William Shakespeare left behind an unparalleled contribution to English literature, creating characters with a complexity never before realized and drawing connections between words and meaning with a grace and beauty that explored English's possibilities while virtually reinventing the language. What he didn't leave, however, was much information about himself. What we know assuredly of Shakespeare's life—a birth in Stratford, a marriage to the older Anne Hathaway, a life apart from his family in London, some veiled autobiographical references in the sonnets, a lot of real-estate transactions, and a will that left Hathaway his second-best bed—could scarcely fill a chapter, much less a book. Shakespeare biographers inevitably turn to speculation. The good ones turn to inspired speculation, but the best, like Stephen Greenblatt, make that inspired speculation sound like gospel.
Currently a professor at Harvard, Greenblatt made his career as the leading light of the school of literary criticism known as New Historicism, an approach that puts literary texts into an intense conversation with the cultural and historical events surrounding their creation. Practiced badly, it can make even the most exciting text seem as dull as a court record, robbing art of its timelessness and turning it into just another historical artifact. Practiced well, it lets the context enliven and elucidate. Greenblatt practices it extremely well in Will In The World, no doubt in part because he must. With such a mystery at the center, he has to fill in as many blanks as he can around it.
He does this partly by re-creating Shakespeare's world. In Stratford, Shakespeare lived in a region whose surface quietness belied the changes beneath as England shifted between Catholicism and Protestantism; he grew up in a family that seemed to have difficulty deciding which religion to adopt. In London, Shakespeare walked past impaled heads that served as daily reminders of where dissent could lead. To establish himself, he had to create plays that could compete against a tightly knit group of intensely competitive university-trained wits whose ranks included Christopher Marlowe. At the same time, he had to draw crowds away from the bloody spectacles of animal cruelty that took place next door to the theaters.
But for all his talent for the well-drawn detail, Greenblatt's ability to make connections is what makes Will In The World so revelatory and unexpectedly gripping. Many people know that Shakespeare buried a son named Hamnet a few years before writing Hamlet. No one else has explored the degree to which that play is shot through with worrisome, contradictory discussion of the afterlife, or the manner in which those concerns relate to the Protestant banishment of the idea of Purgatory. The probability that Shakespeare made an unhappy marriage has been much noted, but Greenblatt draws a line between this notion and the almost mockingly absurd pairings that make up the happy endings of Shakespeare's comedies, as well as to the disturbing nature of the most harmonious marriages in his work: Gertrude and Claudius and the Macbeths. The Shakespeare at the center of it all remains a mystery, but Greenblatt makes him a more human mystery, tethering the contradictions and dramatic elisions to an observant, perhaps intentionally marginal life. Whatever designs Shakespeare had on timelessness, he found it first by capturing what it was like to breathe the air of his own time.