Shakespeare in Love, or in Context

If society creates art, as Stephen Greenblatt believes, then why was Shakespeare's achievement so singular?

Shakespeare is a biographer's nightmare. Not because the information about him is so overwhelming or incriminating but because it is so slight and so stubbornly innocuous. We forgive our great poets almost anything—suicide (Sylvia Plath), homicide (Ben Jonson), incest (William Wordsworth), hubris (Oscar Wilde), drunkenness (Edgar Allan Poe), insanity (Friedrich Nietzsche), sexual excess of every description (Byron, Shelley, Houellebecq—who not?). What we are loath to forgive is quiet respectability.

The things we know for sure about Shakespeare's life could be put into three pages and read aloud on Nickelodeon. Born to a social-climbing glover in provincial Stratford-upon-Avon, he went to school in his home town, picked up "small Latine and lesse Greeke" (as a better-bred colleague put it), married at eighteen a woman some years his senior, fathered three children (one of whom died), headed to London and became the best-loved playwright of his day, performed the parts of elderly men, struck advantageous financial deals, and bought himself gentleman status in the form of a coat of arms. He then moved his family into the finest house in Stratford, retired at around fifty, and died at fifty-two, having written a will that virtually disinherited a daughter who married unwisely, shortchanged his wife, and provided a model of what in a lesser man might be called control-freakishness. Not content to bestow the bulk of his fortune on his preferred daughter, Susanna, he specified that after her death it go "to the first son of her body lawfully issuing, and to the heir males of the body of the said first son … [or] second son … and for default of such heirs to the third son … [or] to the fourth, fifth, sixth, & seventh sons." This was not a man who left much to accident. This was not a man whom but for the capacious and shockingly imaginative plays that he left behind we would ever take for a free spirit.

What is the relation between the singer and the song? We do not like it that the man who wrote ravishing scenes of young lovers defying their parents damned his own child for romantic indiscretions. We do not like it that the man who created the wildly witty, raucous Falstaff was not himself the life of the party—that he was not even, as his near contemporary John Aubrey said, a "company keeper." How much more gratifying for biographer and reader alike if Shakespeare were, well, Marlowe, or Thomas Kyd, or any of the many other playwrights who swirled around him in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century London. The lives of these men were full of duels, charges of atheism and espionage, barroom brawls, and breathless trysts. Maybe, we think, we just don't know enough about Shakespeare. But then again, maybe we know little because there is simply little to know. Perhaps Shakespeare just went home earlier than the others, risked less, bragged less, fought less, courted fewer women and disasters alike.

There were six dramatists on the scene when Shakespeare arrived in London in the 1580s: Robert Greene, Thomas Watson, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Lodge. They were all far more flamboyant and colorful than their Stratford colleague. They were also, in all likelihood, far less gifted. But we will never know, because every one of them save Lodge (who quit the theater) died far too young to have fulfilled his potential—Marlowe at twenty-nine, Greene at thirty-two, Nashe at thirty-three, Watson at thirty-five, Peele, the eldest, at thirty-nine.

There are artists whose art is life: Marlowe and Greene, to be sure, but also Oscar Wilde, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry Miller. Such artists may produce great literature as a by-product of their genius, but it will always be, to steal Milton's phrase, the work of their left hand. Then there are artists whose literature is the work of their right hand, who strategically retreat behind self-effacing, innocuous, or saccharine personas. T. S. Eliot the bank clerk, Philip Larkin the library drone, Sylvia Plath the bubbly blonde housewife—the personas can't require too much work, because the mind behind them is working feverishly. Such a persona had "Gentle Shakespeare," as one less gentle contemporary characterized him. He did not have time to attend to his mask. He was too busy attending to the parade of personalities in his mind.

This does not mean that the world was unimportant to him. It fairly bursts through the seams of his drama. Nobody knows better than Stephen Green-blatt how much the world mattered to Shakespeare. Greenblatt, after all, is not just any Shakespeare scholar: he is the founder and leader of the academic New Historicist movement, probably the most influential school of literary criticism in America today. It proposes that great works of art result less from the solitary effort of a single artist than from "the circulation of social energy," in Greenblatt's words. "'A people will … invent its drama according to its own history, spirit of the times, customs [and] opinions,'" he argues, quoting the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. Society creates art.

This conviction is everywhere apparent in Greenblatt's new biography. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is, more than anything else, the biography of an age. This is not to say that Greenblatt ignores several key issues about Shakespeare's life. He persuasively addresses, for instance, how the Stratford schoolboy could have grown intrigued with London theater and acquired both the skills and the inspiration to write plays of his own. He is refreshingly frank about the quiet fiasco that was Shakespeare's marriage. Unlike many of his predecessors, he does not bend over backward to contrive some secret affectionate meaning in Shakespeare's ungenerous bequest of his "second-best bed" to his wife. On the contrary, he points out that it was an afterthought; the first draft of Shakespeare's will allotted his partner of thirty-four years precisely nothing.

Greenblatt is far less persuasive about Shakespeare's father, who he gratuitously decides was an alcoholic, because his fortunes declined in midlife and his son's plays "depicted heavy drinkers from close up." For John Shakespeare's decline numerous explanations suggest themselves. John Shakespeare was in trouble with the law almost from the start of his career; his social ambition attracted him repeatedly to illegal financial transactions, any one of which could easily have thrown him into a tailspin. As for the younger Shakespeare's intimate knowledge of drinking, why, most of his theater friends were formidable drinkers—as, indeed, he may have been himself. In any case, the only explanation for his death, within decades of it, was that he "had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted." Even if this report is mistaken, it implies that he was hardly the teetotaling and puritanical son of an alcoholic that Greenblatt evokes.

Shakespeare's drinking portraits are for the most part hugely sympathetic, even though Greenblatt unconvincingly claims the reverse. As evidence he cites a passage from Hamlet in which the prince, infuriated by his uncle's incestuous marriage to his newly widowed mother, sounds off about the vices of drunken celebration—the sort of drunken celebration in which his newlywed "parents" are at that moment absorbed. Worse, Greenblatt misreads Shakespeare's most famous drinker, Falstaff, fashioning the best-loved character ever to stride the English stage (even Queen Elizabeth demanded to see him again!) as an essentially reprehensible figure. To be sure, Falstaff is a rake, a ne'er-do-well, and a lousy soldier, not to mention horrifically overweight. But his gruff love for the errant Prince Hal, his wily, inspired paeans to sack (his liquor of choice), and haunting assaults on the honor that leads men blindly to their war deaths ("I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath!" he says over the dead smirk of a military "hero") may make Falstaff the most life-affirming and humane of Shakespeare's characters, as well as the most outrageous and brilliant.

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