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Friday, 7 July 2006

Review: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt (2004)

Greenblatt's immense scholarship is worn lightly. In this highly entertaining book he struggles to resuscitate from the abyss of history, the formulative events of Shakespeare's life. Like studying with forensic precision the barrell that had held — once all the plays and poems have been emptied out of it, like rich wine — the playwright's copious works. This method, dubbed 'New Historicism', is the best way to tread upon the well-trod sands of this particular bay along the expansive coastline that is literature in the English language.

The chapter titles appear at first cryptic — 'Primal Scenes', 'The Dream of Restoration' — but once read they make perfect sense. And we learn that Shakespeare might — as Marlowe did — have gone on to study at university but for his father's economic troubles. We read about the things that might have influenced, and other things that undoubtedly did influence, Shakespeare's work.

But that 'might' is of paramount consideration. For, being a lowly player, the record as regards Shakespeare is extremely thin. Digging away like an army of termites at the foundations of ignorance, Greenblatt and the legions of literary scholars who preceeded him have worked to topple it, and clear the way for a new knowledge to be constructed, one based on fine and compendious knowledge.

Books on Shakespeare never seem to stop coming, and this is a tremendous addition to the shelves that already groan with biographies and critical studies. Greenblatt is a humanities professor at Harvard University and one of the editors of The Norton Shakespeare, which I own.

This is an illustration and an explanation of the author's method:

Though his imagination soared to faraway places, the fantasies that excited his imagination seem often to have had their roots in the actual circumstances of his life or rather in the expectation and longings and frustrations generated by those circumstances. Hence, in settings as remote as the mythical Athens of A Midsummer Night's Dream or the romantic Bohemia of The Winter's Tale, there are notes that take us back to the young man who grew up on Henley Street in Stratford and dreamed that he was a gentleman. Sometime in his late adolescence, the young man awoke to find that the dream had fled, along with his mother's dowry and his father's civic stature. But, as we have seen, he did not give it up, either in his life or in his art.

The study of Shakespeare — the man and the poetry — is a guessing game because so little is known of his life. He may have been a Catholic recusant, he may have been a tutor in the household of a Lancashire gentleman, he may have met strolling players in Stratford. We don't even know when and how he came to London. He most certainly, says Greenblatt, saw Christopher Marlowe's Tamberlaine:

The fingerprints of Tamberlaine (both the initial play and the sequel that soon followed) are all over the plays that are among Shakespeare's earliest known ventures as a playwright, the three parts of Henry VI—so much so that earlier textual scholars thought that the Henry VI plays must have been collaborative enterprises undertaken with Marlowe himself. The decided unevenness in the style of the plays suggests that Shakespeare may well have been working with others, though few scholars any longer believe that Marlowe was among them. Rather, the neophyte Shakespeare and his collaborators seem to have been looking over their shoulders at Marlowe's achievement.

At least we know something about the young men who congregated around the theatres, along with Marlowe: the university wits. There was Thomas Watson:

Watson's disturbing combination of impressive learning, literary ambition, duplicity, violence, and rootlessness is a clue to understanding his deep kinship—his blood brotherhood—with Marlowe.

Thomas Lodge:

Neither this nor the other plays in which Lodge had a hand showed much talent, and he seems in any case not to have staked all his hopes on a career as a playwright, for in 1588 he embarked on an adventurous voyage to the Canary Islands.

George Peele:

Another member of the circle of writers, George Peele, the son of a London salt merchant and accountant, had already as a student at Oxford begun to earn a reputation for wild pranks and riotous living—a book was published chronicling his supposed adventures—but he was also early noted for his gifts as a poet and a translator of Euripides.

Thomas Nashe:

Nashe was not normally one to give compliments. Of the university wits, he was the most bitingly satiric, and in the late 1580s, newly arrived in London, he was demonstrating his gift for mockery in a succession of anti-Puritan pamphlets.

Robert Greene:

But Greene was larger than life, a hugely talented, learned, narcissistic, self-dramatizing, self-promoting, shameless, and undisciplined scoundrel.

The complex wonderfulness of Hamlet causes Greenblatt to once more hark back to recusancy. If the ghost of Hamlet's father were a reimagining of his own father's plight, then the words he speaks make more sense. Shakespeare's father was ill and old at the time Hamlet was written. John Shakespeare was most probably a closet Catholic. Did his son wish to address the fears that a Catholic, unable to have last rites performed, would have?

The ghost has suffered the fate so deeply feared by pious Catholics. He has been taken suddenly from this life, with no time to prepare ritually for his end. "Cut off even in the blossom of my sin," he tells his son, adding in one of the play's strangest lines, "Unhousled, dis-appointed, unaneled" (1.5.76-77). "Unhouseled"—he did not recieve last communion; "dis-appointed"—he did not undertake deathbed confession oo appointment; "unaneled"—he did not recieve extreme unction, the anointing (or aneling) of his body with holy oil. He went into the afterlife without having undertaken any preparatory penance, and now he is paying the full price: "O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!" (1.5.80).

Greenblatt thinks that Hamlet is a mode of addressing uncertainties about death in the world of Reformed Anglicanism.

The Reformation was in effect offering [Shakespeare] an extraordinary gift—the broken fragments of what had been a rich, complex edifice—and he knew exactly how to accept and use this gift. He was hardly indifferent to the success he could achieve, but it was not a matter of profit alone. Shakespeare drew upon the pity, confusion, and dread of death in a world of damaged rituals (the world in which most of us continue to live) because he himself experienced those same emotions at the core of his being. He experienced them in 1596, at the funeral of his child, and he experienced them with redoubled force in anticipation of his father's death. He responded not with prayers but with the deepest expression of his being: Hamlet.

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