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Monday, October 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

"Will in the World": Scholar considers life of Shakespeare

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

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"I don't have any difficulty with the idea of Shakespeare as a genius for all times," declares Stephen Greenblatt. "But in itself it doesn't mean anything. That he was born with enormous gifts is certainly true ... The question is, what does someone do with the talent he was born with?"

Greenblatt has considered the "what" and " how" of Shakespeare's personal saga and public achievement long and hard. And the leading Shakespeare scholar, Harvard University professor and author explores his conclusions in a new book, "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" (Norton; $26.95) the subject of a free talk he'll give tonight at 7 p.m., at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Marbled with the latest research about Shakespeare's patchily understood life, written in animated, accessible prose and set against the resonant panorama of Elizabethan England, Greenblatt's biography has received extraordinary critical attention and is a National Book Award finalist.

The volume exemplifies the "new historicism" approach to drama criticism and scholarship, which emphasizes placing literary works in a historical context. And "Will in the World" may be one of the first such studies to appeal to a broad general readership.

While many of Shakespeare's scores of previous biographers have complained about the dearth of offstage evidence of the author of "Hamlet," "Macbeth" et al., Greenblatt suggests, "More is known about Shakespeare than virtually any other writer in the period. Not as much we'd like, of course. But he left a lot of traces."

He adds, "It's true that no one's gone into an attic and found his diary, or a manuscript in his own hand. ... But the last generation of scholars has done an astonishing job recreating the whole world from which he comes. We've also come to understand [that] the line between personal biography and the world one lives in shouldn't be so sharply drawn."

Coming up

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt speaks at 7 tonight, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; free, but reservations recommended (206-443-2222; information:

Culling material from legal and literary documents, the Bard's plays and sonnets, and a wealth of historical sources, Greenblatt has isolated three key events in Shakespeare's evolution as a person, and an artist.

"When he was 13, his businessman father lost his position and wealth, which affected Shakespeare's ability to go to university," he explains. "At that point he had to ask himself, 'What's my vocation? What can I make of myself?'

"By 16 his family had other problems, probably because they were practicing a clandestine Catholicism at a time when it was extremely dangerous in England to do. And Shakespeare then had to ask himself, 'What do I believe?' "

The third watershed, Greenblatt suggests, was Will's marriage to Anne Hathaway. By the time he turned 20, they had three children. "At that point he had to wonder, 'Who do I love?' He made what looks from this distance like a fantastic blunder in his life, which he might never have recovered from. Yet he did."

While considering the theatrical dynamo Shakespeare ultimately became, "Will in the World" imagines not only his marital scenario, but the benefits and limitations of his boyhood education, the changing status of the vagabond players he first joined as an actor, as well as the intrigue, paranoia and bloody violence of Queen Elizabeth I's reign and theatrical expression.

"Shakespeare was certainly not immune to that violence," Greenblatt notes. "If he'd written only very violent plays like 'Titus Andronicus' we'd say his imagination had been warped and deformed by it. What's amazing is that he didn't turn his gaze away from his own time, but he also could register the pattern inside a primrose, the pleasure of a certain musical refrain. He had a full awareness of danger and violence, conjoined with an exquisite sense of the pleasures of the world."

That "double consciousness" was reflective of the Elizabethan era. "This was a world without anaesthetic or antiseptics, without aspirin let alone penicillin. How did they get through a day? Or endure a toothache? And yet they enjoyed all this exquisite and refined pleasure. And Shakespeare's plays are a way of transforming pain into pleasure."

Greenblatt's book often qualifies statements about Shakespeare's motives, whereabouts and lovers (particularly the young man and "dark lady" he wrote his peerless sonnets to) with terms like "perhaps" and "possibly" and "could have" — leaving them in the category of scholarly conjecture.

But Greenblatt doesn't waver from drawing fresh, vivid insights into his subject through the trove of works he left us. In fact, he insists that when delving into Shakespeare's epoch and mindset, the play or poem is still "the thing."

"The idea of the whole book is that, whatever the biographical fleshing-out one can give, it's really about getting to a deeper, richer sense of the human significance of his writings," he contends. "If my book leads you back to the plays and poems, then it will have succeeded."

Meanwhile, Greenblatt may soon be "collaborating" with the writer he has devoted much of his life to contemplating. With noted playwright Charles Mee, Greenblatt has "reconstituted and reimagined" the drama "Cardenio," often considered a "lost" play of Shakespeare's. Plans for the new script's premiere are pending.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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