By Chet Yarbrough
Will in the World
By Stephen Greenblatt
Narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez
Stephen Greenblatt (Author, Shakespeare historian)
“Will in the World” is a clever investigation of William Shakespeare’s life and a speculation about the origin of Shakespeare’s fictional characters.
It is clever because Shakespeare’s life is revealed in the context of 16th and 17th century English history; not just the sparsely documented facts of his life. Though highly speculative, theatrical character development is dredged from “facts” about Shakespeare’s “friends” and family.
Greenblatt recounts Shakespeare’s childhood by picturing school in the 16th century for a boy from a respected family in England.
Shakespeare’s father is a magistrate in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England when Will begins school. Will develops a precocious and consuming interest in words, acting, and writing.
However, Shakespeare’s father falls from grace. He loses his status and income through either malfeasance in office, alcoholism, or financial mismanagement. Will is unable to attend college because of its cost. His father’s need for help in the family business, and/or his father’s personal troubles are likely influences in Shakespeare’s writing.
Will Shakespeare lives in a time of religious upheaval in England when the Anglican Church is competing with the Roman Catholic Church. Shakespeare’s father may have been caught in the conflict as a secretly sympathizing Roman Catholic. Additionally, Will’s father may have been illegally participating in the wool trade.
Many speculations but few facts drive William Shakespeare to London where he joins a theater group after marrying a woman several years older than himself in Stratford. Shakespeare returns periodically to Stratford-upon-Avon, has 3 children by his Stratford wife, and retires there at age 50.
Greenblatt thinks Shakespeare’s relatively early retirement (although he dies 3 years later) is thematically reflected in “The Tempest”. “The Tempest” is one of Shakespeare’s last plays to have been written by him alone. Greenblatt is referring to Prospero (The Tempest’s main character) and his renunciation of magic as Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theater.
The London theater group that Shakespeare joins is made up of college educated players that come from mostly poor, but from some well-to-do families.
All but one of the group die in their third decade of life. The proximate causes of their early death are hard drinking, boisterous living, London’s recurring plagues, and general profligacy. Their antics are a possible source of some characters in Shakespeare’s plays; e.g. Falstaff is thought to be drawn from a player named Robert Greene (a jealous rival of Shakespeare’s).
Greenblatt jumps in and out of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with several suggestions about where they may reflect something or someone in William Shakespeare’s life. Greenblatt suggests that the death of Shakespeare’s son and later his father became a part of theme and character in “Hamlet”. The plausibility of that conjecture is in the consuming love of Hamlet for his murdered father.
“Will in the World” is beautifully narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez; his Shakespearean’ quotes remind one of great theatre’ experiences.
Greenblatt’s interweaving of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with 16th and 17th century England, his interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and sonnets, and his interesting speculation about Shakespeare’s life are all good reasons to give this book a listen.