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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

4.3 15
by Stephen Greenblatt

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"Greenblatt knows more about [Shakespeare] than Ben Jonson or the Dark Lady did."—John Leonard, Harper's
A young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? How did Shakespeare


"Greenblatt knows more about [Shakespeare] than Ben Jonson or the Dark Lady did."—John Leonard, Harper's
A young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? Stephen Greenblatt brings us down to earth to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan life, could have become the world's greatest playwright. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Finalist.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
There are no obscure invocations of the French philosopher Michel Foucault in these pages, no pseudo-Marxist readings of Shakespeare's plays. Instead, in the opening sections of this book, Mr. Greenblatt succinctly and vividly conjures up the Elizabethan world in which young Will came of age, showing how the religious and political upheavals of the day, as well as contemporaneous aesthetic conventions, shaped his sensibility and his work.
— The New York Times
Arthur Kirsch
… 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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This much-awaited new biography of the elusive Bard is brilliant in conception, often superb in execution, but sometimes-perhaps inevitably-disappointing in its degree of speculativeness. Bardolators may take this last for granted, but curious lay readers seeking a fully cohesive and convincing life may at times feel the accumulation of "may haves," "might haves" and "could haves" make it difficult to suspend disbelief. Greenblatt's espousing, for instance, of the theory that Shakespeare's "lost" years before arriving in London were spent in Lancashire leads to suppositions that he might have met the Catholic subversive Edmund Campion, and how that might have affected him-and it all rests on one factoid: the bequeathing by a nobleman of some player's items to a William Shakeshafte, who may, plausibly, have been the young Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Norton Shakespeare general editor and New Historicist Greenblatt succeed impressively in locating the man in both his greatest works and the turbulent world in which he lived. With a blend of biography, literary interpretation and history, Greenblatt persuasively analyzes William's father's rise and fall as a public figure in Stratford, which pulled him in both Protestant and Catholic directions and made his eldest son "a master of double consciousness." In a virtuoso display of historical and literary criticism, Greenblatt contrasts Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Elizabeth's unfortunate Sephardic physician-who was executed for conspiracy-and Shakespeare's ambiguous villain Shylock. This wonderful study, built on a lifetime's scholarship and a profound ability to perceive the life within the texts, creates as vivid and full portrait of Shakespeare as we are likely ever to have. 16 pages color illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Jill Kneerim. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Greenblatt (humanities, Harvard; Hamlet in Purgatory) here provides a vivid and plausible version of the undocumented areas of Shakespeare's life. Drawing heavily on literary studies and his impressive knowledge of cultural history to amplify the few known facts about Shakespeare, Greenblatt re-creates a life for Shakespeare that is possible; however, he provides little definitive data to support his conclusions. Short bibliographic essays for each chapter listing Greenblatt's sources are provided at the book's end. Students and scholars will be better served by Michael Wood's Shakespeare, which covers the same ground but provides better documentation of sources and more clearly indicates where the author provides his own deductions about Shakespeare's life. Still, people wanting a general biography of Shakespeare will find this intriguing. Recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/04.] Shana C. Fair, Ohio Univ. Lib., Zanesville Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Adam Gopnik - The New Yorker
“The most complexly intelligent and sophisticated, and yet the most keenly enthusiastic, study of the life and work taken together that I have ever read.”
Dan Cryer - Newsday
“So engrossing, clearheaded, and lucid that its arrival is not just welcome but cause for celebration.”
William E. Cain - Boston Sunday Globe
“Vividly written, richly detailed, and insightful from first chapter to last... certain to secure a place among the essential studies of the greatest of all writers.”
Richard Lacayo - Time
“A dazzling and subtle biography.”
Denis Donoghue - Wall Street Journal
“A magnificent achievement.”
Maureen Corrigan - "Fresh Air"
“Greenblatt's revelatory book pays tribute to the glorious democracy of Shakespeare's art by the openness and elegance of his own writing style.”
Charles Mee

At last, the book Shakespeare has deserved: a brilliant book written by a virtual eyewitness who understands how a playwright takes the stuff of his life and his world and makes it into theater.

Robert Hurwitt - San Francisco Chronicle
“An exceptionally well-told tale, an engrossing page-turner, in fact.”
Laura Miller - Salon
“Greenblatt takes the bits we do know, nourishes them with a thorough understanding of the Elizabethan world Shakespeare inhabited, and then coaxes each bud of information to flower within our understanding of the plays.... Only a churl would be unpersuaded by it.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Meet the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Brief Biography

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
November 7, 1943
Place of Birth:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
B.A., Yale University, 1964; B.A., Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Yale University, 1969

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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
rmishou More than 1 year ago
Greenblatt's outstanding work about Shakespeare effectively accomplishes what many scholarly books do not. This is a solid study that is very readable. As all Shakespearean scholars are, Greenblatt is forced to put together few facts to create a living breathing playwright. Each chapter captures an era of Shakespeare's life using plausible suppositions and supports it with the Bard's own works. Greenblatt's true scholarship shows, but he does not let it be hidden by obtuse language and obscure machinations. The role of Marlowe in Shakespeare's life as well as his views of Jews in Renaissance England are particularly solid chapters. My favorite, though, is the work on Macbeth and its relation to James I. It is not often that one wants to return to a scholarly book, but this is one of those. A comfortable, sturdy read that opens doors to the greatest writer in the English language.
mattanawcook More than 1 year ago
Of the six biographies of Shakespeare I have read, this was the least satisfying, in that it relies less on hard evidence (of which there is too little) than on the author's speculative powers. Every time the author proposed some rationale for why Shakespeare had done something, I kept thinking that there were many alternate and equally reasonable explanations. I wish he had chosen to write a work of historical fiction - like Wolf Hall - instead of a somewhat sketchy biography.
ElizabethSwigar More than 1 year ago
Another book that called out to me from the bookshelves of an airport bookstore - and another book that absolutely did not disappoint. Greenblatt's writing is engaging and engrossing. He sets the stage (pun, I suppose, intended) of Elizabethan England as a vivid backdrop to the events of Shakespeare's life. Though, as other reviewers pointed out, the thinness of the data force the author to engage in conjecture, it is fascinating conjecture. Additionally, Shakespeare's writing is delightfully woven into the conjecture, and I found myself again awestruck at his writing - as awestruck as I was the first time I truly began to appreciate it. I highly recommend this book - keep in mind, I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I suspect that is precisely the audience for which it is intended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stephen Greenblatt's writing takes the reader into the Elizabethan world. The details are fascinating and the connections to Shakespeare's life and his plays are illuminating. The reader is drawn into this world in the same way that one is drawn into a richly detailed novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with Keane Whitinger's comments on this book. I saw the author speak about his book and it sounded very promising. It's interesting enough but does reach quite far in some conclusions. There's nothing wrong with extrapolation. My work depends heavily on it. But that extrapolation must be cautious and well founded. In my case lives could depend on it, so perhaps I come down too hard on the author. I did begin to note the sheer volume of 'perhaps', 'might', 'may' and it was surprising. I suppose we all would like to know much more about Will and his motivations, feelings and other things that affected the creative process. Just go into this magical mystery tour with eyes open.
Guest More than 1 year ago
We know but a few pages of biographical information about Shakespeare, and the rest muct always be extrapolated. This author uses the not umerited theory of rooting Shakespeare within the intersecting ripples of effect and cause of his age, of which we now do in fact know a great deal. Many of conclusions are sudden and surprising and almost irrefutable- the coincidence of the name Hamlet and Shak's own deceased infant son Hamnet, for instance-but the book does begin to stretch at times, particularly when an entire exhaustive list of motivations in Shak's early life is revealed. Then again, this does proveide an interesting read, which must be the case when comfronted with a hefty tome about a giant and enigmatic figure we know so little about. Read the sonnets and plays first; read the scholarship second; for far too often scholars overlook the sheer privations and struggles and exuberances of the creative act itself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This study of the mysterious grocer who changed and shaped the English language in between selling cabbages offers legitimate insights into Shakespeare, and a great deal of well bolstered teasing besides -- as will always be the case when anyone tries to assemble a definitive portrait of Shakespeare. It's not that far removed from trying to present a convincing history of Santa Claus. For my money, the best picture we have of the Bard is in his playful and prolific work. Still, I really enjoyed this book. A very interesting memoir/biography that goes into strange territory and does beautiful things with language is a book called IN THE GHOST COUNTRY dabbling that most elusive arena, the human haunted mind.
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