A literary evolution
There are a number of would-be biographies of William Shakespeare, based on very thin evidence. And there are a plenitude of literary analyses of Shakespeare's works that purport to weave biographical connections, generally with an embarrassing tangle of gossamer threads.
Stephen Greenblatt brings a wealth of knowledge of both Shakespeare and his times, plus a very sensitive observer's awareness of both the writer and the period, to what truly is a literary biography in a richness that most such cannot approach, whatever heaps of biographical detail may be available for their subjects. Greenblatt is general editor of The Norton Shakespeare and author or editor of other literary-historical works. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is an outstanding book, melding character, historical time, and literary richness. After reading and re-reading Will in the World, I believe I have a far truer understanding of Shakespeare than ever before; possess a heightened appreciation for his times; and continue to enjoy Greenblatt's brilliantly illuminating insights into the writings.
Reticence preferred to risk
Greenblatt makes a good case that the scarcity of detail about Shakespeare's personal life is not accidental. Although a public, rooted figure in both London and Stratford, Shakespeare was extremely reticent about his personal thoughts and feelings. His Sonnets are almost a byword for allusiveness: secrets too private to reveal, presented in poems that must be published. Greenblatt engages the reader in the Sonnets' notorious mysteries, shedding more clear and useful light than I have seen elsewhere.
Greenblatt shows that Shakespeare was raised in a crypto-Catholic family, in an era of religious-political turmoil in villages as in nations: conversions, feigned conversions, subversions, apostasies, and persecutions even unto death. It is reasonable that this unsettled social background contributed to his wary reticence; but to our everlasting fortune, it also underwent a sea-change into many rich passages in the plays:
Plays & players at Stratford
There are traces of Catholicism here [Romeo and Juliet kissing, 1.5.100-107], of a kind that Campion [a Jesuit agitator] would immediately have recognized, but the theology and the ritual practice have been wittily turned into desire and fulfillment.
The beautiful, playful lines from Romeo and Juliet were written in the mid-1590s, some fifteen years after the moment when Shakespeare may have encountered Campion. But the sly blend of displacement and appropriation, the refashioning of traditional religious materials into secular performance, and the confounding of the sacred and the profane are characteristic of virtually the whole of Shakespeare's achievement as dramatist and poet.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, written relatively early in his career, the beds of the newly wed couples are blessed, as they would have been in a popular Catholic practice outlawed by the Protestants, but it is not with holy water; rather, the fairies sprinkle them with "field-dew consecrate" (5.2.45). And in The Winter's Tale, written near its end, there is an ecstatic description of a solemn ritual conducted by priests dressed in "celestial habits," but the "grave wearers" of those habits are not celebrating the Mass; rather, what is being described is the Delphic Oracle [3.1.3-8] ....
Young Will Shakespeare probably was early entranced by drama. In fact, he had some particular advantages despite his provincial surroundings:
Long before performances in school, Will may already have discovered that he had a passion for playacting. In 1569, when he was five, his father, as the bailiff — that is, the mayor — of Stratford-upon-Avon, ordered that payments be made to two companies of professional actors, the Queen's Men and the Earl of Worcester's Men, which had come to town on tour. These traveling playing companies would not have been an especially impressive sight: some six to a dozen "strowlers" carrying their costumes and props in a wagon ...
Festivals, pageants, plays were staged in Stratford or within walking distance:
The plays in repertory in the 1560s and '70s were for the most part "morality plays," or "moral interludes," secular sermons designed to show the terrible consequences of disobedience, idleness, or dissipation.
This then-lively tradition of morality plays certainly entertained the masses:
In Wit and Science, the hero Wit, asleep in the lap of Idleness, is transformed into a fool, complete with cap and bells, but he is saved when he catches sight of himself in a mirror and realizes that he looks "like a very ass!" Only after he is sharply whipped by Shame and taught by a group of strict schoolmasters — Instruction, Study, and Diligence — is Wit restored to his proper appearance and able to celebrate his marriage to Lady Science.
But as we can see in hindsight, and Shakespeare certainly realized, the stage had a lot of room for improvement.
Into something rich and strange
He absorbed their impact early, and they helped fashion the foundations, largely hidden well beneath the surface, of his writing. That writing builds upon two crucial expectations the morality plays instilled in their audiences: first, the expectation that drama worth seeing would get at something central to human destiny and, second, that it should reach not only a coterie of the educated elite but also the great mass of ordinary people.
Just one vein of instances here:
... humor ... often centered on the stock character known generally as the Vice. This jesting, prattling mischief-maker ... embodied simultaneously the spirit of wickedness and the spirit of fun. The audience knew that he would in the end be defeated and driven, with blows or fireworks, from the stage. But for a time he pranced about, scorning the hicks, insulting the solemn agents of order and piety, playing tricks on the unsuspecting, plotting mischief, and luring the innocent into taverns and whorehouses. The audience loved it.
Of course these vivid experiences stayed with Shakespeare, and were in time creatively enriched and transformed by his genius.
And London; and Marlowe
... above all, they provided him with a source for a theatrically compelling and subversive figure of wickedness.
The Vice, the great subversive figure of the moralities, was never far from Shakespeare's creative mind. With mingled affection and wariness, Hal refers to Falstaff as "that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity" (1 Henry IV, 2.5.413); the mordantly funny, malevolent Richard III likens himself to "the formal Vice, Iniquity" (3.1.82); and Hamlet describes his wily, usurping uncle as "a vice of kings" (3.4.88).
The word "vice" does not have to be directly invoked for the influence to be apparent: "Honest Iago," for example, with his air of camaraderie, his sly jokes, and his frank avowal of villainy, is heavily indebted to this figure. It is no accident that his diabolical plot against Othello and Desdemona takes the form of a practical joke, an unbearably cruel version of the tricks played by the Vice.
It may seem strange at first that the lovable Falstaff should find himself in the company of cold-hearted murderers like Claudius and Iago. But Shakespeare learned something else essential to his art from the morality plays; he learned that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is surprisingly porous. ...
After provincial morality plays, Greenblatt shows evocatively, Shakespeare felt the stimulating impact of moving to the great city of London; and with perhaps equal impact, the great dramatic talent of Christopher Marlowe:
London, the chronicler Stow wrote, "was a mighty arm and instrument to bring any great desire to effect." The great public theaters that went up from the 1570s onward — the Theater, the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, the Globe, the Red Bull, the Fortune, and the Hope — were in the business of fostering and catering to such great desires.
Shakespeare encountered this central principle in its purest form almost immediately upon his arrival, for in 1587, just at the time he was finding his feet in London, crowds were flocking to the Rose to see the Lord Admiral's Men perform Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Shakespeare almost certainly saw the play (along with the sequel that shortly followed), and he probably went back again and again. It may indeed have been one of the first performances he ever saw in a playhouse — perhaps the first — and, from its effect upon his early work, it appears to have had upon him an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact.
So this gives you some idea how Greenblatt interweaves his detailed knowledge of Shakespeare's life, career, and his times in England, with fine insight into many of the poems and plays: including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; and The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, and so on.
Quite aside from Shakespeare, there's enough material here for a literary-social history. For instance, the personalities of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I are important factors in what the player companies could put on the stage, and censorship always was a risk.
I find fascinating the contest between the young contemporaries Marlowe and Shakespeare before the former was assassinated in connection with his secret service; and continuing in Shakespeare's mind even after Marlowe's death. They both did history plays and long erotic poems. Greenblatt discusses why Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was not closely countered or emulated by Shakespeare; and shows how Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was "answered" by Shakespeare with The Merchant of Venice.
Brilliant, informative, entertaining. Any single chapter in Will in the World is worth the price of the book.