard’s early plays between: his profound sense of ‘longing’ and ‘pleading’ expressed in “Romeo and Juliet” and the marital buffoonery in “The Taming of the Shrew” or the “Merry Wives of Windsor”? The bitter sweet ‘wooing’ in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Othello” ’s ‘extreme, wrought, perplexed’ jealousy? Also conspicuous hints of sexual confusion in ‘Twelfth Night’ or ‘The Comedy of Errors’ are further explored in his sonnets.
Did young Shakespeare hold political or religious beliefs? Historic evidence supports that catholic minorities were suspected under Tudor and Stuart rule. Shakespeare’s humble beginnings and catholic roots can easily be traced back to his maternal family. School records strongly suggest the presence of ‘closet’ catholic schoolmasters, like Simon Hunt, who may have been in charge of his education. Greenblatt further speculates on Shakespeare’s moral qualms by digging into his ‘double consciousness’ to better highlight his ‘double life’ in a turbulent era of religious feud. In “The Merchant of Venice”, Shylock is a Jew (many we learn returned as ‘protestant converts’ after their massive deportation out of Britain in the Middle Ages) accused of ‘money laundering’. Plays like “Julius Caesar”, “Henry IV” or “Richard III” abound with political conspiracies to which Shakespeare himself was not entirely immune (Queen Elizabeth is said to have wryly observed: “ Did you not know? I am Richard II”). Shakespeare’s anxiety is betrayed in a series of infatuated sonnets commissioned for the narcissistic Earl of Southhampton. Accused of plotting to overthrow the Virgin Queen alongside his powerful protégé, the dashing Earl of Essex (a model for ‘Henry V’), Southhampton was finally pardoned but Essex was beheaded at the scaffold (as illustrated in Visscher’s engraving). The violence so often staged in his plays seems to mirror that of society itself with it’s long list of public executions, political intrigues, rumors of torture at the Tower, or the mistreating of animals for pure entertainment as with ‘Bear baiting’. When not censored plays offered the opportunity to parody or share that collective anxiety without fear.
Whatever Shakespeare’s beliefs, they clearly did ‘play a part’ in shaping his extraordinary imagination. An added layer of ‘secular spirituality’ helped stage the moral dilemmas faced by such ambivalent characters as Macbeth, lured by witches into crime, or Hamlet puzzled at the sight of his father’s ghost.
The defining moment in this brilliant narrative appears when the matured playwright breaks the rules of conventional theatre in order to represent Hamlet’s ‘inner insurrection’. Masking his own grief after the tragic death a decade earlier of Hamnet, his one and only son, Shakespeare developed a technical skill that inaugurated a creative frenzy that produced his greatest history plays. It allowed him to explore the darkest corners of human nature: ‘blind ambition’ in “Macbeth” or “Coriolanus”, ‘self-destructive passion’ in “Anthony and Cleopatra”, the ‘threat of social death’ and the ‘collapse of identity’ in “ King Lear”, and the ‘relinquishing of power’ in the “Tempest” as a last hint to the playwright’s own retirement.
Shakespeare’s plays and its rich vocabulary, the Biographer argues, give his art a ‘touch of the real’ often pertaining to a variety of professions (legal, craftsmanship, military) that the struggling playwright may have practiced or encountered in his lifetime. ‘Leather’ for instance provides him not just with detail but also as a metaphor as with Romeo who longs to be ‘a glove’ on Juliet’s hand so that he may touch her cheek. Even though the printing machine existed, an actor’s dialogue, written on parchment rolls (hence the word “role”), was to be performed orally on stage and not read. This, Greenblatt believes, explains why Shakespeare’s plays were not printed during his lifetime, and that no contemporary bothered to accurately record his life. Paradoxically by appealing to our ‘imaginary forces’ Greenblatt achieves the ‘tour de force’ of transforming this ‘speculative exercise’ into an ‘unauthorised’ biography which the Bard himself may have approved.
Although subject to speculation ‘Will in the World’ enables us to revisit Shakespeare’s vital plays again as if for the first time but with a greater understanding and appreciation of their extraordinary depth and humanity.
(*) Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” (2011)
(**) John Madden’s “Shakespeare and Love” (1998)
Darius Kadivar is a Journalist, film critic and media consultant. He lives and works in France.
About the Book:
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt Bodley Head, 430 pages £ 16,99 Available on Amazon.com Here