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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:


JS reviews two: Will in the World is a lively, accessible story that will engage readers who know little about Shakespeare, and absolutely delight those who do. A Great Improvisation; Franklin, France, and the Birth of America should be required reading for any American history buff. It is worth the time and effort, just to understand how perilously close America came to never happening at all. Jo Freeman reviews Solidarity's Secret: The women who defeated Communism in Poland. The reader feels the fear and the boredom, the dedication and the sacrifices of the women who created the underground that kept Solidarity in the public eye even though all the "important" leaders were in jail.



How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt,
W.W. Norton & Co., New York & London
390 pp. – Hardback


Author Stephen Greenblatt is University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, and a prize-winning author and editor or many books. Will in the World is a brilliantly researched and meticulously documented book, with a 16-page section of Bibliographical Notes at the back that is worth reading just for itself. But Greenblatt’s book is far more than just another scholarly tome. It is a lively, accessible story that will engage readers who know little about Shakespeare, and absolutely delight those who do.

After so many years of books that claim to have figured out who really wrote Shakespeare’s works, it is a joy to find one that not only doesn’t question the possibility that a glovemaker’s son from the country could have become England’s premiere writer, but proceeds to count out the circumstances that made Shakespeare who he was.

Starting right at the beginning, Greenblatt recreates for us the world that shaped Will Shakespeare. Caught in the dicey times when the country was divided by religion, swaying from governmental sanction of Catholicism to the Church of England to Catholicism and back again to the Church of England, Shakespeare and his family (who were possibly secret Catholics) had to tread carefully to avoid being caught up in the intrigues and betrayals and beheadings that took place all around them.

The brutality and danger and excitement of the Elizabethan Age have never, I think, been written about so well as in this book. The author pulls together all the little bits and pieces that one reads about here and there, and puts them into one, cohesive whole which simply overwhelms. This reviewer thought she was pretty conversant with the period, but Will in the World was a whole, additional education.

After a short preface to let us in to the picture, Greenblatt begins at the beginning, with young Will’s schooling. There is little actual proof of the boy’s education, but Greenblatt posits that he was most likely enrolled in the local free grammar school, where classes were taught in Latin. The teachers there in all likelihood allowed the boys from time to time to act out the plays of Roman writers like Plautus. This may have been the first trigger for his dramatic imagination

Shakespeare’s father, John, was a minor official of Stratford-on-Avon, which possibly allowed his son to attend performances by some of the troupes of traveling performers that visited nearby towns. There were no theatres as such in England when Will was a boy, but roving players (sponsored by aristocrats) toured with morality plays, short, allegorical interludes designed to demonstrate the consequences of immoral behavior. Local celebrations like May Day, with its maypole and morris dancing, or harvest festivals, or mummers’ plays at Christmas, all added fodder to Will’s theatrical education.

Early marriage and fatherhood, as well as his own father’s misfortunes, also had a profound effect on the young playwright.

Throughout the book, Greenblatt relates such life influences to the plays Shakespeare wrote. He is careful to tell us that he is only guessing, in most cases, but he makes pretty iron-clad cases for his theories. He tells us that just as Shakespeare used his imagination to turn his life experiences into his art, it is necessary for his biographer and his readers to use theirs.

The book is long and complex, but it is also truly accessible to the average reader. It is, in fact, a terrific read, and this reviewer recommends it without reservation.




Culture Watch Archives

© 2005 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb

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