Will in the World; How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton, 2005, paper.
A young man from the provinces arrived in London in the early 1590s, having perhaps first joined a theater troop touring his home county. Within two years he had written his three Henry VI plays and become a successful actor/playwright.
William Shakespeare was then in his late 20s. He hailed form Stratford on Avon in Warickshire. His father, John Shakespeare, had been a successful glove merchant, dabbling illegally in the wool trade and money lending. He was an alderman for many years and the town’s mayor. About the time that Will might have gone off to Oxford or Cambridge, his father’s fortunes crumbled. Shakespeare, instead, took up the low trade of acting.
Shakespeare scholars differ over the facts of the bard’s life. Stephen Greenblatt is more speculative than are most. His wonderful book, Will in the World, argues that Shakespeare incorporated his life’s experiences into his poetry and plays. Hence something of those experiences can be known from his writing. It is also possible to reconstruct portions of Shakespeare’s life from the better-known lives of his contemporaries.
For example, the reason for Shakespeare’s leaving his home town, his wife, and a young family for London. Much has been made of Will’s having to leave because of a youthful prank that went array. The sport of deer poaching, believed to have been Will’s transgression, was a symbolic act intended to challenge authority. Deer parks were sanctuaries for the England’s diminishing wildlife. They were also private hunting preserves. Shakespeare fled town to avoid persecution by the owner of the deer park, Sir Thomas Lucy, who was also the county’s justice of the peace.
Or so tradition has it. Greenblatt has a more frightening explanation. Shakespeare’s father was likely to have been a secret Roman Catholic who had maintained his allegiances to the old church, even though outwardly conforming to Henry VIII’s Anglicanism. This was a dangerous double life, made more so by a clandestine network of Roman Catholic priests, many of them suicidal, whose mission was to keep the faithful, faithful.
Will was probably educated in Stratford’s free grammar school by closeted Catholic schoolmasters. And Greenblatt speculates that he may have spent his ‘lost years’ between 1584 and 1591 in Lancashire as a tutor in the homes of Catholic gentry. And Sir Thomas Lucy, it turns out, had a reputation for hounding out reclusive Catholics.
Lucy eventually got his comeuppance for badgering young Will about poaching. Shakespeare transformed him into Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Residual Catholic loyalties, however, were not something that one even hinted at. Certainly not on a London stage.
Greenblatt’s notion about the Catholic loyalties of father and perhaps son is based on disputed scraps of evidence. And hints that Greenblatt finds from a close reading of, Hamlet. Shakespeare returned to Stratford in 1596 to attend his son, Hamnet’s, funeral. The service read over the dead child was that allowed by the new Anglican prayer book. But these few words may have been insufficient comfort for the mourning. To satisfy the grandfather, Shakespeare may have found some priest to perform the old Roman Catholic rite. Was Shakespeare still brooding over his son’s death when he created the ghost of Hamlet’s father?
Greenblatt pays attention to the entertainment business in Tudor and Stuart London. Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the powerful and the favor of both Elizabeth and her successor, James I. He worked hard, avoiding the disorderly life common to his rival playwrights. He wrote about two plays a year, which drew daily crowds to the Globe Theater, which packed in 1500 per show. He made money, owned shares in the Globe, invested in rural and urban property. Stephen Greenblatt’s life of Shakespeare is a success story.