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February 28, 2005

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

Posted by David Womersley

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt
Pp. 430. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004
Hardback, £20

The jacket of Stephen Greenblatt's new book describes him, perhaps unguardedly, as "the founder of the school of literary criticism known as New Historicism". There is no question but that Greenblatt is the best-known of the New Historicists, and his influential study Renaissance Self-Fashioning is probably the work in that idiom which enjoys the highest sales, to judge from the frequency of its reprinting. Nevertheless, one can distinguish between pre-eminence in a field and being the chief begetter of it, and one imagines that Greenblatt himself might have winced at the bluffness of the claim that he had founded New Historicism, since he himself has been at pains to register the way its roots reach out widely into pre-existing intellectual soil: into, for instance, the anthropology of Clifford Geertz, or the cultural criticism of Michel Foucault. But that aside, it is apposite for Greenblatt's earlier work to be recalled in the context of his venturing into the perjured world of Shakespearean biography, since the premises and practices of the New Historicism find an echo in Will in the World.

What is, or rather was, the New Historicism? It was nothing so simple as just reading with an awareness of historical context. Its key premise was summed up in the chiastic slogan: "The textuality of history, and the historicity of texts". When unpacked, this slogan seemed to deny to the past any ontological separateness from or priority to literature, and so disabled it from performing its customary role of policing the production of literary meaning (as, for instance, in the denial that Paine's Rights of Man was an argument for the creation of the welfare state, since the concept of such a thing was impossible for Paine to have proposed to himself in the absence of other concepts and events necessary for its creation which, at the time of that book's composition, had not yet occurred).

Instead, literature and history were made to engage with one another in ways which were often exciting and provocative, but which were also epistemologically unclear. For when both literature and history are conceived of as texts requiring interpretation, then at the level of theory it becomes difficult to say quite how one should use either to illuminate the other. So even when New Historicist readings were at their most alluring, one could never quite free oneself from the uneasy sense that here was an argument pulling itself up by its own boot-straps.

But these qualms tended to be suppressed by the exciting strangeness of the readings the New Historicists often came up with. The doctrine of the textuality of history absolved them from the tedious imperatives of balance or coverage to which actual historians, hampered as they were by a different understanding of the ontology of the past, were subject. The New Historicists could take some fragment of the past – a court case, a painting, an encounter related in a work of travel literature – construe it as if it were itself a literary work, and then use the insights so generated in a reading of an actual literary work. In respect both of practice and theory this was redolent of the work of Foucault, whose doctrine of the episteme had received its most vivid expression in Les Mots et les Choses, a work which began with a virtuoso reading of a picture, Velasquez's Las Meninas. And, as with Foucault, the exiguousness of the archival foundations of this way of proceeding was offered to the reader less as a practical limitation than as a theoretical asset. This was like the old trick of hiding something by placing it in full view. For longer than one would have thought possible the essential impressionism of the New Historicism, and the almost entirely conjectural nature of the links it drew between word and world, passed without comment.

This is of relevance to Will in the World because, although the necessary premises of a literary biography might seem to challenge those of the New Historicism, in fact the same thread of impressionism runs through them both. An interesting aspect of the New Historicism was that the factual density of the atmosphere which allowed it to respire was critical. Before the accession of Henry VIII, the factual atmosphere was too thin: after the execution of Charles I, it was too rich. Although it is customary to bemoan our lack of knowledge of Shakespeare's life, we know quite a lot about him. It is just that what we know is not what we want to know. We know a good deal about his property dealings. But we have no private letters, or diaries, or annotated books, or even manuscripts of his works (excepting the the few leaves of the The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore which may be in Shakespeare's hand). In the patchiness of Shakespeare's life-records, Greenblatt's acute intelligence finds a benign environment for conjecture. Here again (as in his earlier writings in the vein of New Historicism), such shreds of information as we possess are too few to operate as any effectual discipline for interpretation, but are sufficiently precise and vivid in themselves that they can serve as a spring-board for the impulse to interpret.

In the early chapters of Will in the World, those focusing upon Shakespeare's life before he left Stratford to enter the world of the theatre in London, Greenblatt is forced to employ the darkest of the biographical arts, and here the reader is often told about what might have happened, what maybe happened, what could have happened. But things improve once we reach the theatrical period of Shakespeare's life, for at the core of this book is a series of often brilliant suggestions about some of Shakespeare's plays. For instance, Greenblatt's reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream as incorporating Shakespeare's familiarity with, and humanely-balanced commentary on, the traditions of popular and festive provincial drama in which he had been raised; or his exploration of Shakespeare's relationship with the band of established playwrights who were already writing for the stage when he arrived in London, and in particular his discerning of the shape of Robert Greene in the character of Falstaff; or his relation of the power of the great tragedies to the creation of a certain controlled opacity on Shakespeare's part – these are bewitching ideas, and they are laid out before the reader with consummate skill by Greenblatt.

But why is this offered to us as a biography? Greenblatt says that(pp. 119-20):

the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare's life arises from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.
Maybe: but what about the fact that Shakespeare seems to have been able to create intense dramatic episodes out of experiences which we know he could never have had in either body or soul? Shakespeare never fought in a battle or served in an army, yet was able to write Act IV, Scene 1 of Henry V. And the implications of examples such as that go in two directions. They admonish us that we don't need to find correlatives in the life for episodes in the plays, but also that episodes in the plays need not be correlated to the life, even when we might suppose that a correlative exists. Quoting Orsino's advice that it is better for husbands to be older than wives, and linking this to what he presents (on slender evidence) as Shakespeare's unhappy marriage to the older Anne Hathaway, Greenblatt asks (p. 124):
How could he have written Orsino's words without in some sense bringing his own life, his disappointment, frustration, and loneliness, to bear upon them?.
To which we might answer, bearing in mind the significance of all those episodes in the plays which have no imaginable point of contact with Shakespeare's life: easily.

Of course, there is much virtue in that phrase "in some sense". Greenblatt repeatedly insists that he is not arguing for any simple or direct relationship between word and world:
Shakespeare's actual world gets into his work, but most often in a distorted, inverted, disguised, or reimagined form (p. 220);
there is no easy, obvious link between what Shakespeare wrote . . . and the known circumstances of his own life’ (p. 356);
It will not do to force the point (p. 370).
But to state the problem is not to avoid it, and in practice he does not have many alternatives to, in the end, precisely forcing the point.

An intriguing moment in the argument comes when Greenblatt chastises the "irate minister, John Northbrooke" for his inadequate sense of the aesthetic, as it found expression in his fulminating conviction that the public theatre nourished moral depravity (p. 186):

If you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlot to obtain one's love, how to ravish, how to beguile, how to betray, to flatter, lie, swear, forswear, how to allure to whoredom, how to murder, how to poison, how to disobey and rebel against princes, to consume treasures prodigally, to move to lusts, to ransack and spoil cities and towns, to be idle, to blaspheme, to sing filthy songs of love, to speak filthily, to be proud . . .
– so Northbrooke's catalogue of the sins ministered to by the drama goes on. But the inadequacy in Northbrooke's understanding of art (if you see it on stage, you have to act it out in life) bears a curious relation to the key assumption in Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare: namely, if it has to have been acted out in life, you'll eventually see it on the stage.

Hamlet reproaches Guildenstern for his desire to "pluck out the heart of my mystery" (III.ii); and so might Shakespeare reproach Greenblatt. Hamlet, Shakespeare and Wittgenstein might join in recommending a principle which would put paid to all such books as this: whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.


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