By Chet Yarbrough
By Stephen Greenblatt
Narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez
To be or not to be, Shakespeare’s famous line, may have been in Stephen Greenblatt’s mind when he wrote “Will in the World”.
“Will in the World” is a clever investigation of William Shakespeare’s life. It is 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 culture and 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. 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 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, end his academic career.
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 suggested in “The Tempest”, one of Shakespeare’s last plays.
The London theater group that Shakespeare joins is made up of college educated players. The players come from mostly poor but some well-to-do families. All but one of the group die
in their third decade of life. Hard drinking, boisterous living, London’s recurring plagues, and profligacy are proximate causes of death. The player’s 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).
Greenblatt jumps in and out of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with several suggestions about how they may reflect something or someone in Shakespeare’s life. Greenblatt suggests that the death of William Shakespeare’s son, and later his father, became part of theme and character in “Hamlet”.
“Will in the World” is beautifully narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez. Fernandez’s Shakespearean quotes remind one of great theater experiences.
Greenblatt interweaves Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with 16th and 17th century English culture. 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.