Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Summary
by Stephen Greenblatt

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(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) is a biography of William Shakespeare. In it, Greenblatt proposes to answer the question of how a man with only a secondary school education, the son of a small town glove maker, became the most renowned playwright of all time. As with other persons in Elizabethan England—England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 1558–1603—there are records of Shakespeare's life. Some of these correspond to the usual signposts: birth, marriage, and death. Scattered records of other moments, especially of transactions in which he was involved, also exist. In all, however, they form only a sketchy trail with considerable gaps. Greenblatt builds entire scenarios around the limited evidence. He connects what is known about key moments in Shakespeare's life to what historians have learned about what was going on at those moments in England. He then relates both the personal history and the larger social history to Shakespeare's plays and poetry.

Will in the World is only one of several books by major scholars of Shakespeare to come out at around the same time. These books, the fruits of a generation of scholarship, sum up insights and appreciation that have developed over decades of teaching and research. Some, like Shakespeare (2002), by David Bevington, and The Age of Shakespeare (2004), by Frank Kermode, are similar to Will in the World in that they draw connections between Shakespeare's art and his life and times. But no scholar has been more influential in promoting this approach to the study of literature in general and Shakespeare in particular than Greenblatt. His Will in the World has attracted more readers than any other contemporary book on Shakespeare. It is therefore having a major impact on our understanding of Shakespeare today.

Summary (Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Chapter 1: Primal Scenes

Greenblatt borrows the title of the first chapter of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare from psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. However, unlike the deeply intimate "primal scenes" of early childhood described in Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the scenes that Greenblatt considers are the very public spectacles that Shakespeare would have been exposed to in his rural hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. As a student, Shakespeare would have read and participated in performances of Latin comedies. Perhaps, Greenblatt speculates, he starred in a performance of a play called The Two Menaechmuses, which became a source for Shakespeare's own Comedy of Errors. Traveling troupes of actors came through town, and Shakespeare might have attended their exciting performances in the company of his father, who served a term as bailiff, or mayor. They staged morality plays, which delivered lessons about vices and virtues through simple plots and characters that stood for abstract principles, such as Youth or Chaos. Shakespeare later emulated these works by writing for a broad audience, but he also improved upon them by making his characters resemble real people. His plays also show the influence of the folk festivals that he would have seen as a youth. Greenblatt concludes the chapter with a description of the likely impact of a visit by Queen Elizabeth to the region; she stayed at the nearby castle of Earl of Leicester, who staged elaborate entertainments for her. Such "primal scenes" would have influenced Shakespeare's development as a playwright.

Chapter 2: The Dream of Restoration

Shakespeare grew up in a society in which occupations and lifestyles were tightly regulated. His father, John, was a glove maker who also drew income by illegally trading in wool and dealing in loans and property. John aspired not only for prosperity, but also for promotion in rank—to become a gentleman. Greenblatt deduces that during the time between the end of Shakespeare's formal schooling—around 1580—and his professional emergence in London in the 1590s, Shakespeare was involved in his father's work. The figurative language of his...

(The entire section is 3,252 words.)