Margaret Murray's Reviews > Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
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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 pompous academic abstractions, especially if you wrote your master’s thesis on “Murder and Honor in Hamlet and Othello” like I did. But you’d be wrong. With impressive credentials and superior narrative ability, Greenblatt unearths and illuminates Shakespeare in the Elizabethan world even though facts about Shakespeare’s life are, according to the author, ''abundant but thin.'' He writes:

'We know all about the property Shakespeare 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. But what he felt in his heart, what dreams he nurtured, what beliefs he himself had.....” No, we don't know.

I was hooked by the time Greenblatt sets up Will, at 18, marrying Anne Hathaway, age 26, in Stratford six months before their first child was born. What, if anything, did it mean that soon after--the exact date is vague like so much else--Will left it all to spend the rest of his life in rented rooms in London, two days ride away? Did he love her? Was he forced to marry her? Did he marry her for her money? Did she love him (How could she not?) Greenblatt speculates how Shakespeare may have been wanted for deer poaching, a 17th century theory. Was Shakespeare down and out, stealing venison and rabbits for food? With many credible details, Greenblatt explores and then discards this possibility with great authority, while being cautious about claiming any other hypotheses as certain either.

You're left with speculations. Maybe Shakespeare left Stratford for the same reason I left Pittsburgh--to seek my fortune in the big world.

The artistic, political and religious intrigue is both detailed and gruesome, with beheadings at the bequest of Queen Elizabeth as common as parking tickets today. The victims, many of whom were Roman Catholics, are believable and very sympathetic. Greenblatt explores the possibility that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic too. That could explain the secrecy around his life. After all, it was dangerous to be Catholic in Elizabethan England.

Then there’s the mystery of the love sonnets, seemingly addressed to a man--but who? And did Shakespeare actually write the sonnets--or the plays for that matter--or was he a fraud as the feature movie, Anonymous (2011), claims? Ah, but Greenblatt shows us how we moderns no longer understand the game of sonnet-making, so popular in Shakespeare’s world, where the trick was to be naked while revealing nothing, and tell revealing secrets to only a few chosen intimates.

Most of all, what really kept me reading Will in the World was how I identify with Will by following Stephen Greenblatt’s astute analysis of the growing brilliance of his characters, so modern in their angst, confusion and daunting dreams. Yes, Greenblatt has convinced me of this ''an amazing success story,'' of a bright young man from the provinces who took on the hard, yet exciting game of writing great plays for a popular audience in a tumultuous, changing exploding world.

I might have known that Shakespeare too had the problems I have as a writer: daunting competition from establishment writers (e.g., Marlowe), lack of funds, absence of entitlement, spotty, non-existent publication, pressing family responsibilities, in fact, “an upstart crow” in the literary world as the contemporary playwright Robert Greene called him. But that’s beside the point as Will in the world pressed on—and won. Not just for his time but for any time.

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Reading Progress

December 26, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 26, 2014 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 8, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Geoffrey (new) - added it

Geoffrey Fox Thanks for the tip. I'll have to read it.

message 2: by Geoffrey (new) - added it

Geoffrey Fox Delightful review. I see I made a comment nearly 4 years ago. Did you post a note on this earlier, before you'd finished reading it?

Margaret Murray Geoffrey wrote: "Delightful review. I see I made a comment nearly 4 years ago. Did you post a note on this earlier, before you'd finished reading it?"

Thank you, Geoffrey, I reposted my review because I liked the book so much!

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