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The theatre for which Shakespeare wrote and acted was a cut-throat commercial entertainment industry. Yet his plays were also intensely alert to the social and political realities of their times. Shakespeare had to make concessions to the commercial world, for the theatre company in which he was a shareholder had to draw some 1,500 to 2,000 paying customers a day into the round wooden walls of the playhouse to stay afloat and competition from rival companies was fierce. The key was not so much topicality - with government censorship and with repertory companies recycling the same scripts for years. Instead, Shakespeare had to engage with the deepest desires and fears of his audience. Will in the World is about an amazing success story that has resisted explanation: it aims to be the first fully satisfying account of Shakespeare's character and the blossoming of his talent. There have, of course, been many biographies of Shakespeare. The problem each one faces is the thin amount of material surrounding his life. They lead us through the available traces but leave us no closer to understanding how the playwright's astonishing achievements came about. The real-world sources of Shakespeare's language - of his fantasies, passions, fears, and desires - lie outside the scope of these earlier books. Will in the World will set out to recover the links between Shakespeare and his world and with them to construct a full and vital portrait of the man. Its purpose is to know the magician himself, as well as his magic tricks, and to experience the touch of the real. It is a journey that centres on the perils and pleasures of Shakespeare's unfolding imaginative generosity - his ability to enter into others, to confer upon them his own strength of spirit, to make them live and breathe as independent beings as no other artist who ever lived has done.
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There's no shortage of good Shakespearean biographies. But Stephen Greenblatt, brilliant scholar and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, reminds us that the "surviving traces" are "abundant but thin" as to known facts. He acknowledges the paradox of the many biographies spun out of conjecture but then produces a book so persuasive and breathtakingly enjoyable that one wonders what he could have done if the usual stuff of biographical inquiry--memoirs, interviews, manuscripts, and drafts--had been at his disposal. Greenblatt uses the "verbal traces" in Shakespeare's work to take us "back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open." Whenever possible, he also ushers us from the extraordinary life into the luminous work. The result is a marvelous blend of scholarship, insight, observation, and, yes, conjecture--but conjecture always based on the most convincing and inspired reasoning and evidence. Particularly compelling are Greenblatt's discussions of the playwright's relationship with the university wit Robert Greene (discussed as a chief source for the character of Falstaff) and of Hamlet in relation to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, his aging father, and the "world of damaged rituals" that England's Catholics were forced to endure.Will in the World is not just the life story of the world's most revered writer. It is the story, too, of 16th- and 17th-century England writ large, the story of religious upheaval and political intrigue, of country festivals and brutal public executions, of the court and the theater, of Stratford and London, of martyrdom and recusancy, of witchcraft and magic, of love and death: in short, of the private but engaged William Shakespeare in his remarkable world. Throughout the book, Greenblatt's style is breezy and familiar. He often refers to the poet simply as Will. Yet for all his alacrity of style and the book's accessibility, Will in the World is profoundly erudite, an enormous contribution to the world of Shakespearean letters. --Silvana Tropea
Interview with Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt shares his thoughts about what make Shakespeare Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate us endlessly.
Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of twelve books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the New York Times bestseller Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and the classic university text Renaissance Self-Fashioning. He is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, and has edited seven collections of literary criticism.
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