Will In the World, by Stephen Greenblatt

I have begun to read Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World – and am absolutely captivated. I’ll be posting more on it as I go along.

For someone like me – I’m not a scholar, but I’ve performed in some of these plays before, and I’m a total language-FREAK… it’s a perfect book. Greenblatt treats Shakespeare’s plays like a code to be cracked, yes … As in: what can we learn about the Bard from what he wrote about, how he wrote about it, and what he DIDN’T write about?? Let’s invesitgate his language, his wide frames of reference, what we know about his life …

But it doesn’t make the mistake of treating the plays ONLY like a code to be cracked.

The plays stand alone, in all their greatness, as works of art, and I don’t believe that they should be treated as Shakespeare’s alternate means of writing his autobiography. The plays are not just puzzle pieces to be put together. That kind of analysis strikes me as very unimaginative.

There are some things in life, in history, that will remain mysterious, and un-knowable. How does a genius like Shakespeare’s emerge? We can guess, we can speculate – and all of that can be great fun – but when all is said and done, what really matters is that it DID emerge. And we may never REALLY know where this guy was coming from, how he REALLY felt about his wife, his father … and that’s okay. That’s okay, because we have the plays.

Stephen Greenblatt, to my taste, has found the perfect balance in all of this. He doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s not trying to defend a thesis. (Example: Shakespeare obviously worked at a law office at some point because of his knowledge of legalistic matters, and how frequently he uses legal tangles in his plays … So now let me find 5,000 quotes to support my thesis.) So much of the scholarship surrounding Shakespeare is in that vein. And that’s okay, too – it’s all very interesting, and furthers the discussion. But I like Greenblatt’s style. He never ever forgets that there is so little that we do know, there is little that is certain … and yet … we have those damn plays. Shining across the centuries. Let’s look to the plays.

I am learning SO MUCH.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Will In the World, by Stephen Greenblatt

  1. Bryan says:

    I’m interested in your response to this book because Greenblatt was starting to become famous as a critic when I was in graduate school, and I ignored him because he was associated with the “New Historicist” school, which in turn was associated with Foucault, for whom I did not have much respect. But it sounds as if I may have been unfairly prejudiced against Greenblatt. Please continue to let us know what you think of the book.

  2. red says:

    I have not read his other stuff, so I can’t judge for sure … but so far, so good.

  3. Curtis says:

    Keep this up Red and I may have to get the book.

    I am really looking forward to this thread. I LOVE shakespeare!!

  4. Steve says:

    Curious about your view of Foucault. I liked him, but not for historical reasons. I can definitely understand why, he definitely fails on the “historical truth” aspect. I’ve read him more from a philosophical/sociological perspective.

    This Will in the World book does definitely sounds interesting. I wonder if he ever explicitly uses Foucault’s concept of genealogy or if it’s something more not so explicit.


  5. red says:

    Steve, sorry. I’m dumb and don’t know Foucault (the only way I know about him is because I love Camille Paglia and she hates him).

    What about geneology? What’s the concept you’re talking about?

    Greenblatt goes very much into what we can discern about Shakespeare’s parents … John and Mary … their backgrounds (Catholic and Protestant) … and a fall from grace … which Will Shakespeare was obviously obsessed with in many of his plays.

    One of the chapters in Greenblatt’s book is called “The Dream of Restoration” – and it’s brilliant, really – Shakespeare had a dream of restoring his family’s stature (which fell for mysterious and only guessed-at reasons) …

    So many of his plays are about family’s being broken apart by shipwrecks, or being tossed out into the forest – like in As You Like It – there are dukes and princesses running around in the forest like shepherds … trying to “restore” their fortunes, their good names.

    Greenblatt’s analysis of this is very good, I think.

    But again – what is the “concept of geneology” you mention?

  6. Steve says:

    Well, it’s originally borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s an essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History.” In it Foucault began a methodological shift. It’s sort of hard to describe, but basically it looks into the reasons why something came about. I’d have to get into it again, I haven’t read Foucault for a couple of years, but I read Nietzsche on a regular basis.

    Basically, it’s sort of an understanding of how things evolve, and an analysis. Things are very neat and clean. Morality comes about after much blood. Things usually are born out of their opposites. Truth from untruth.

    That’s really interesting about Shakespeare’s desire to restore the family name. He *sure* did that. But Nietzsche’s/Foucault’s “genealogy” doesn’t have to do with human families. It’s families of concepts, and how they’re related.

    I’ll look into this stuff again and see what I can come up with that makes sense and might be halfway applicable. For Foucault power was more important than truth, so his history isn’t entirely accurate, but Foucault isn’t against making shit up if it creates the right political change/effect.

  7. Steve says:

    I meant: “Things aren’t neat and clean”

  8. red says:

    Hmmm. Very interesting.

    I have to say that what I have enjoyed so far about this book is that you can tell the guy is a FAN of Shakespeare (so much lit crit is so dry, you literally cannot tell if the author they are criticizing is good or not, or whether or not they even enjoy reading the person – there’s no JUICE in the prose, you know?) – So I like that. Greenblatt doesn’t hide his admiration.

    But he also openly admits that he’s guessing. And yet he paints a very very compelling picture … the ground from which Shakespeare sprung, the religious wars in England at the time …

    Shakespeare BUYING a coat of arms once he became successful – it was A way to restore the family’s name (even though, for unclear reasons – perhaps religious – his father lost his fortune and stature) … Shakespeare was made fun of mercilessly for the coat of arms thing, Ben Jonson put the incident into one of his plays in a mocking way … but obviously Shakespeare thought all the teasing would be worth it.

    I’ll definitely post some excerpts.

    This’ll be some good discussions.

  9. red says:

    One of the sad facts I have learned from reading this book – is that Shakespeare’s parents and his wife were most probably illiterate. They never would have read his plays.

  10. Steve says:

    This seems a decent synopsis, at a 6,000 foot level:


    Probably the most important idea in your author’s methodology is that that the ultimate origin of Shakespeare’s work isn’t that important. Even if we could derive the ending of Hamlet from a little gastrointestinal indigestion the night before, it wouldn’t be that interesting, and it wouldn’t be very useful to us as readers, or as human beings.

    It sounds like Greenblatt has backed off a little bit from the “ultimate grounds” of a text, but he also doesn’t completely disregard the author’s intentions or his authority. He sounds a little pomo, but not entirely.

    I think the point of a nice analysis of someone’s work (in this case Shakespeare’s sonnets) is how it can connect us to Shakespeare, and how it can help us connect to ourselves. While history is important, it’s not the ultimate thing, because not all facts are equally important.

  11. Steve says:

    You say:

    “so much lit crit is so dry, you literally cannot tell if the author they are criticizing is good or not, or whether or not they even enjoy reading the person – there’s no JUICE in the prose, you know?”

    Exactly. It’s very hard to write a compelling piece of lit crit that takes into account what we as readers need/want while not completely obliterating the intentions of the author or the facts of the case in history.

  12. Steve says:

    Also, I’m a total language freak, too. My three favorite authors are Nietzsche, Tolkien, and Dante. Two linguists and a poet who put Italian on the map.

  13. red says:

    I think a lot of these academic theorists are obviously writing for one another … Have I ever posted excerpts from the “bad academic writing” contest? They are unBELIEVABLE. Because they are REAL!!

    This guy Greenblatt is obviously writing for us. A wider readership.

    Critics used to always write for a wide audience. Some of the best writers around were critics. No more, no more.

    Also – because I have a lot of background in Shakespeare, just from my ACTING training, I like Greenblatt’s enthusiasm, and I really like how he talks about what it was to be an actor back then.

    He GETS that these plays are meant to be PLAYED.

    Yeah, a bunch of academic folks can sit around and talk about them until the cows come home … but it’s the actors who make it come alive. Shakespeare knew that better than anybody.

    Richard III, while an amazing play, was one of the times when Shakespeare forgot that an actual PERSON would have to play that part. Okay, I realize I’m going to have to explain myself.

    Richard III was one of his earlier plays. So he was an inexperienced (so to speak) playwright. Jeez, if I could be inexperienced and write a play like that!!

    But anyway, there is a flaw in Richard III, and anyone (any actor, I mean) who has had to PLAY the damn thing has discussed it.

    As Shakespeare got more experienced as an author and as an actor – you can tell the difference in his plays. He has learned that actors often need BREAKS during a play. Especially if they are the lead. So he had to build the breaks into the script.

    Example: A huge swordfight happens, let’s say, between the two lead males. An emotional physical scene, with lots of dialogue, lots of emoting. The next scene will be a diversionary scene, with minor characters – Neither of the two swordfighters will be in the scene. Maybe it’s a comedic scene. Something.

    Shakespeare, because he was an actor, knew: “Have to give those two a bit of a break now.”

    It’s also good playwriting – putting in comedic relief, etc. Audiences need it.

    But in Richard III Shakespeare hadn’t learned that lesson yet. So Richard III is in scene after scene after scene AND he of course is also a hunchback, which is a huge strain on an actor. Actors throughout the centuries have ruined their backs or permanently injured themselves during a long run of that show.

    Shakespeare learned his lesson – and started to construct his plays more artfully, so that the lead characters wouldn’t be in every scene, and could have a breathing moment backstage. Important for the audience, too. To get a break in the action. Laugh a bit before moving on to the tragedy.

    Anyway – I have a ton of ACTOR-ish anecdotes like that, and I know about iambic pentameter, and I have a lot of training in that realm … but to get into it from this other angle is a wonderful experience.

  14. Ash says:

    I suppose at some point such a book must at least touch on the authorship debate, right?

    If that subject ever comes up, be aware that I am an Oxfordian. IMHO, the man from Stratford was functionally illiterate. I’m with Mark Twain and Orson Welles on that issue.

    I’m just sayin’…

  15. red says:

    Ash – heh heh. Of course it gets into that debate. But obviously the book does not take that as its thesis.

  16. Dave J says:

    “Shakespeare BUYING a coat of arms once he became successful…”

    Give the heralds some money and you, too, can still buy yourself a proper coat of arms:





    Though the Irish sadly seem particularly susceptible to this, do not buy the line that there are “arms of a family”, let alone “arms of a name.” That is a myth trading on romantic nostalgia to make money. Armorial bearings, at least west of the Rhine, are personal rather than familial.

Comments are closed.