Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2958

Chapter 1: Primal Scenes

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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 plays is rife with knowledgeable references to gloves and leather. The plays also refer frequently to drinking; Greenblatt speculates that alcoholism might have been a cause of a collapse of John's fortunes. After reaching a height of prosperity and status during Shakespeare's early adolescence, John fell into debt and lost his social standing. Greenblatt suggests that the family's hardships may be the reason for Shakespeare's artistic preoccupation with what Greenblatt calls "the dream of restoration": many of Shakespeare's characters, such as the exiled Prospero and Miranda of The Tempest, suffer such reversals, only to be restored to their proper station by the end of the play. Perhaps, the opportunity to act and dress like a gentleman was what attracted Shakespeare to the theatre in the first place. Greenblatt suggests that, as a successful playwright and businessman, Shakespeare was behind a successful application to have John recognized as a gentleman through the gaining of a family coat of arms—a status that Shakespeare would inherit.

Chapter 3: The Great Fear

The England of Shakespeare's youth had suffered through decades of vicious religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants under the Tudor dynasty. Upon her ascension to the throne in 1558, the Anglican Protestant Queen Elizabeth reversed the policies of her half-sister Mary (who had reigned from 1553) and made Protestantism the state religion—practicing Catholicism became a crime. The persecution of Catholics created a climate of fear that drove many people to carry on their religious practice in secret; they were Protestants in public but Catholics in private. Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare's mother was probably a devoted Catholic and that his father might have played both roles. Shakespeare may have experienced a deeply conflicted household. Drawing on evidence that he acknowledges to be controversial, Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare might have spent part of his young adulthood working as a schoolmaster for wealthy Catholic families in Lancashire, in the north of England, which was a stronghold of recusancy, or the refusal to accept Protestantism. There, Shakespeare may have gotten his start as an actor with regional troupes, but he would also have been exposed to the dangers associated with the secret practice of Catholicism. He may have met Edmund Campion, a notorious Catholic missionary who was publicly executed. Shakespeare's plays indicate a temperament that would not have been attracted to religious extremism, but they also show how such experiences captured his imagination.

Chapter 4: Wooing, Wedding and Repenting

In 1582, back in Stratford, eighteen-year-old Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older, independent, and already pregnant with Shakespeare's first daughter, Susanna. He then spent most of his adult life living away from his family, in London. When he died in 1616, he left Anne out of his will, bequeathing her only, as an apparent afterthought, his "second best bed." These circumstances suggest that Will did not have a happy marriage. Greenblatt interprets Shakespeare's plays and poetry in light of this likelihood; his works show mixed feelings, at best, about marriage. The chapter title comes from words spoken by Beatrice, a heroine of Much Ado About Nothing. They suggest a pessimistic view in which couples meet, fall in love, marry, and fall out of love. Beatrice and her lover, Benedick, are perhaps the only couple in Shakespeare's principal comedies that actually seem to have a good prospect for the future; other couples seem ill-matched. In the plays considered as "problem comedies," such as Measure for Measure, characters are forced to marry against their will—as Greenblatt suspects was the case with Shakespeare. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare stresses the importance of avoiding premarital sex in plays like Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. Those mature married couples in his plays who do maintain intimacy, such as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, have disturbingly warped relationships. However, Shakespeare's sonnets show that he did experience love—but only outside of marriage.

Chapter 5: Crossing the Bridge

What brought Shakespeare, in the mid-1580s, to leave Anne and their three small children to go make his fortune in London? Greenblatt explores a story that emerged in the late seventeenth century that Shakespeare was seeking to escape punishment after having been caught illegally hunting, or poaching, for deer on the property of his powerful neighbor, Sir Thomas Lucy. He suggests that this story might have been a front for a more serious clash with Lucy, who was a devoted Protestant and a persecutor of secret Catholics. Lucy was involved in the arrests and investigations that led to the deaths of Shakespeare's distant relations, John Somerville and Edward Arden, both condemned as Catholic traitors. It is possible that Shakespeare, too, had something to fear.

It is also possible that he had the opportunity to join up with a prestigious troupe of players, the Queen's Men, who were in Stratford in 1587 and possibly had an opening for a young actor. His arrival in London would have been exciting. It was a teeming city, dangerous, rapidly changing, with impressive architecture and sights. It would become the model for the urban settings in Shakespeare's plays. It is likely that Shakespeare's point of entry into the city was London Bridge, where he would have seen the heads of Somerville and Arden still on spikes. The fate of these relatives might give a clue to the lack of information now available for Shakespeare's biographers—in that dangerous political climate, Shakespeare learned to be secretive and private.

Chapter 6: Life in the Suburbs

Londoners looked outside city limits for entertainment, to the less regulated "liberties," or suburbs. Some of the suburban pastimes were violent and gory, such as the popular spectator sport of bull- or bear-baiting (the animals were tied to stakes and attacked by dogs). The suburbs were also home to whorehouses. Shakespeare assuredly also witnessed the severe physical punishments and executions of criminals that were a routine spectacle on London streets. That these sights drew Shakespeare's interest is evident in his plays. Among the spectacles that he would have seen were the theaters themselves, which were just emerging during the late sixteenth century. Religious and civic authorities felt the theaters, like other entertainments, were immoral and dangerous, and they tried to close them down. To make enough money, theaters had to draw repeat customers with a large repertory of plays; thus, there was considerable demand for a productive playwright. Shakespeare was inspired by his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who was the same age and of similar background. Marlowe's Tamburlaine would have been one of the first plays that Shakespeare saw in London.

Tamburlaine, with its exotic setting, its ambitious scope, its disregard for conventional morality, and its high poetic language, was utterly different from the plays he had seen in his youth. Shakespeare's first plays, especially the Henry VI trilogy, were clearly influenced by Marlowe. While Shakespeare lacked Marlowe's formal education and scholarly reading, his friend Richard Field, a printer, would have given him access to source material. Shakespeare's early history plays are inferior to his later work, but they were quite popular, and announced the arrival of a new major playwright.

Chapter 7: Shakescene

As he began to make his reputation in London, Shakespeare would have come in contact with the University Wits, the social circle of poets who wrote for the stage. The members of this group came from a variety of class backgrounds, but they had in common their degrees from Cambridge or Oxford, a fondness for drink, and a tendency for reckless, even criminal behavior. The group included the brilliant Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene, whom Greenblatt describes as "larger than life, a hugely talented, learned, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, self-promoting, shameless, and undisciplined scoundrel." Perhaps, initially, the University Wits would have been intrigued by and appreciative of the author of the Henry VI trilogy, despite his provincial upbringing and grammar school education. But whether by their choice or his, he did not join the group and did not adopt their lifestyle. He was an outsider and a rival. As his career was soaring in the early 1590s, the University Wits were meeting premature deaths from disease, violence, and dissipation. In a posthumous book attributed to Greene, the author insulted Shakespeare, calling him "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers." Shakespeare responded by parodying their works in his own plays, and by creating his great comic character, Falstaff. Falstaff, the carousing, witty, "fat knight" featured in Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, Henry V, and the Merry Wives of Windsor, was unmistakably modeled after Robert Greene.

Chapter 8: Master-Mistress

This chapter focuses on the poetry that Shakespeare wrote apart from his plays—especially his 154 sonnets. These were circulated in manuscript form well before they were printed as Shake-speares Sonnets in 1609. While the speaker of each sonnet ("I") is unambiguously Shakespeare, the addressee ("you") and other persons referred to are cunningly cloaked, so that scholars have been guessing at their identities for centuries. This effect was intentional. Shakespeare wrote the sonnets with the intention that only a very limited audience would understand them in their specific meanings. Greenblatt speculates that the first seventeen sonnets were commissioned for Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southhampton, a beautiful young aristocrat who was resisting considerable pressure to marry. These sonnets take the unconventional approach of encouraging the addressee to marry not out of love for a woman, but out of self-love: to replicate himself by having a child in his own image. In the process of making this argument, and in many of the 154 sonnets, the poet evinces his own love for this "master-mistress." Shakespeare explicitly dedicated his poems "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece" to Southhampton. The highly sensual former poem, one of the few works Shakespeare purposively had printed, was a popular success. Greenblatt suggests that in seeking an aristocratic patron, Shakespeare might have been trying to offset his loss of income from the temporary closings of the theatres because of civil unrest and the bubonic plague.

Chapter 9: Laughter at the Scaffold

Shakespeare's comedy The Merchant of Venice was a response to his rival Christopher Marlowe's own play about a Jewish villain, The Jew of Malta. Even though Jews were the sources of Judeo-Christian tradition, the evil figure of the Jew filled a crucial "symbolic role" as the ultimate outsider: anti-Christian and even inhuman. Barabas in The Jew of Malta, with his boundless hatred of Christianity, fulfills this role precisely: he has no redeeming characteristics. In that play and in his other work, Marlowe seemed to speak to his audience's fear and hatred of foreigners. The Jews had long since been expelled from England, but xenophobic mobs, or people who are fearful of foreign people and places, periodically attacked existing communities of immigrants. Shakespeare, in his contribution to the composition of an unperformed play, Sir Thomas More, actually had More oppose such mob violence. More importantly, Shylock, the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, demanded the audience's sympathy even as he excited their hatred. Greenblatt attributes this difference from Marlowe to Shakespeare's reaction to the case of Rodrigo Lopez, a physician to the Queen who was accused of plotting to poison her. Lopez, a professed Christian, was of Jewish origin, and his accusers claimed he still adhered to Judaism. The spectators at his execution laughed when he insisted on his innocence and his faith. The audience may have laughed at Shylock as well, but they would have been discomfited by their recognition of his common humanity.

Chapter 10: Speaking with the Dead

By 1600, it would seem that no accomplishment was lacking from Shakespeare's career—yet he entered into a brilliant new phase with the creation of a masterpiece, Hamlet. Shakespeare's great innovation was his display of inwardness—the state of his characters' troubled minds. Through his earlier work, Shakespeare had been steadily improving on the form of the soliloquy, or the speeches in which characters, alone on the stage, speak their thoughts aloud. Shakespeare adapted an old story about the Danish prince that had been produced as a play before and was available in published sources. In the earlier versions, the prince feigns madness as a child in order to stall for time, so that he can grow up and avenge his father's death. Shakespeare's character Hamlet, already a young adult, pretends to be crazy for no clear reason. This uncertainty makes his psychological state the focus of the play. Greenblatt suggests that the tragedy's emotional power might derive from Shakespeare's reaction to the death of his son, Hamnet, in 1596 (his name echoes "Hamlet") and the impending death of his father, in the context of the religious conflicts discussed in Chapter 3. Protestants banned Catholic funeral practices such as paying for masses to speed the passage of the deceased through Purgatory, the holding area between Heaven and Hell where the dead suffer while atoning their sins. But for people who believed in Purgatory, such as, perhaps, Shakespeare's parents, and possibly the playwright himself, their inability to help their dead loved ones would have been anguishing.

Chapter 11: Bewitching the King

By omitting the rationale for Hamlet's feigned madness, Shakespeare created opacity: a lack of transparency, a dark uncertainty that engages the spectator or reader in a limitless exploration into the depths of character. In his subsequent great tragedies, Othello and King Lear, Shakespeare similarly adapted his sources through the process Greenblatt calls the "excision of motive," by which he stripped away the obvious pretexts for the characters' behavior. It is unclear what induces Iago, the villain of Othello, to act with such hate, or what insecurity prompts Lear, fatally, to ask his daughters to demonstrate their love for him.

His next great tragedy, Macbeth, was specifically written for Queen Elizabeth's successor, James I. James had become an enthusiastic patron of Shakespeare's company, now known as the King's Men. Shakespeare wrote this play involving the assassination of a king, following a failed attempt on James's life, the so-called Gunpowder Plot. At the beginning of the play, the three witches prophesy that the lineage of Banquo, James's historical ancestor, will be established on the Scottish throne forever. If the prophesy reassured James, he would have had a more complicated response to the witches themselves. James was both fascinated and terrified by witches, whom he considered as agents of the devil. According to Greenblatt, the witches embody the principle of opacity, because their role in creating the terrible events of the play is unclear. Should one then look outward for the source of evil—to the witches—or inward, to oneself?

Chapter 12: The Triumph of the Everyday

Beginning with the composition of King Lear, in 1604, Shakespeare apparently had retirement on his mind. That play, in which Lear's retirement precipitates disaster, shows anxieties about the loss of status and dependency on one's children. Shakespeare seemed to have hedged against such an outcome with careful retirement planning, including substantial real-estate investments in and around Stratford. While he lived modestly in London, he would retire to a life as a country gentleman. In the last phase of his career—through which he and the King's Men continued to prosper—Shakespeare, repeatedly meditated on aging in his plays. The Tempest, which he probably wrote in 1611, can be considered as a summation of his career. The lead character, Prospero, has the magical power of a playwright to control and decide the fate of the other characters on his Island. In the end, he is lenient toward those who wronged him. Restored to his Dukedom, he chooses to relinquish his magic and to return home. Similarly, Shakespeare gave up scripting the fates of kings and lovers and returned to Stratford, to petty property disputes, a wife for whom he bore little love, a daughter who made an unfortunate marriage, and to a relationship he cherished, with his eldest daughter Susanna and her young family.

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