My immediate response upon finishing this book?
Every Shakespeare play I read from now on will be funnier, deeper, more moving and generally more of a joy because I read this.
What we know of Shakespeare's biography is notoriously fragmented, but Greenblatt fuses an extraordinarily depth of knowledge with the facts we do have, along with the extensive context of the strange, bloody and beautiful world of Elizabethan England. To that potent mix, he adds a passionate and lucid understanding of Shakespeare's plays and his poetry.
I haven't read all that much in the world of Shakespeare investigators and biographers and all that, but it strikes me as uncommon for someone to bear such knowledge of the shocking range and depth of research into Shakespeare's life while also bearing a writer's sensibility to Shakespeare's writing.
I found myself zipping through a chapter on how Shakespeare interacted with the Protestant-Catholic intrigues that devastated his country. Likewise with the section on King James' weird relationship with witchcraft, and how it might've influenced the shaping of the Macbeth witches. In these chapters, I was hungry for the true story.
But at other points in the book, I was taking lessons on becoming a better writer myself. I found myself taking notes on Greenblatt's evaluation of how Shakespeare's later plays–beginning with Hamlet–achieve their power by the author's "radical excision of motive." That is, the lead character–be he Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Prospero, for example–might've been fitted with a motive as crystal sharp as Romeo's, or as the source material used by Shakespeare explicitly provided him in their fable-like tellings.
As Greenblatt shows, however, Shakespeare occluded such obvious intentions with enough skill to keep the play from sinking into confusion. Rather, the effect was to open interpretation to many possible motives, or many at once. The uncertainty and multiplicity of motives translates into nuance: mutable modes of meaning. This harnesses the power of the plays. It brings movement. It brings uneasinesss. It invites contradiction. It is like life.
"Good idea," I was thinking as I scribbled notes to myself on how I might revise a story of mine. "'Radical excision of motive.' I should try that out."
There's a lot of power in Greenblatt's own book, and I'm hardly the first to discover it. Will in the World was a finalist for both the Pulitizer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award when it was published in 2004. It was named to just about every Best Books of the Year list (if not named the best book–as it was by at least five major publications).
It's an eminently persuasive book, certainly with a lot of open speculation, but Greenblatt is both honest in his conjectures and so well-informed that it's nothing to bristle at. I did find myself pulling away from Greenblatt's view of Shakespeare when he portrayed the playwright as grieving for his son when he died at age ten. In fact, Shakespeare barely knew the kid; he left him and his family behind in Stratford while he made his life in London. I believe the news probably hurt him. But I'm unconvinced, as Greenblatt is, that the death devastated Shakespeare. It rather seemed like Greenblatt hesitated to attribute unhappy characteristics to the guy who's understood to be the greatest talent of our age.
In all, though, this is a brilliant, wonderfully entertaining and engrossing book. I'm grateful to it for permanently enhancing my experience with Shakespeare's plays and poetry.