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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  6,468 Ratings  ·  602 Reviews
A young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? Stephen Greenblatt brings us down to earth to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talen ...more
Paperback, 430 pages
Published 2005 by W.W. Norton (first published 2004)
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Roman Stadtler A better question is does it really matter? My answer is "it doesn't, not really." While it riles up all kinds of strenuous debate, and makes for…moreA better question is does it really matter? My answer is "it doesn't, not really." While it riles up all kinds of strenuous debate, and makes for interesting trivia, the plays are the thing (to paraphrase)! The words, their meanings, eternal relevance, insight into ourselves; those are what's important.

For the record, though, I do think W. Shakespeare wrote all the works, with a little help, here and there, but the predominant themes, ideas and intent, and words were all his. (less)

Community Reviews

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Jeffrey Keeten
Nov 26, 2015 Jeffrey Keeten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: shakespeare
”To understand who Shakespeare was, it is important to follow the verbal traces he left behind back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open. And to understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into his art, it is important to use our own imagination.”

 photo Shakespeare_zpstd5fmxgh.jpg

There is no doubt he is an enigma, a man who quite possibly has had the greatest influence on the English language, and yet, strangely enough left very little personal correspondence behind. It doe
Apr 02, 2015 Sparrow rated it did not like it
I never thought this would happen to me, but while I was reading this book, I actually had a sense of nostalgia for Harold Bloom.

A woman I work with forced this book on me with the guarantee that I would adore it. I later found out that she "hates music like the Velvet Underground." It's always people like that who are forcing book recommendations. Not that there are "people like that" who hate the Velvet Underground. I have a lot of faith that she is an isolated case.

This book pretty much hit
As any fule kno, 'twas Ben Jonson who famously said of his friend Mr William Shakespeare that he was "not of an age but for all time". Which bon mot is trotted out regularly, not least by yours truly when guiding German high school students through the vagaries of Macbeth: after all, you have to try to persuade them that the fate of an eleventh century Scottish king could, possibly, have some relevance to a twenty first century audience. So what do you do? Well, you emphasise the universal, of c ...more
Riku Sayuj
Possibly as far away from the reality of Shakespeare's life as any silly fairy tale, but highly readable and a wonderful companion to reading the plays.

Full review (maybe) later.
Jul 03, 2013 Darwin8u rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
“Everyone understood that Latin learning was inseparable from whipping. One educational theorist of the time speculated that the buttocks were created in order to facilitate the learning of Latin.”
― Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare


Every historian, critic, author or amateur who starts a book on William Shakespeare knows they are facing tremendous odds. Shakespeare was private, lived 400+ years ago, left very few written records about himself, and those th
Jun 15, 2007 Kelly rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Shakespearean inclined people
I think the theory of Shakespeare that he's espousing is a little far fetched. I'm just going to put it out there. The way he gets from argument to argument is 'well, this probably didn't happen... but what if it /did/.... then this would be true...' and then he'll go on to spout some more historical facts that would then fall into place of that was true. So, as an academic argument? I don't find this book particularly strong.

However. There is a lot of information here about the life of Shakespe
Dec 02, 2008 Rhonda rated it did not like it
"If Shakespeare wore shoes--and we have reason to suppose he did--he might have worn some like the ones in this picture."

I'm paraphrasing, but not by much. This is Greenblatt's own special brand of persiflage that drove Germaine Greer to write her excellent Shakespeare's Wife, so I guess this book was good for something.

Read Greer instead. On her way to responsible speculation about the character of Anne Hathaway, traditionally assumed to have been a millstone around her husband's neck--on no
Dec 17, 2008 Trevor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, literature
This book could have been (perhaps even should have been) so much worse than it turned out. Even stating the premise sends a shiver down my spine. The premise is, “How about we speculate on the life and loves of Shakespeare on the basis of the evidence we can find in his plays, poems and sonnets!” You can feel it can't you? It is like the shiver you get from a wind blowing off snow.

If I’d guessed the book was going to be about such speculations I would never have started it. I mean, I would jus
Sep 21, 2007 Andrew rated it really liked it
Stephen Greenblatt is just wonderful. This book makes blood flow between the sonnets, plays and legal records that comprise the slim documentary record of Shakespeare's career.

His analysis is contextual. As you read the book, your attention is driven through a route that wends alternatingly through the terrains of Shakespeare's world, life and work. Greenblatt is a spectacular writer with amazing structural control.

Some bullet points will give you a sense of what I loved about this book:

• Shake

I am not sure what to do with this book. On the one hand, I enjoyed the little tidbits about Shakespeare's family life and some of the context of how politics shaped his plays. Which is, really, what I thought I was getting with this book. I wanted to know how the culture of the time and his own life had come through in his writing.

But on the other hand, and I'm not sure here if it's just the way the author chose to write about it, or if this is the absolute truth, it seems that very li
Charles Matthews
Dec 06, 2009 Charles Matthews rated it really liked it
Perhaps. Probably. Maybe. These words hiccup through any biography of Shakespeare, and Stephen Greenblatt's is no exception. For the facts about Shakespeare's life are, as Greenblatt puts it, ''abundant but thin.'' We know all sorts of stuff about the property he bought and sold, the taxes he paid, the theatrical companies he worked for. We have his baptismal record, his marriage license and his last will and testament.

What we don't have are letters, diaries, manuscripts or anything that would
Oct 13, 2008 Anna rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
My immediate response upon finishing this book?

Every Shakespeare play I read from now on will be funnier, deeper, more moving and generally more of a joy because I read this.

What we know of Shakespeare's biography is notoriously fragmented, but Greenblatt fuses an extraordinarily depth of knowledge with the facts we do have, along with the extensive context of the strange, bloody and beautiful world of Elizabethan England. To that potent mix, he adds a passionate and lucid understanding of Shake
Apr 07, 2008 Jonathan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: um, Shakespeare fans? duh.
Recommended to Jonathan by: Puck
Not just a bio of Will, but also a great look into what made him tick, and how he may have come to write his plays. The book is an interesting look into the history of the late 16th and early 17th century, and how the events of the times shaped Shakespeare's life. Unfortunately, many of the details of Shakespeare's life are lost, but Greenblatt uses what is available to make educated guesses as what influences and experiences Shakespeare used to create his masterworks. An altogether fascinating ...more
May 29, 2007 Anne rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Bardophiles
This is a thrilling read; even at its most speculative (and sometimes it goes a bit far), WILL IN THE WORLD is a feat of scholarship, an example of how a lively but discriminating imagination can engage with historical evidence. Greenblatt makes me feel that Shakesepare was human...which should be a given (after all, he wasn't a wookie), but I've always pictured him as a magical marble bust of himself from which lightning crackled and astounding language (in blank verse) emanated. Or as Joseph F ...more
Aug 29, 2014 Nick rated it really liked it
The library shelves groan under the weight of the tomes about Shakespeare, but, oddly enough, the writer himself was not much concerned with books. Certainly he read, that we know from his liberal borrowings from old Teutonic and Italian stories. But he never saw what we see in the bookstore, the sonnets were handed around among friends without prior thought for publication (at least in Stephen Greenblatt's reconstruction) and the various theater companies for which he wrote (and in which he inv ...more
Feb 26, 2012 Ensiform rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Greenblatt sketches out what is known about the life of Shakespeare, interspersing the meager details with background information about Elizabethan England. He tells of, for example, the tension between Catholics and Protestants, the vilification of the Jews, the myriad ways in which the society was brutal and bloody, and King James’ beliefs on witches and prophecy. The result is a very intriguing book with many interesting and extremely debatable propositions.

That some of the sonnets seem to be
Feb 19, 2013 Alex rated it it was amazing
I studied a lot of Shakespeare in college. I just like that guy. No one else can explore such huge themes so concisely and so beautifully, and I think he's the real deal.

And he's hard to biographize, partly because we famously don't know a ton about him, but also I think partly because he was just something special. Someone who wrote outside himself.

So, for example, in this terrific biography, Greenblatt points out that it's kinda weird that Shakespeare's son died and he appeared not to deal wit
Jan 16, 2017 Melora rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really interesting and fun. In describing events, conflicts, and culture in Shakespeare's world, Greenblatt freely admits at many points that he is speculating when he makes connections between events which may have occurred in Shakespeare's life or may otherwise have made an impression on him, and aspects of his work as a poet and a playwright. Even when the connections seemed particularly tenuous (such as whether Shakespeare worked briefly as a tutor in a wealthy Catholic household), the histo ...more
Apr 26, 2016 Lemony rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Heuuuu... Il faut que tu t'accroches. Beaucoup d'infos. Beaucoup de données. Beaucoup de noms. Beaucoup de lieux. Beaucoup de personnes. Beaucoup de doutes. Beaucoup. Beaucoup. Beaucoup.
Si tu aimes les biographies il est pour toi. Il est dense, tu ne t'ennuieras pas. Il faut que tu sois analytique, opiniâtre, que tu t'accroches. Que tu aimes l'histoire et le factuel. (C'est pour ça le nombre d'étoiles, ne te laisse pas influencer par mes goûts si tu as envie de le lire, tu comprends. Les étoile
Jun 29, 2015 Alan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Greenblatt I have heard many times over my thirty years in the Shakespeare Association of America and in RSA; I found him better, and wittier, as a comparatist in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, where he wrote with more wit. His Swerve has a great account of the MS discovery in the first sixty pages, but declines into misdirected polemic. I've read Lucretius's Latin, and he is NOT behind the modern cosmos. Giordano Bruno (and of course Lawyer-Physician Copernicus) is.
This book falls way behind Sha
Victor Sonkin
An excellent, vivid and powerful course of Shakespeare's career and writing. Gives you a real understanding of what is could be to be a power player in the end of the 16th and early 17th century; gives you a real feeling of Shakespeare if you want to doubt or support his authencity. He is what he is; he left what he left; deal with it. Greenblatt is a wonderful storyteller, obviously very much in the material, and, difficult though his story is, it is a pleasure to follow. A gem.
Laurel Hicks
This book is on par with what I often think about biographies, or probably under par given that so little is known of Shakespeare. It is highly speculative, and I don't think it is wise or polite to attribute thoughts and motives to someone when we can really have no idea what they thought or why they did what they did. I learned some interesting things about the times, though, and my grey cells were exercised.
Margaret Murray
Dec 26, 2014 Margaret Murray rated it it was amazing
Ever since I read Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt last February, I've become fascinated with the mysterious, brilliant William Shakespeare, aka “Will”, and impressed by how masterfully Greenblatt lays out his world—and ours too. I couldn’t put the book down. The thing is, I was learning so much about myself, how to be a writer in my world.

You might think that a book about the most famous, most overwhelmingly popular writer in the English language would be trite, repetitious or full of p
May 28, 2012 Joshua rated it it was amazing
Stephen Greenblatt reveals the ease and intimacy in which he engages with Shakespeare—not only as a reader of plays and poetry, but as a biographer peering over the shoulder of the elusive bard, on his journey from bucolic Stratford to the bustling, often dangerous stage of London theater. Greenblatt humanizes a figure that was so prolific, so otherworldly in his talent, that many people think Shakespeare did not exist, and was a pen name encompassing an array of personalities, including his dar ...more
Alissa Mccarthy
Dec 01, 2012 Alissa Mccarthy rated it really liked it
"I heard about this book on NPR one morning and read it on the flights to and from Cape Town. I don’t read much non-fiction, but this was a delight to read.
A biography that enables us to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan life; full of drama and pageantry, and also cruelty and danger; could have become the world's greatest playwright. A young man from the provinces—a man without wealth, connections, or university educatio
May 29, 2012 Susan rated it really liked it
This biography of William Shakespeare will not appeal to everyone, and parts of its ~400 pages did not appeal to me, but I am still very glad that I read it.

There is so much that is not known about Shakespeare but this author has done his research and also done his best to tie all the parts together. What I loved most about the book was seeing how so much of Shakespeare's writing reflected his life. The influence of the ongoing war between Catholicism and Protestantism, of his rather odd relatio
Jan 24, 2010 Melissa rated it really liked it
Enjoyed it tremendously: very readable, very good scholarship. Didn't catch him in any outrageous errors in theater history; his portrayal of the world of the theater and its interactions with Elizabethan/Jacobean theater made sense. Will was amazingly accomplished, well beyond his wordcraft: he must have been an exceptionally busy man when he was in London. The teases are there as well -- the things we'll never know, as there is nothing surviving to tell us -- why he went off to London to seek ...more
May 25, 2009 Ashley rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: oh ye who love the bard
Recommended to Ashley by: dr. kiefer
A fascinating and educating (and not boring!) look at the life and times of William Shakespeare, or rather, as much as it is possible to know. Greenblatt's research is very thorough and his knowledge of the time period is almost astounding, but I'm holding off on the fifth star for this one because at times it felt a little too much like guessing. Greenblatt comes off pretty sure of himself in the way he makes his (largely unsubstantiated) claims, despite most of them being based on evidence as ...more
Some parts of this book raise very good points about the plays and sonnets (though a little over heavy on guesswork). I did like some of his comments on the later plays in relation to Shakespeare's daughter. Some parts of this book caused me to raise eyebrows. Greenblatt's reading of Shylock seems to be too modern, too "what iffy".

But I have to ask, what the he** did Anne Hathaway do to Greenblatt? He seems to hate her even more than Anthony Holden does.

Read the remarks about the plays, skip th
Ana Rînceanu
I like how this was written, but I can't help but think that there is simply too much speculation in this book for it to be considered history. Still, if you can go along with the book, as I obviously did, this is a great read which paints a portrait of Shakespeare as seen through the eyes of Stephen Greenblatt: a highly intelligent, flawed man who regarded his peers critically, but not without sympathy.
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literature 6 40 Apr 04, 2013 03:15PM  
Shakespeare Club: WS 1 5 Feb 09, 2013 07:07PM  
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Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of t ...more
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