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

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Historical Context

(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages

Shakespeare was born near the beginning of the Elizabethan Age, during which the ruler of Britain was Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), and he worked and lived into the Jacobean Age, under James I (1603–1625). Despite the long reigns of these monarchs, the period from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries was one of great social change within England, accompanied by political unrest. The religious conflicts that were set in motion when Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, left the Roman Catholic Church were a constant source of fear and violence. Both Elizabeth and James were in constant fear of assassination. Greenblatt describes a time that was heavily legalistic, with constant petty lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. "London was a nonstop theater of punishments" where offenders were tortured and sometimes executed in public. Daily life was strictly regulated, but this was also a time when someone like Shakespeare could leave his hometown and his father's profession, and rise up in the world. Finally, this period was a heyday for literature and especially drama: Shakespeare was the foremost of many playwrights and poets to flourish during the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages.

Contemporary Culture

The context for Will in the World is our own—a world in which William Shakespeare is very much alive as the most influential and popular literary artist in the English language, and maybe all languages. His influence goes well beyond literature: he permeates our culture. His plays Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth are among the most commonly taught works in high school English. Students of those plays might recognize such lines as:

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet" (Romeo and Juliet act 1, scene 2)

"Et tu, Brute!" (Julius Caesar act 3, scene 1)

"To be or not to be, that is the question" (Hamlet act 3, scene 1)

"Out, damned spot! out, I say!" (Macbeth act 5, scene 1)

More significantly, those lines would be familiar to many people who have not read the plays. They have been absorbed into our popular culture. Similarly, Shakespeare's plays are regularly performed; many have been adapted as films, and many have been reinterpreted in modern forms. For example, the adaptations of Romeo and Juliet include an opera by Charles Gounod, a ballet with music by Sergei Prokofiev, the musical West Side Story by Stephen Sondheim, and several films, including one directed by Baz Luhrmann with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the lead roles. Similarly, the comedy The Taming of the Shrew has been adapted as a musical, Kiss Me Kate, and a movie, Ten Things I Hate About You, set in a modern high school. Shakespeare is such a lasting and pervasive presence in our culture that it is difficult to imagine what it would be like if he had never existed.

Accordingly, there is a great deal of interest in the man as well as the works, such that a biography of Shakespeare—nearly four hundred years after his death—could well be a popular and commercial success. In his review of Will in the World for the London Review of Books, Colin Burrow complains that Greenblatt's biography is selling much more briskly than, for example, King Lear: "People are a lot more likely to buy books about Shakespeare's life than they are to buy books by Shakespeare." Yet it is natural to be curious about the Elizabethan man whose imagination has had such a role in shaping today's world. In his "Preface," Greenblatt himself asks, "How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?"

Academia

There is another relevant context to Will in the World : academia, or the professional world of higher education. This is the context that Greenblatt emerges from, as an English professor at Harvard University. Most academics write books and articles that are read only by other academics. A few, like the historian Simon Schama, Greenblatt's Harvard colleague Louis...

(The entire section is 1,562 words.)