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Stephen Greenblatt, Rockford-Upon-Avon

A Shakespearean Detective Sifts for Goodly Clews

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2004; Page C01

Eager-eyed Stephen Greenblatt, author of the just-published "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," is in a hidden-away room in the Folger Shakespeare Library, leaning over a table that contains three exquisitely rare 17th-century books -- a first folio of the plays, a copy of the first-known collection of sonnets and a pocket-size second quarto of "Hamlet." Books worth millions of dollars -- and much more.

In a charcoal suit, white shirt and thin blue tie, the willowy, dark-haired professor reaches for the leather-bound 1623 folio and flips to an engraving of Shakespeare. There is the mysterious man, a balding bard in a ruffed collar. On the page opposite is a short poem to the reader by Shakespeare's friend and rival Ben Jonson, wishing that the engraver could have captured Shakespeare's wit as well as his face.


Greenblatt believes that Shakespeare wrote all of the works attributed to him. "The other-person thing never worked for me," he says. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

But since he cannot, Reader, looke Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

"This is fantastic! This is the first time I've seen these copies," Greenblatt says. He did much of his research at the libraries of Harvard, where he has taught for eight years. The idea for "Will in the World" came from a conversation Greenblatt had years ago with Marc Norman, who was writing a screenplay that became the fanciful "Shakespeare in Love," starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow.

A first folio holds particular significance for Shakespeare scholars. Seven years after Shakespeare died, a couple of his actor pals compiled a collection of Shakespeare's plays -- 36 in all, half of which had never been published. Some 750 copies, or first folios, were printed: today 240 exist. The Folger owns 79. "Without this," Greenblatt says, holding a copy, "we wouldn't know about 'Macbeth.' "

Greenblatt knows all about "Macbeth" and the rest of the plays and sonnets. "Will of the World," his ninth book, has just been nominated for a National Book Award. He is also the editor of "The Norton Shakespeare."

Brought up in Newton, Mass., Greenblatt has degrees from Yale University and Pembroke College, Cambridge. Before Harvard, he taught at the University of California-Berkeley for 28 years. He is considered the godfather of the "new historicism," a branch of literary criticism that examines works of literature within their historic and social contexts. "I am constantly struck," he told the Harvard University Gazette, "by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."

Still, there are always lingering questions about Shakespeare that even the most ardent devotee cannot answer. Greenblatt wrote the new book, he says, in an attempt to find out how "a young man from a small provincial town -- a man without wealth, without powerful family connections, and without a university education -- moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time."

Greenblatt, 60, has spent his adult life piecing together that puzzle. And others. He turns to the 1609 first edition of the sonnets, and running a fingertip across the lines, reads: "To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets. Mr. W.H. All happinesse and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet. Wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. T.T."

This yellowed sheet of paper, Greenblatt says, "is the most enigmatic page in all of Shakespeare scholarship." It raises so many questions. Who was the begetter? Who was Mr. W.H.? William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke? Or was it really H.W., Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton? And -- the most basic query of all -- who was Shakespeare?

Greenblatt has heard all of the theories -- that the works of Shakespeare were written by Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth or somebody else.

And during his visit here to promote his book, he entertains some of the questions again. When he speaks to a gathering of the Folger faithful one evening or to callers on a radio show or to fellow scholars as he strolls through the library's reading room, Shakespeare fanatics pose ultimately unsolvable riddles.

Was the playwright secretly a champion of Catholicism? Greenblatt says he believes that Shakespeare was a "fundamentally secular spirit." He turns in the first folio to the end of "The Tempest" and reads:

With the help of your good hands:


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