It was inevitable: the academy has struck back! After the early favorable reviews and popular success of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s “biography” of William Shakespeare, his scholarly colleagues have now weighed in to remind him that such success comes at a price. The New York Times Book Review noted on January 23 that Shakespearean and Renaissance scholars are unhappy with Greenblatt’s speculative reconstruction of the bard’s biography, which relies heavily on hints and guesses, and uses the plays themselves to flesh out their author’s life.
As I read this fascinating book, I was struck by the author’s constant resort to “perhaps” words—the inevitable price of sketching out unknown territory. One example is his conjecture that young Will might well have come across the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion on his visit to the heavily Catholic area of Lancashire where the future martyr was then hiding out. Greenblatt makes a reasonable case, based on a confessional document hidden in Will’s father’s house, for the elder Shakespeare’s sympathy with the old religion, despite his official support, as bailiff, of the new church. He then imagines a meeting between young Will and Father Campion, in which the young man listens sympathetically to the brilliant and charismatic missionary but comes away from the encounter determined to pursue his own ambitions as a fledgling actor and playwright. It would make a good one-act/ two-character play!
And that is exactly why I found the book so intriguing: Greenblatt has put his considerable knowledge and appreciation of Elizabethan England into a project to imagine Shakespeare’s life, rather the way Will himself did. Like Greenblatt, Shakespeare read widely—something we can be certain about, thanks to the sheer volume of scholarly work over the last half-millennium. As far as we know, he never left England; yet he was able, from texts and talk, drawings and paintings, to recreate worlds as different as Venice and Vienna and place them before our eyes on the stage.
Shakespeare also, of course, had a bustling world before him to learn from. Diplomats and merchants, soldiers and sailors from all over Europe and beyond found their way to London, the capital of an expanding country and economy, and some of them certainly made their way to the Globe. And among his own countrymen, Will found plenty of literary talent mixed with loose morals and political mischief. Among them was Robert Greene, a scholar with two university degrees (Will had only a high school diploma). Over-educated and often debauched, Greene prided himself on his scholarly pedigree and sniffed at Shakespeare’s academic résumé. But he would soon be dead, along with many of his fellow wits, while Will would use Greene’s follies and vices to create his comic masterpiece, Falstaff. What sweeter revenge for a Stratford schoolboy? And yet what greater, albeit ironic and posthumous, boon to a wastrel writer—to become in death something far greater than himself?
Greenblatt pulls off a similar sleight of hand in his treatment of the sonnets. Not surprisingly, he does so by turning their composition into a play with three characters: Will; the noble youth (most likely the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had already dedicated “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”); and the mysterious “dark lady.” In the early sonnets the poet urges the youth to marry, according to his original commission; ironically, however, he ends up falling in love with him instead; lastly, enter the “dark lady” whom the poet both lusts after and loathes. Several of the comedies, especially the late “darker” ones, deal with similar themes.
As Greenblatt points out, the likely timing for the early sonnets corresponds to a period when the theaters were closed because of an outbreak of plague, and when Will would have been eager to take up such a commission.
In reading these poems Greenblatt reveals both his historical and literary knowledge of the period, but even more important, his ability to enter into the convoluted dynamics of the relationships involved. Shakespeare is always finally in control, but he manages to convey to the reader how complex and complicating his emotions become as he attempts to woo someone much younger than himself who is also by far his social superior, and whom he comes to suspect of being as faithless as his dark lady. Greenblatt wisely rejects the idea of reading the poems as sheer autobiography. Instead, the poet is playing out the oldest and deepest tension of the creative life: between art’s claims for eternal significance and his own growing awareness of personal mortality. What he can offer his aristocratic patron is immortality through his verses; what he can expect in return is far less certain.
It is the literary critic’s task to help us read better and more deeply. It is the scholar’s task to track down the clues. For all the conjecture necessarily involved in this book, Greenblatt has fulfilled both roles, but perhaps his greatest gift lies in his willingness to go beyond the meager evidence available and lead us a bit closer to the heart of the mystery.