Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004

During our January, 2011 meeting we discussed the following book selected by Bill Hagens:

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Bill provides the following information about this book:

Dear Book Club Members,

Our next meeting will be held on January 6th from 9 AM to 11AM at my home. Please note that the date is also Sherlock Holmes’ birthday.  He’ll be 154 years old.  You know, he must be slowing down.  Last month I tried to reach him several times at his apiary in Sussex, but he’s not answering his phone or e-mails.  I’m hoping it’s because he’s just in one those moods and not the result of a bee sting. 

Actually Holmes has something in common with subject of my book selection, William Shakespeare (WS): They are two of the five people written most about over the past 100 years; the others are Jesus Christ, Napoleon, and Lincoln.

Our selection for January 2011 is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, published in 2004 by Norton. ISBN: 0393050572


There are several copies in the Pierce and Tacoma Libraries. [Call number: 822.3 G829W] Also, there are many used copies available, for as little as 73 cents, from sites listed on .

I appreciate your indulgence in letting me bring this book forth, because I know that some may not share my interest in the playwright.  When I told my dear friend Burk about the book’s subject, he looked slightly resistant, but acquiesced once I told we would not be reading any plays.

By the way, Shakespeare is often referred to the Bard of Avon or simply Thë Bard.  The word’s origin is of ancient Celtic roots meaning poets who composed and recited verses celebrating the legendary exploits of chieftains and heroes.  In more general terms, it means a writer of lyric poetry.  Shakespeare is  referred to as “Thë Bard”, I guess in the same fashion as Muhammad Ali is referred to “Thë Greatest”

Selecting one book that adequately discusses Shakespeare has been a daunting task, and I’m not sure if I fully succeeded.  Although there is much written about the Bard, foundations for such undertakings are not as firm as one would think.  Greenblatt indicates early in his book that information about WS is abundant but thin.

Here are examples of this thinness.  Like Holmes[1], Shakespeare had his lost years from 1585 to 1592.  One theory is that he went to Lancashire.  Part of the basis for this assumption is found in the will of a local man dated around that time.  He requested that his kinsman take care of “…William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me…” Was this referring to thë Bard?  Another is a document from 1576 mentioning John Shappere, who was accused of usury.  Was this WS’s father?

Another problem is that many of the writers on WS are devotees disguised as historians.  Good examples elsewhere are Emile Ludwig writing about Napoleon and Carl Sandburg on Lincoln.  Perhaps the best example is Mason Weems, who in his biography, Life of Washington, created  the fictitious episode of George fessing-up to felling the cherry tree.

Shakespeare’s Parson Weems [and I maybe going on thin ice here] is A.L. Rowse, the prolific Cornish historian, who wrote a great deal about Elizabethan England.  He was known for his irascibility and intellectual arrogance and considered himself the greatest Shakespearean scholar and biographer.  His 1973 work Shakespeare the Man, which now clogs the shelves of many used books stores, is an example of the excesses of idolatry and arrogance.  To me, it’s written with too much certainty, by a man too sure of himself–too clever by half.  [I might get a strong disagreement from Professor Gilmour on this point.]

But while I rubbish Rouse, I must say that Will in the World raises similar concerns.  But it’s probably the best of lot.  Drawing upon an old Native American adage, “A hawk is an eagle among crows”.

In looking at Greenblatt’s career, one definitely finds the stamp of the literary scholar.  Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1943, he studied literature at Yale University where he received his Ph.D. 1969. He also holds similar degrees from Cambridge University.  He has taught at Berkeley and Harvard University.  He is a founding editor of the scholarly journal Representations and has served as president of the Modern Language Association (MLA).  His other books on Shakespeare are Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), Shakespeare’s Freedom (2010) and The Norton Shakespeare (1997), which is used extensively in college courses.

He is also the main theorist of the concept of New Historicism[2], which aims to understand the work through its historical and cultural contexts simultaneously.  Greenblatt’s goal in Will is to analyze Shakespeare in this framework, trying to grasp what inspired him as a son, parent, husband, and playwright and how these roles colored this plays.

Unfortunately the scarcity of surviving biographical information that plagued Rowse also limits our author.  And if you seek reviews of our book, you’ll find that the rubbishing I gave our Cornish scholar is extended to Professor Greenblatt.  What I think is in our author’s favor is the benefit of recent scholarship, a theory of sorts from which to work, and an absence of cocksureness.

So what information about the Bard is generally accepted: that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in April 1564, the oldest son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker, trader, and landowner, and Mary Arden, the daughter of an affluent landowner.  His father held several local offices, including burgess, alderman, and mayor, which made it possible to educate his son at the King’s New School in Stratford without charge.  Later in his career he suffered a financial crisis.  At 18, Will married the 26 year old Ann Hathaway in November, 1582, and six months later their daughter, Susanna, was born.  Twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the Shakespeares in February, 1585.  Hamnet died at 11 of unknown causes.  Early in his career he was a member of the Queen’s Men and King’s Men, England’s prominent touring troupes.  Later he joined  the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, London’s leading theater company, with whom he not only acted but wrote many of the plays performed.  With his success,, he became a shareholder in the Globe Theater.  He was well known to the Royals and performed before Queen Elizabeth I on occasions.  He was rich enough to acquire a coat of arms for his family and build a large house in his hometown. He was a successful investor in real estate in Stratford and London.  And upon his death in April 1616, he left a large estate in his will.

On the question of whether or not Shakespeare was the author of those plays, there are many anti-Shakespeareans who enjoy raising doubts: Where the plays written by Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, or Ted Sorensen?  But there’s good evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe WS was the man.  One must remember that he was no Franz Kafka but well known in important English circles.  His plays performed at the Globe Theater and other acting venues were openly attributed to him at that time.

Today 38 plays are attributed to WS, which are collectively referred to as the Canon.  They are divided into the genres of tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear…), histories (Richard III, Henry V), comedies (All You Like It, Twelfth Night), and romances (Cymbeline, The Tempest…). They have been translated into every major living language and are continually performed all around the world.  In addition, he also wrote 154 sonnets and other works.

Of course there is on-going criticism of his work.  One type is aimed at the inaccuracy of some of his histories.  The play most often cited for this shortcoming is Richard III.  In it WS presents Gloucester, the future King Richard, as a deformed despot, who would do anything to gain the throne, including killing the rightful heirs–the young princes.  It presents Henry Tudor as the glorious hero who rides in on his horse to defeat Richard and save the day.

The real story, which was well known in WS’s time, is quite different: Richard was not deformed and probably no more ambitious than his contemporaries.  And as to who killed the young princes, a commonly held theory accuses Henry Tudor of the bloody business, because he had most to gain.  If you would like to look into this mystery in more depth, I recommend Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time.  So why the distortion?  Because Henry Tudor became Henry VII, the grandfather of the then monarch Elizabeth I. Nuff said.

It’s interesting to note that the most historically accurate of WS’s plays is Julius Caesar, which is oddly labeled a tragedy.

Just as there are debates about Will being Will, there are ongoing clashes among scholars on the content of the Canon and its productions.  A good discussion of these war zones is found in a book, I think Roger[3] once considered for presentation: Ron Rosenbaum’s 2006 work The Shakespeare Wars. In it the author presents the disparate opinions of numerous Shakespearian professors, directors and experts, many of whom share Rouse’s curmudgeonesque qualities.  The questions herein are not so much who wrote it, but what did he write and how best to perform it?

Well perhaps this is a lot more introduction than necessary.  Again, I thank you for letting me present Will Shakespeare.  For those of you who are  aware of the man and his works, I hope the book enhances your knowledge, and for those who are new to the Canon, I hope it whets your appetite for more.  So Bon Appétit.

Happy Holidays,

See you on January 6th


[1] After dispatching his nemesis Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in 1884, Holmes disappeared for reasons not fully explained, at least to my satisfaction, until 1901, when he reappeared in time to solve the mystery of the Empty House.  What he did during those seven years is the subject of speculation among Sherlockians (American devotees) and Holmesians (their British counterparts).  Whiles Holmes admits to have traveled to Nepal, Persia, and Sudan, there are other theories, which have been meat for the writing of many a pastiche.

[2] If you would like a bit more on the subject,  here’s a good site:

[3] I really miss Roger.  In addition to his wit and knowledge, he was the only member to interrupt more than I do.  It was great cover.  We should try to get him back.

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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1 Response to Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004

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