Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt: Book Review

In Stephen Greenblatt’s, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, he gives an account of William Shakespeare’s life beginning with his childhood experiences up until he began thinking of retirement. Although there is little evidence of Shakespeare’s experiences in life, Greenblatt is able to tell scenarios of what he, and others who study Shakespeare’s life, think may have happened. By connecting what historians have learned about that time period in England and some of the key moments in Shakespeare’s life, Greenblatt’s has written what many consider to be the most accurate depiction of Shakespeare’s life. He also goes through several pieces of Shakespeare work and relates them to Shakespeare’s experiences during the time he probably wrote them, to explore some of Shakespeare’s influences for why he wrote what he wrote. The main idea of Greenblatt’s whole novel is centered around one question: How did Shakespeare become the most renowned playwright of all time?

The book begins with Shakespeare as a young adolescent who accompanied his father to see many of the traveling troupes that came through his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, which sparked his interest in the theatre. Greenblatt writes, “There must have been many such moments in Will’s life at home. The very young boy could have amused his family and friends by imitating what he had seen on the raised platform of the Stratford town-hall stage or on the back of the traveling players’ cart” (36). This is what many believe sparked William Shakespeare’s love for the theatre. This love only grew bigger and deeper when Will began formal schooling. During his time in school, they would perform many plays; these plays would end up inspiring many of the plays he wrote later on in life.

After William Shakespeare finished his formal schooling, he became very involved in his father’s – John Shakespeare – work as a glove maker. Much of the figurative language in Shakespeare’s plays make references to leather or gloves because of the impact this time spent with his father’s work had on him. During this time, his father also developed a bit of a drinking problem, causing their families name and fortune to plummet. The Shakespeare family entered a long season of hardship with his father’s debt and loss of social standing. This also plays a key role in William’s writing, using the theme of “the dream of restoration.” Greenblatt writes that, “the dream of restoration haunted Shakespeare throughout his life” (81).

Looking ahead to 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant with his first daughter, Susanna. Since Shakespeare did not have a happy marriage – probably because he hardly spent any time at home – a lot of plays and poetry seem to paint marriage in a pessimistic light, or at least an apathetic light. In the mid-1580’s, Shakespeare fled home (including his family and all of his fortune) because he was caught illegally hunting for deer on the property of a powerful neighbor, that or as Greenblatt also mentions, Shakespeare may have just left to join a group of players called the Queen’s Men. Either way, Shakespeare work was influenced by his family only in the very pessimistic and sad way we see marriage and family portrayed in his plays.

Although life for Shakespeare, by 1600, was going very well – his career as a poet and a famous author of dramas took off – there seemed to be death all around him. In 1596, he “received word that his only son, Hamnet, eleven years old, was ill” (288). This was obviously heartbreaking for William Shakespeare because around that time he began working on Hamlet. The emotional power in this great tragedy may have derived from his reaction to the news of his sons sickness and eventual death. Even the name “Hamlet” sounds like his departed sons name “Hamnet.”

In 1604, Shakespeare had retirement in mind while writing King Lear. This play shows Will’s anxiety about losing his fame, fortune, and becoming dependent on his surviving children. Greenblatt notes that in these final years of retirement, Shakespeare spent a great deal of time reviewing his work, but also wrote his final play, The Tempest, which is estimated to have been written in 1611. The Tempest is considered to have a “distinctly autumnal, retrospective tone [because] Shakespeare seems to be self-consciously reflecting upon what he has accomplished in his professional life and coming to terms with what it might mean to leave it behind” (370). In the end, Shakespeare stopped writing to settle property disputes. Although he had an unhappy marriage, he did live out the rest of his days tended to his daughter Susanna and her family whom he loved dearly.

The strengths in Stephen Greenblatt’s book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, definitely come from the amount of historical research and documentation that had to go into writing a book such as this one. Many believe this is the most accurate depiction of Shakespeare’s life because key points we know how Shakespeare’s life are so skillfully aligned with key points historians know about from history. Greenblatt’s time a dedication to learning all there is to know about Shakespeare can be seen throughout every page of this book. His ability to reimagine scenes from Shakespeare’s life the way they might have been is almost to realistic to be anywhere near accurate. Greenblatt’s style of writing and language draws the reader and holds their attention till the last page. As far as weaknesses go, sections within the chapters could use some headers. Sometime the flow from one idea or scene can be muddied with the next, leading the reader to reread a passage of two to fully understand what Greenblatt is trying to say (at least in my experience). Although I believe the history is what makes this book so credible, I would love to see Greenblatt (or any author as informed as he is) write a narrative from Shakespeare’s perspective possibly experiencing these events he experienced and writing his plays in a first-person view; that would make this information even more interesting to study and learn about. Although, I did enjoy how Greenblatt did a bit of story-telling in his novel.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare is a very valuable and significant tool to anyone interested in learning about Shakespeare’s life and what events throughout it influenced what he wrote about. I, for one, never knew about the details in Shakespeare’s life that had everything to do with why Hamlet is suffering or what is King Lear so afraid of. Being able to know what impacted Shakespeare’s life has really changed the way that I, and probably others who had read this book, read his plays. I am a firm believer in: if you know what influences the author to write his or his story, then you not only read the story, you experience that authors life.


Works Cited

Greenblatt, S. (2004). Will in the world. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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