Anyone Setting out to write a biography of Shakespeare has to weigh two considerations against each other. On the one hand, we do not know all that much about him. On the other hand, we know a great deal. There are no diaries, letters, memoirs, or interviews; most of the surviving documentation is dry and impersonal; major aspects of his life remain a blank. But we do have the plays and the poems—how can they fail to bring us close to the man who wrote them?—and we can build on the knowledge, bequeathed by generations of scholars, of the society in which he lived and moved.

Given the available evidence, or lack of it, any attempt at a full-length portrait of Shakespeare is bound to involve an exceptional amount of speculation. Even the most cautious biography, once it starts exploring his personality, can hardly help taking on some of the characteristics of a novel. The only alternative—sticking to the established facts and gaps—is, however, arguably more useful. No one did more for the study of Shakespeare's life in the 20th century than E.K. Chambers in Britain and Samuel Schoenbaum in America. But neither of them wrote a biography (although Schoenbaum had hoped to). Chambers confined himself to William Shakespeare: A Study in Facts and Problems (1930). Schoenbaum distilled his learning into William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975) and various associated volumes.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady procession of popular biographies and general studies that mix narrative and criticism. If anything, the rate at which they have been appearing has increased in recent years. Park Honan's 1998 biography is one outstanding example, and now Stephen Greenblatt has entered the lists with a study offering an account (much of it hypothetical) of Shakespeare's outward career, but focusing principally on his inner life.


Greenblatt's Will in the World1 comes festooned with tributes from eminent persons that are lavish even by the prevailing standards in such things. It has received exceptionally wide coverage in the press; the New Yorker has paid homage; a chunk has been excerpted by the New York Times. None of this is to be wondered at. Greenblatt, a professor at Harvard, is one of the big beasts of the contemporary academic jungle; I have seen him described in a leading English newspaper as “the world's most influential Shakespearean for a quarter of a century.”

But not everyone is convinced, and some readers, mindful of his earlier work, were looking forward to the new book with apprehension. Greenblatt is indelibly associated with “the new historicism” (he coined the name himself), a movement or method that not only seeks to relate literary works to their historical context but also presents them as essentially the products of that context. Filling the void left by the decline of Marxism, the new historicists—I quote from The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare—study “both the meaning and the function of the work as an element in a larger matrix of social power.”

Greenblatt has been accused by more traditional scholars of making unfounded assertions and distorting or misinterpreting the evidence. There is a devastating account of some of the slippery arguments he employs in a recent book by Tom McAlindon, Shakespeare Minus “Theory” (2004). But, important though these charges are, they are secondary considerations. Ultimately and most significantly, the new historicism is a political movement. Greenblatt himself has been quite explicit about its origins: the new historicism “was decisively shaped,” he wrote in 1990, “by the American 1960's and early 70's, and especially by the opposition to the Vietnam war.”

Following from this, Greenblatt sees the role of criticism as one of perpetual protest, in which literary texts are used to undermine existing authority. Whether the critic is supposed to conduct his attack in the name of an alternative form of authority is a side issue; it is enough if he exposes the malign power structures of the past, either as images of our own forms of social oppression or as sources from which our current forms derive—as, in Greenblatt's words, “the generative forces that led to the modern condition.”


A biography of Shakespeare that attempted to follow such an agenda would be an unappetizing prospect. It would subject the poet at every turn to modern political judgments, and thrust him into an ideological straitjacket. In this respect, Will in the World turns out to be a pleasant surprise. It celebrates Shakespeare's achievements in their own right. It explores his personal experience as just that, not as the local habitation of larger historical forces. Its approach could reasonably be described—and commended—as rather old-fashioned.

In fact, if this book were all you knew of Greenblatt's work, it would be almost impossible to deduce from it some of the sentiments he has expressed in his earlier writings. Take his treatment of Prince Hal in Henry IV. Few readers feel completely comfortable with this prince, whose habits of cold calculation, even if we accept the need for them in a future ruler, are unendearing. But Greenblatt has gone much further. His attack on Hal in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988) refused to grant him any positive qualities whatsoever. Hal is “the prince and principle of falsification,” wrote Greenblatt. Everything he touches “turns to dross.”

Virtually none of this condemnation finds its way into Will in the World, where Hal's actions are alluded to in matter-of-fact tones. Although one of his double-edged responses to Falstaff is described as “chilling” (which it is), Greenblatt is principally interested in him as a partial embodiment of Shakespeare himself—first in relation to the poet's own father (a heavy drinker, Greenblatt suggests, and perhaps also a bit of a Falstaff), and second in relation to the “University Wits,” the gifted, reckless, hard-living older dramatists from whom Shakespeare learned a great deal but from whose self-destructive world he knew how to extricate himself. “In Prince Hal,” Greenblatt writes,

the author of the Henry IV plays saw himself, projecting onto his character a blend of experimental participation and careful, self-protective distance; recognizing the functional utility of his tavern lessons in language-games and in role-playing, and unsentimentally accepting the charge of calculated self-interest.

A biographer's frame of reference is, to be sure, not the same as that of a critic. In principle there is no reason why Hal should not do double duty as the young Shakespeare turning everything to gold and as a treacherous aspiring autocrat turning everything to dross. But in practice, I think, anyone who starts off with Greenblatt's account of the prince in Will in the World would find it hard to switch unquestioningly to the earlier image of a royal gangster. At the very least, the biography points the way to a more open reading of the play, one that would allow for Hal's virtues as well as his vices.


Another case worth considering in this light is Greenblatt's treatment of The Tempest. No Shakespearean play has suffered as much as this one in recent years from having a political reading imposed on it. In the face of most of the facts, it has become more or less standard practice to interpret The Tempest as an allegory of European colonialism. Greenblatt went along with this view in a 1990 essay, “Learning to Curse,” in which he presented Prospero, the exiled duke ruling over an island of which he has taken possession, as an archetypal oppressor—and one of whom, regrettably, Shakespeare approved. In this reading, the brutish Caliban is of course the play's hero.

In Will in the World, however, these notions have been left behind. Greenblatt writes a great deal about The Tempest in this biography, but the play is rightly seen as gathering up preoccupations that recur throughout Shakespeare's work—“the story of brother betraying brother,” “the dream of restoration,” the manipulative power of art, and others. Although at one point in the discussion the colonial parallel does resurface—according to Greenblatt, the realm that Prospero rules by magic is partly modeled on “one of the islands encountered by European voyagers to the New World,” where, “for those in command, anything was possible”—he does not dwell on the idea. Rather, he suggests that the poet found a more powerful model in a different world where anything was possible: the theater. And if there is a theme here that corresponds to the poet's circumstances at the time he wrote the play, it is that of retirement—the voluntary retirement of a master who is still in his prime. The Tempest, says Greenblatt, “is a play not about possessing absolute power but about giving it up.”

In brief, Greenblatt may not have abandoned his new-historicist beliefs while writing Will in the World, but at least he has kept them in abeyance. Possibly he felt it would have been inappropriate to make too much of them in a book aimed at a more popular audience than the one he is accustomed to addressing in his academic work. But the energy of his narrative suggests that he welcomes the role of story-teller. And in that role, he does speculate freely. Even while acknowledging his debt to Chambers, Schoenbaum, and other exemplars of cautious scholarship, he frequently lets his imagination run ahead of the facts.


Some of Greenblatt's surmises are more persuasive than others. When you are dealing with guesswork, reactions are bound to be heavily subjective, but personally I am won over by his treatment of Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway. Relying partly on negative documentary evidence—the long absences, the signs of affection that aren't there—and partly on attitudes to marriage in the plays themselves, he concludes that it was an unhappy match. The story is summed up in a chapter titled “Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting.”

This conclusion is itself hardly new. It has been expressed many times, most noisily by the notorious sexual braggart and con man Frank Harris in The Man Shakespeare (1909). Greenblatt's own conjectural account of the marriage is far more nuanced than Harris's, and far better informed, but he does let us know that he has borrowed an idea from Harris—namely, “the suggestion that the curse [carved on the poet's gravestone] on the person who moves his bones was Shakespeare's way of keeping his wife from being laid, at her death, by his side.” I never thought I would live to see The Man Shakespeare cited as a source in a serious modern book, and I admire Greenblatt for doing so: the fact that Harris was a charlatan does not mean that he was always wrong.

An even more prominent theme than marriage in Will in the World is Catholicism. The notion of Shakespeare as a crypto-Catholic, which also goes back a long way, has excited increased interest in recent years. In particular, there has been speculation that as a young man he worked as a tutor in the household of a wealthy Catholic family in Lancashire, at a time when the celebrated Jesuit emissary and subsequent martyr Edmund Campion visited the region. Many scholars remain unconvinced about the whole question of his supposed Catholic affiliations, but in accepting the possibility Greenblatt is in respectable company.

But he pushes surmise too far, allowing himself to imagine the young Shakespeare meeting Campion, kneeling at his feet, registering both admiration and “a powerful inner resistance.” Later, Greenblatt comes close to talking about the meeting as though it were an established fact. He speculates on Shakespeare's unproven links with underground Catholic activities, which would have been extremely dangerous, and then asks us to see his anxious need to distance himself from these activities as one of the keys to his adult personality: the young man who had played with fire learned to be cautious and discreet.

It may be so, but there is far more evidence to suggest that Shakespeare (insofar as he was religious at all) was a sincere Protestant. The scenes in which Greenblatt portrays him as a Catholic are among the most novelistic in the book, to the point where you wonder why he is so attracted by the idea; you cannot help feeling that it is above all because it makes Shakespeare an outsider, someone at odds with the predominant Elizabethan order.

At the same time, curiously, Greenblatt has little to say about the poet's political beliefs. Troilus and Cressida, an important play in this respect, rates not even a mention. There are lesser gaps, too. New Place, the house in Stratford that Shakespeare acquired in the 1590's, had links with two murders involving former owners, one of them the man from whom he bought it. It is odd that Greenblatt passes over both incidents in silence.

As against this, however, he works in some rewarding details neglected by earlier biographers, and he makes imaginative connections—between Hamlet and the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, for instance; or between a pageant the poet may have been taken to see as a child and A Midsummer Night's Dream. However debatable many of these details, the cumulative picture is convincing as far as it goes. If we feel at the end that the real Shakespeare still eludes us, that he is forever disappearing around the corner, that is true of all Shakespeare biographies—and part of the perpetual fascination.


Where Stephen Greenblatt offers us a view of the life, his Harvard colleague Marjorie Garber gives us the works. Her new book, Shakespeare After All,2 surveys the entire dramatic oeuvre, one play at a time, in chronological order. The exercise runs to a thousand pages.

If Greenblatt is a celebrated practitioner of the new historicism, Garber is a celebrated practitioner of psychocriticism. Mixing Freud, Lacan, the approach known as critical theory, and her own intuitions, she has come up with interpretations that often seem only loosely tethered to the texts she examines. Along with a half-dozen volumes of literary commentary, much of it on Shakespeare, her books include Vested Interests (1991), a study of “cross-dressing and cultural anxiety,” and Dog Love (1996), in which she addresses the question: “Is canophilia an erotics of dominance?”

For anyone coming to it from Garber's earlier Shakespearean writings, the most striking thing about Shakespeare After All is its comparative sobriety. The extravagances are still there, but they have been toned down. Much of what she says could even be called commonsensical.

Her treatment of Macbeth is an example. In the chapter she devoted to it in Shakespeare's Ghost Writers (1987), the play is anatomized (on the basis of a single reference to the Gorgon) in terms of a hypothetical “Medusa complex,” with sexual ramifications as entangled as the snakes in Medusa's hair. By contrast, the section on Macbeth in her new book is largely grounded in what Shakespeare actually wrote. The discussion of the theme of doubleness is particularly helpful.


But this is not to say that if you search Shakespeare After All for classic Garberisms you will have much trouble finding them. When, for instance, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice laments that his daughter Jessica has stolen his diamonds—“she hath the stones upon her”—Garber is quick to point out that “stones” was once a slang term for testicles. But that does not mean the secondary meaning is necessarily present on this occasion: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And even if one accepts that it may be, one is likely to balk at Garber's summing-up of what is happening here: “Shylock's phrase inadvertently makes Jessica into a phallic woman.”

Garber's fancy runs wilder in some sections of the book than in others. She finds the possibilities opened up by Twelfth Night, that classic of cross-dressing and gender-switching, irresistible. We are asked to believe, for example, that “Cesario,” the name adopted by the young Viola when she passes herself off as a boy, is linked—via the Latin verb caedere—with “cut,” a bawdy Elizabethan term (alluded to elsewhere in the play) for a woman's genitals. Even the relatively restrained account of Macbeth has its loopier moments. Bent on the murder of Duncan, Macbeth imagines himself moving toward his design “with Tarquin's ravishing strides”; the effect of this image is, we are told, to feminize Duncan.

Mostly, though, the book avoids such excesses—often in favor of others. Much of it reads as though originally aimed at an audience of students, for whom the author had decided that a simpler approach than usual was called for. Too simple, sometimes. Elementary points are labored. Fashionable opinions are trotted out as though for the first time (how the spirit sinks to be told yet again that the plays of Samuel Beckett, when they first appeared, “seemed to rewrite King Lear in a new idiom”). And there is a regrettable willingness to play to the gallery, to try to hold the attention by means of comparisons or corny colloquialisms that readers can, as the saying goes, “relate to.”

Take Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus in the play of the same name. Does it really help to be told that she is “a cross between political matriarch and stage mother (Rose Kennedy and Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy)”? In case we need further reassurance that Volumnia is a remarkable figure, she is also described as “a fabulous dramatic character, a part to die for.”

And then there is poor Rosalind in As You Like It. Helplessly in love with Orlando, but disguised from him in the clothing of a boy, she turns in despair to her cousin Celia and sighs, “Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose?” Garber's response is to wonder why Celia doesn't advise her, “in the immortal words of burlesque and striptease, to ‘take it off.’ ” Perhaps Celia's mother was a bit like Mama Rose, too.

Underlying Garber's whole enterprise in Shakespeare After All is her conviction, proclaimed in the very first sentence, that “every age creates its own Shakespeare.” In some ways this is unarguable, but it is a truth that has been used to license any number of perverse critical interpretations and debased theatrical productions. Although we cannot transcend our own time, we are free to choose from among its possibilities; and those possibilities include a decent respect for the past and a reluctance to stray far—at least not too often and not without good cause—from what the plays were saying before us and will go on saying after us.

Garber gives many signs of knowing this, but in practice she seems willing to extend a welcome to just about any novelty that comes along. If she has any doubts, she consoles herself with the thought that the plays themselves are always there: “they will not break from being bent or reshaped to fit a new context, or a new idea.” I am less sanguine about that. People are deeply influenced by what they are offered, or what they can get, and bad interpretations and productions have a way of driving out good ones—not forever perhaps, but for a very long time.


There remains the curious fact that two leading radical Shakespearean critics have simultaneously produced books that are more traditional in outlook than their previous work. In each case, as I have suggested, this can partly be explained by the nature of the job at hand. Greenblatt has written a popular biography. Garber has written an introductory guide. But can we also discern a new trend, or even a turning of the tide?

The whole thing seems more likely to be a coincidence. There have been no recantations, after all, no sign of either Greenblatt or Garber positively renouncing former views, or trying to steer disciples in new directions. It is just possible that one day their latest books will be seen as the first portents of a saner epoch in Shakespeare studies; but a lot more evidence is needed before we can get ready to greet such a happy turn of events. Two swallows don't make a summer.


1 Norton, 386 pp., $26.95.

2 Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $40.00.


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