Friday, March 23, 2007

Will in the World, Final


If you’ve read my last post on Shakespeare (“Shakespeare Everywhere!”), you’d know I’ve found myself unexpectedly surrounded by the legendary playwright for the past month. He’s been popping up in the strangest places like a hidden element in a “Where’s a Waldo!” picture (“Where’s Will!”). Today, not only is he gracing the cover of my April 2007 Harper’s Magazine (“The Mirror of Life: How Shakespeare Conquered the World” by Jonathan Bate) but he’s also making a surprise appearance - ok, not so much a surprise considering the forum - in my April/May “Bookforum.” In its ‘Pub Dates’ section, “Bookforum” informs readers that Abrams Books is releasing Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet and Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet in April. Manga Shakespeare...uh, no comment. Actually, I think it might be kind of cool but, alright, no further comment.

I will, however, say that I have finally completed the reason for my recent Shakespeare inundation, Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt. Will in the World is a massive achievement, not least of all because it is a compelling biography of a man whose known facts of life, according to John Mitchell, “can be written down on one side of a sheet of notepaper." Thus, the nearly four hundred page Will in the World is basically, in the words of Greenblatt himself, “an exercise in speculation,” but it is engrossing speculation nonetheless. Greenblatt uses the only true records left of Shakespeare’s inner life, his plays, to breathe life into not only the man but also the plays (although, conspicuously, Greenblatt fails to mention that authorship of many of the plays he uses to recreate Shakespeare’s life have been called into question by several Bard scholars).

Greenblatt is less concerned with literary conspiracy theories than he is with the life of the man on whom the book is based. He’s more concerned with showing readers how Shakespeare could have lived and developed as a playwright if only we, the audience, are willing to approach the history of Shakespeare in exactly the same way the playwright demanded of his sixteenth century audiences - with suspended belief and the power of our imagination. What we get in return is entertainment of the highest value and, if we are paying attention, an education on and illumination of all those dark, secret places.

I spent three months in a course on Shakespeare and never learned as much as I have in reading Greenblatt’s elegant biography. Granted, there are some glaring omissions of explanation (i.e. just how did an untraveled man with no university training manage to read untranslated Italian plays?), but those holes in his biography only serve to make the playwright more intriguing. Was he bisexual or wasn’t he? Did he hate his wife or didn’t he? Was he a recusant Catholic or wasn’t he? Perhaps we’ll never know and, in the end, none of it really matters because after it’s all said and done “what matters most are the works.” Shakespeare made poetry of the English language and, in his biography of the poet, so does Greenblatt.

6 comments:

Brandon said...

I borrowed "Will in the World" from the library earlier this week. I'm looking forward to starting it!

J.S. Peyton said...

Great! Let me know how you like it.

bhadd said...

The Harper's article is less interesting methinks. Bate sets out to tell us how Shakespeare conquers the world. Because he was better than anyone else is his answer!

The Hood Company

J.S. Peyton said...

Yeah, I was a bit disappointed with the Harper's article myself. At one point Bate writes, "Shakespeare endures because with each new turn of history, a new dimension of his work opens up before us." I wonder if the demensions that Bates speaks of are there because Shakespeare intended them to be there or if they're there because we shape the plays to fit our own "new turn of history."

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