When young Will Shakespeare left the English countryside for London in the 1580s, he arrived in a city seething with espionage and violence. Bloodsports and public torture were high drama, an anti-Catholic queen sat on the throne, plague raged through crowded neighborhoods and traitors’ heads adorned London Bridge.
It was, in short, the ideal place for the glove maker’s son to blossom into the world’s most celebrated playwright.
A new book from Harvard University English professor Stephen Greenblatt, “Will in the World,” has made something of a splash for his approach to one of the abiding mysteries of literature: Who was William Shakespeare, and how did he become the Bard of Avon? The work has been nominated for a National Book Award.
It’s a question that has occupied academicians, drama lovers and amateur sleuths who for 400 years have tried to solve the riddle of a man who left behind few clues to his identity.
“What I wanted to do was to solve a mystery, in effect,” said Greenblatt, who also edits “The Norton Shakespeare” and reportedly received a six-figure advance for the book. “He moved to London and became the most celebrated and greatest playwright of his age, and at least possibly all time. And the question is, how is it possible?”
Nearly 400 years after his death, Shakespeare remains wildly popular. His plays constantly evolve, and his life is reinterpreted. It’s provided grist for popular culture, such as in the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” which was predicated on a fictional love affair. Greenblatt served as a consultant for the film.
Few details of the Bard's lifeShakespeare left behind a dizzying body of work. But besides his plays and sonnets, the records are few, among them an ambiguous marriage license, his children’s birth records, real estate and court documents, and a puzzling last will and testament.
Steven Maler, artist director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in Boston, said love for Shakespeare’s plays and the vacuum of knowledge about him have created a kind of “mania” for all things Shakespearean.
“People are obsessed about it. It is interesting to me that through all this time the fascination with him and his place has grown,” he said. “Because his life is so mysterious and opaque, it invites people into that mystery.”
The sparse documentation has been analyzed and reanalyzed, and scholars have pored over the text of Shakespeare’s words, seeking clues to who he was in the plays he wrote. Greenblatt took a different tack. “Will in the World” is not a scholarly work, but a book meant to be read by the general public, with no rarified knowledge of Shakespeare.
Greenblatt has tried to rescue young Will from the dry world of academia and replant him in the ripe, bawdy, lethal world of Elizabethan England, to better understand who he might have been.
To accomplish that, Greenblatt imagines Will in likely scenarios. For example, a young Shakespeare would likely have seen the Queen’s Men perform in Stratford-on-Avon, because his father was the town bailiff and would have been expected to attend.
He may have been ashamed by his father’s fall into debt and tried to rescue his family’s reputation by applying for a family coat of arms. He may have fled Stratford-on-Avon after falling afoul of the law for poaching on a local landowners property.
And he might have decided to keep his own Catholicism a secret after meeting Edward Campion, a brilliant Catholic who was later tortured and executed, and after seeing the head of Edward Arden, possibly a relative of his wife, on London Bridge when he entered the city.
Fun with speculation
Much of this, of course, is speculation, which has been noted in reviews that have praised the book but scolded Greenblatt for sometimes stretching too thin what’s known of Shakespeare.
Greenblatt’s response: “I plead guilty.”
“If you are allergic to speculation, if you don’t like to use your imagination, if you can’t conjure up from the past actual voices and sounds, then you probably don’t like Shakespeare, and you probably don’t like what I’ve done,” he said.
“But with any project of this kind there will be some people who will be caught, entranced, convinced, and some people who turn away and sour and say, ‘too speculative, I just want the facts.”’
Tina Packer, artistic director of Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass., said Greenblatt’s readers “get it in the gut” because he shows the cruel and colorful milieu of Shakespeare’s times.
“Stephens’ world is much to do with historical accuracy — what are the facts?” she said. “What he’s done is taken a leap into the creative world. ... Instead of just reporting on the other stuff and giving a very considered interpretation, he’s done what’s Shakespeare did: He’s leapt off.”
Greenblatt said that even though he set out to write a book for the general public, he’s been “pleasantly surprised” at its reception. At the same time, it’s understandable. After all, what other playwright can inflame teenage passion with a movie version of “Romeo and Juliet” starring Leonardo DiCaprio?
“It’s amazing that 400 years later, this playwright can still actually reach millions of teenagers who would break out in hives if they were forced to sit down and actually read this thing,” he said. “It really is astonishing. It takes your breath away.”