July bookshelves will need reinforcing.
I was suddenly eager to familiarise myself with the work of William Shakespeare. I missed the library days at university surrounded by scatty note cards, so I felt spurred on to read Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. Any English Literature graduate will know the name Stephen Greenblatt and his notable work as an academic on Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
This, however, is not a book confined to the realms of academia. It’s for a broad audience, for people who want to learn about William Shakespeare as a person and a writer; readers will value the signature, very comprehensive style of Greenblatt, as he holds our hand through history, Shakespeare’s life and the influence it had on his work.
And what an inspiring and colourful life! Greenblatt tells us that he was ‘a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections, and without a university education… and becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time.’ We know a bit about Shakespeare thanks to the fact that in the late sixteenth century, England was a keen record-keeping society. Greenblatt explains that various documents alluding to a number of property transactions, christening records, cast lists (interestingly he is listed as a performer!) and tax bills have been explored extensively in many tomes.
Will in the World illustrates how Shakespeare’s life shaped his art. If we were to solely rely on Shakespeare’s creative output to paint a picture of his life however, we would run into some difficulty. Greenblatt states that: ‘He makes his audience laugh and cry; he turns politics into poetry… he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history.’
It is patently clear that Shakespeare was a self-made man who was famous in his own lifetime, and in 1596 Shakespeare successfully applied and obtained a coat of arms. He secured the title of a gentleman. The arms and crest, which most likely would have been devised by William himself read: Non sanz droict – or: Not Without Right. It’s quite defensive – almost as though he’s saying ‘I deserve this’.
I think that the topic of what makes a gentleman was very close to Shakespeare’s heart. If you’ve read As You Like It you may recall the strong underlying argument and questions about the relationship between nature and nurture; of class and rank. What is it that makes us who we are? Is it society and culture? Oliver and Orlando discuss it in the very first act, as Orlando remarks: ‘My father charged you in his will to give me good education. You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities.’ If it is society that makes us who were are, then it’s open to question and can be changed! (And it does change in this play. Enough of the English Lit lecture…)
Will in the World is a fascinating book that delves deep into close analysis of passages from Shakespeare’s plays, which sits comfortably alongside biographical information, placed in context of Renaissance England.
I highly recommend this book!
Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt is published by Bodley Head, £16.99.
If you enjoyed reading this and hold a keen interest in Shakespeare, take a look at the picture feature on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.