How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt. Norton. 430 pp. $26.95

Stephen Greenblatt is one of the most renowned Elizabethan literary scholars in the United States. He has been the principal architect of the so-called new historicism, which seeks to explain literary works through their historical contexts and, unlike older historical studies of literature, particularly emphasizes the subversive, often hidden counter-movements -- the heresies -- of reigning systems of belief and power in a given period.

One obvious difficulty in applying this method to a biography of Shakespeare, as Greenblatt does in Will in the World, is that very little is known about Shakespeare's life. There are no letters or diaries and only stray contemporary references, so Greenblatt is often reduced to what he acknowledges is "an exercise in speculation." The book makes historical connections that can be illuminating but are just as often far-fetched, and it is suffused with a daunting number of such conditional phrases as "may have," "would have," "could have," "must have," "in all likelihood." Greenblatt naturally also refers to the texts of the plays and poems for evidence of their historical context and of Shakespeare's inner life. But as he notes, Shakespeare has an "astonishing capacity to be everywhere and nowhere, to assume all positions and slip free of all constraints," and among the constraints from which he slipped free was precisely the Elizabethan environment to which Greenblatt gives such explanatory power. As Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson memorably noted, Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time," which is a corollary of his genius.

Greenblatt's use of Shakespeare's works to explore his life and era can thus lead to distortions of the works themselves. One example is Greenblatt's almost exclusive focus upon drunkenness and dissoluteness in describing Falstaff's characterization. He assumes that there has to be "some unusually intimate and personal energy" in Shakespeare's depiction of the relationship between the young Hal and the old Falstaff, and he accordingly relates Falstaff to Shakespeare's own father, who lost money and property in his middle age. Greenblatt speculates, without evidence, that the cause was heavy drinking.

He also suggests that the rival writer and playwright Robert Greene, who was verifiably dissolute and a heavy drinker and who attacked Shakespeare in a pamphlet, was another model for Falstaff. Greenblatt's description of Greene's life is interesting, but it leads him to endorse both Hal (subsequently Henry V) and his judgments of Falstaff's dissoluteness, including his final rejection of Falstaff as "a fool and jester," "surfeit-swelled," "old" and "profane." Greenblatt is careful to state that the "proximity between Greene and Falstaff" is a paradoxical origin "of Shakespeare's golden, capacious, and endlessly fascinating character," but his focus upon Greene (and Shakespeare's father) effectively obscures that capaciousness. Certainly it displaces the Falstaff who tells Hal, "Thou art essentially mad without seeming so," and who suggests an alternative and far more generous world than the one Henry V or any politician must inhabit.

Greenblatt localizes Hamlet, Shakespeare's other transcendent character, in a similar way. He argues that though the adult Shakespeare was a secular writer, he was brought up as a Roman Catholic and shared the fear of exposure and torture that recusant Catholics experienced in Protestant England. He cites some evidence for this that is wholly imagined, such as a meeting between Shakespeare and the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and other evidence -- for example, a possibly spurious Catholic "spiritual testament" of Shakespeare's father (a document now lost) -- that could at least be tenable.

Greenblatt especially emphasizes that the ghost in Hamlet comes from purgatory, which is a Roman Catholic conception, not a Protestant one. But the significance of the ghost in the play may be more moral than theological. Greenblatt does not adequately consider the development of the revenge play genre. In an earlier play, Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy," which was extraordinarily popular on the Elizabethan stage, a ghost observes the action from the outside, in a pagan hell; in revenge plays written after Shakespeare's the ghost comes from heaven to instruct the revenger to leave vengeance to God. The latter plays, not surprisingly, are theatrically lifeless. In moving the ghost from hell to purgatory and bringing him into the world of the play, Shakespeare keeps the theatrical energy of the quest for revenge at the same time that he questions its ethos and gives the play a pervading sense of metaphysical mystery.

Greenblatt also speculates that Shakespeare's depiction of the "tormented inwardness" of Hamlet's nearly suicidal grief in the play must have originated in Shakespeare's anguish over the death of his son Hamnet in 1596, as well as over Hamnet's Protestant burial. But what do such conjectures explain? Shakespeare had the capacity to understand a host of other deep-seated human feelings, passions and thoughts, and in his profound portrayal of Hamlet's grief he would again have found an important theatrical stimulus in Kyd. From the very first scene of "The Spanish Tragedy," grief is the emotional keynote, and Hieronimo's grief-stricken, if stilted, speech -- "O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears" -- was parodied for decades after the first performance of the play. Shakespeare could see that the sorrow and anger that were the emotional taproots of the revenge genre itself are also the primary components of ordinary human grief. He also expanded Hamlet's grief over his father's death to include his grief over the loss, in effect, of his mother, of Ophelia and of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so that he has to confront not only mortality but also the death of the human affections and relationships that nourish anyone's capacity "to be" in the world. These concatenations of grief are quite enough to clarify what Greenblatt calls the "opacity," the apparent motivelessness, of Hamlet's mad behavior.

Despite his considerable critical tendentiousness, Greenblatt has unusual talents. He is learned, he marshals an enormous amount of detail in the book, and he depicts the fabric of Elizabethan life, both its paranoia and festivities, compellingly. He is a masterful storyteller; his prose is elegant and subtle, if sometimes slippery; and his imagination is rich and interesting. When he focuses more exclusively on Shakespeare's texts, as he does in his chapter on the sonnets, he is a brilliant critic. One can see why Will in the World is a nominee for the National Book Award. *

Arthur Kirsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of several books on Shakespeare as well as the editor of W.H. Auden's "Lectures on Shakespeare" and "The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.' "

Engraving of William Shakespeare based on the Chandon portrait