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

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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Characters

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Edmund Campion

Campion was a Jesuit who illegally entered England and was sojourning in the northern province of Lancashire at the same time that Shakespeare may have been there. He was the most famous Catholic martyr of the era. He beat his Protestant counterparts in a debate just before his grisly execution in 1581.

Earl of Southhampton

Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of South-hampton, was an attractive, effeminate young aristocrat. He was under pressure from his family to marry but for years he refused to do so. He was the likely addressee of many of Shakespeare's sonnets, and may have had a secret relationship with the playwright.

Queen Elizabeth I

Shakespeare lived most of his life during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. Like her father Henry VIII, she was a Protestant, who reversed the policies of the brief reign of her Catholic half-sister, ("Bloody") Mary I. She supported the theater, although she was cautious about public gatherings because she feared social and political unrest.


Falstaff, whom Greenblatt describes as "the greatest comic character in English literature," is a character featured in the history plays 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V, and the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff was overweight, irresponsible, and devoted to merry-making. Shakespeare modeled Falstaff after rival poet Robert Greene.

Robert Greene

The central figure in the University Wits—a group of university-educated poets and playwrights who met in pubs—the flamboyant, reckless Robert Greene insulted Shakespeare in a posthumous book, Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, calling him "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers." Greene was the inspiration for the character of Falstaff.


The title character of Shakespeare's most famous masterpiece, Prince Hamlet of Denmark was challenged by the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, to avenge his murder by his brother, Claudius, who married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is famous for his indecision about how to proceed. Greenblatt points out that his famous soliloquy, "To be, or not to be," is actually a meditation on suicide. With the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare accomplished the portrayal of a character's "inner life."

Anne Hathaway

See Anne Shakespeare

King James I

James Stuart, who was king from 1603–1625, was a more enthusiastic supporter of the theatre than his predecessor, Elizabeth. He took over the patronage of Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, renaming them the King's Men. Like Elizabeth, he feared assassination; the infamous Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt on his life. He was the special intended audience for Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. Shakespeare used witches in its opening scene because he knew that James was both fascinated and horrified by witches.

Ben Jonson

The playwright Ben Jonson was a late contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, and a great playwright who created such satirical plays as Volpone and The Alchemist. There is a story that Shakespeare died from overdrinking at a "merry meeting" with Jonson.

King Lear

The aged title character of the tragedy King Lear chooses to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. His foolish request that they demonstrate their love for him sets in motion the disastrous chain of events that results in the death of his one faithful daughter, Cordelia, Lear himself, and several others. For Greenblatt, the character of Lear evokes Shakespeare's anxieties about aging.

Roderigo Lopez

The Portuguese Lopez was Queen Elizabeth's doctor. Although he was of Jewish origin, he was a professed Christian. In 1594, he was arrested on suspicion of plotting to poison Elizabeth. His conviction and execution may have inspired Shakespeare's somewhat sympathetic portrait of Shylock, the Jewish villain of his comedy The Merchant of Venice.

Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe was the most talented playwright in London when Shakespeare arrived on the scene in the 1580s. He was a major influence on Shakespeare and became...

(The entire section is 1,394 words.)