Thursday, February 22, 2007

Will in the World, pt. 1

by Stephen Greenblatt
pgs. 11-105

Lately, it seems I've been reading several books set in Europe or - as in the case of All Souls' Rising (Haiti) - set in countries which fell under the scope of European rule. Together, with Captain Alatriste (Spain) and now with Will in the World (England), they have reinforced one undeniable fact - my European history sucks. Once upon a time, I knew the names of the kings and the queens, the princes and the princesses. I knew who married whom, what religion started where, who had a revolution, when, how, and why. But that was a long time ago. Now all these books set in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe has my head spinning. Sadly, I've been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia.

In spite of (or maybe, because of) my crappy knowledge of European history, I've wanted Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World for a long time. For years, in fact. I've only recently added it to my collection because I don't like hardbacks. (I'll buy a small one but I find the larger hardbacks too heavy, I don't care how good they look on my bookshelf.) So, I bidded my time and waited. When I saw the paperback Will in the World in the bookstore, I snatched it up like it was the last copy.

I fell in love with Shakespeare the day I read my first Bard play, The Tragedy of Macbeth. I won't torture you with talk of how much I love that play ("Out damned spot! Out!") but when I attended university, I bravely took a course in Shakespeare with the hardest professor in the department because I absolutely love the Bard's way with words. Unfortunately, during those four blissful months, I learned much about Shakespeare's plays and very little about the man. Will in the World is intended to rectify that situation.

Yet I'm beginning to doubt that it can. The facts of Shakespeare's life are based on more speculation than I thought. Several of Greenblatt's sentences begin with qualifiers such as: if, could have, it's possible, and maybe. When discussing Shakespeare's (possible) early education, Greenblatt writes,

"No surviving records indicate how often the Stratford teachers during Will's school years had the boys perform plays or which plays they assigned. Perhaps there was a time, a year or so before Will left school, when the teacher - Oxford-educated Thomas Jenkins - decided to have the boys perform Plautus's frenetic farce about identical twins, The Two Menaechmuses. And perhaps on this occasion..."

Thanks to Greenblatt's writing, the scholarly speculation which composes much of Shakespeare's early life, hasn't become annoying. Instead, it just seems honest.