In Will in the World the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Jay Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, seeks to explain how a young man from the provincial market town of Stratford-upon-Avon became the greatest playwright not only of his own age but of all time. The question has exercised people's imaginations since at least the eighteenth century, when bardolatry began. To some, including Mark Twain, the feat was impossible: Surely the author of such moving sonnets, captivating narrative poems, profound tragedies, and lyrical comedies must have attended university and must have grown up in courtly, or at least aristocratic, circles. Twain agreed with Delia Bacon that her namesake, Francis Bacon, (though no relation) had written the plays, and dozens of other candidates have been proposed over the years as the real playwright and poet.
Scholars have uniformly rejected these anti-Stratfordian arguments and have shown how Shakespeare drew from the world he knew and from books available to him all that his imagination needed. Greenblatt presents no new facts in this biography aimed at the general reader. Rather, he considers how what is known of Shakespeare's life and world affected him in such a way as to prompt him to produce his great works.
At the time of Shakespeare's birth, his father was enjoying a period of great prosperity and prestige. John Shakespeare was buying property and holding a series of increasingly responsible posts in local government, culminating in his selection as bailiff, the equivalent of the town's mayor, of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1568. In 1576 John Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms that would, for a fee, transform him and his heirs into gentlemen, an important distinction in the hierarchical Elizabethan world.
In 1577, when William was thirteen, John began to suffer financial reverses. The probable cause was Parliament's enforcement of the laws against illegal trading in wool, England's chief export. John owned two adjacent houses in Henley Street, Stratford. (The houses were subsequently joined.) One is known as the Birthplace, where William was born. The other is the Woolshop, under the floor of which fragments of fleece have been found. In The Winter's Tale (1610-1611) Shakespeare reveals an intimate knowledge not only of sheep-shearing festivals but also of the wool business. The young clown in that play, trying to calculate how much money his flock will yield, comments, “Every ’leven wether tods, every tod yields pound and odd shilling.” A tod is twenty-eight pounds of wool, which in the 1570's sold for twenty-one shillings, or precisely “pound and odd shilling.”
John began mortgaging and selling off properties. His bid for a coat of arms languished because he could not afford the fees. According to Nicholas Rowe, who included a biography in his 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works, William was forced to withdraw from school to help his father in the glove trade John was licensed to practice.
For Greenblatt, this loss of status helped impel Shakespeare to the theatrical world, which allowed commoners to become kings, if only for a brief moment. Actors wore clothes otherwise allowed by the sumptuary laws of the time only to the gentry, and actors acquired skills, such as fencing, that marked their betters. The magic of theatrical illusion transforms Christopher Sly from a drunken commoner into a gentleman in Shakespeare's early The Taming of the Shrew (1593-1594). Sonnet 87, in which Shakespeare laments the loss of the fair youth's love, concludes, “Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:/ In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.” Bottom the weaver could be transformed into Pyramus in the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-1596). Legally, actors were at best servants of the aristocrats who acted as their patrons, at worst lumped with rogues and vagabonds when they lacked such aristocratic protection. Yet they could not only pretend to gentility but also, if successful as Shakespeare was, actually gentle their condition, as Shakespeare did in 1596 when he bought that coat of arms his father had sought twenty years earlier.
Greenblatt speculates that John Shakespeare's fate affected his famous son in another way as well. Greenblatt suggests that either as cause or effect of John's decline, the playwright's father turned to drink. Greenblatt notes further that in Shakespeare's plays excessive drinking is condemned, perhaps as a reaction to what...