How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton. 2004. $26.95.

Brimming with juicy conjecture, Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" (W.W. Norton, 2004, $26.95) ties together fragments of history with the words of Shakespeare himself to construct a thoroughly entertaining portrait of the most imaginative mind ever to devise stories for the stage.

Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard, is far from the first biographer to attempt a kind of autopsy of Shakespeare's soul. But he's the rare one to mount a keenly convincing account in consistently vivid prose. This is no dry Ivy League treatise; it's a pleasurable page turner, wise and well crafted and geared to anyone with a curiosity about how great playwrights come to be, or for that matter, how literary detective work can be artfully conducted.

The project Greenblatt set for himself was placing Shakespeare on a canvas of the religious, political and social convictions and conditions of his time. (His subtitle is "How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.") Given the rather thin scraps of concrete information about him that have survived, this was no easy task. For instance, on the subject of Shakespeare's decades-long marriage to Anne Hathaway, Greenblatt notes that nothing expressing the quality of their emotional lives -- "no love letters to Anne, no signs of shared joy or grief" -- has ever been unearthed.

So the author turns to the plays. The misery surrounding many of the romantic couples in the canon provides for Greenblatt some tantalizing hints as to the state of Shakespeare's own marriage. He elegantly suggests the possibility that Shakespeare paid all his life for the error of marrying Anne at 18. Such arguments are not unique to Greenblatt, but his selection of relevant passages in the plays, from "The Comedy of Errors" to "The Winter's Tale," illuminates his account so compellingly that it takes on a biographical resonance.

The seemingly limitless adaptability of Shakespeare's work only deepens a craving for more context about his life -- just the sort of enriching texture that "Will in the World" supplies.

-- Peter Marks, theater critic

Author Stephen Greenblatt gathers evidence from Shakespeare's works to construct a portrait of the playwright.