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Shakespeare in clearer focus

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton: 430 pp., $26.95

September 26, 2004|Marina Warner | Marina Warner is the author of, most recently, "Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self" and "Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature and Culture."

Since around 1650, when Sir William Dugdale began rummaging in Warwickshire for Shakespeareana, antiquarians and scholars have been sifting every dusty ledger or packet of bills for traces of the Stratford lad who left for London sometime in the 1580s and became Shakespeare. In "Will in the World," Stephen Greenblatt has combed these findings to track the strangely light, even effaced footsteps of Shakespeare on history.

It was a time of political quarrels, of surveillance and torture following the Reformation of Queen Elizabeth I's father, Henry VIII, and the reign of terror of her half-sister Mary Tudor. The theater belonged to an older world, not quite Merrie Englande, but almost -- the vanished past of "rewards and fairies." But players struggled on, entertaining the crowd with stiff moralities that could sidestep Protestant disapproval. Touring companies of players, like the Earl of Warwick's Men, visited the countryside around Stratford, and in 1575, when Will Shakespeare was 11, the queen's favorite, the prodigal Earl of Leicester, put on at Kenilworth a marvelous extravaganza to divert Elizabeth during one of her royal progresses. He took risks, he spent madly (1,000 pounds -- a king's ransom), but he was rewarded: "Her Majesty laughed well."

There are enough echoes and imitations in the plays to suggest that John Shakespeare took his son to these pageants. John Shakespeare was a glove maker and a considerable figure in the town, an alderman and a churchman who had helped whitewash the wall paintings of deposed saints in the Guild Chapel. But during Will's boyhood, his father became embroiled in troubles, for "wool-brogging" (illegal trading) and for not attending church. Why? Greenblatt offers a comparison with Falstaff -- perhaps he liked the sack too well, he suggests.

But "Will in the World" really comes alive when Greenblatt sets aside such psychological speculations and turns instead to the historical context, and specifically the Catholic connection: The family of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, was Catholic, and John Shakespeare -- in spite of his activities -- left a "spiritual will," or a declaration of faith, drawn up according to the recommendations of Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan and one of the presiding forces of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The "formulary" for this will might have been smuggled into England by one of the recusant priests preaching the pope's mission against Queen Elizabeth. They formed a "secret sodality of pious, suicidal young men" and included the celebrated scholar, daredevil, orator, wit and martyr Edmund Campion.

Shakespeare might have been hired as a tutor in one of the Lancashire households loyal to the Old Faith; he might even have received communion from Campion himself and if so -- Greenblatt supposes, carried up and away on the wings of "strong imagination" -- "[i]f the adolescent knelt down before Campion, he would have been looking at a distorted image of himself."

The well-known tale that Shakespeare was caught poaching deer on the estate of the local magnate Sir Thomas Lucy and then slandered him in a ballad only masks the real trouble. Lucy was the official and ruthless scourge of Catholics in Warwickshire and Shakespeare was implicated by association: Edward Arden, a possible cousin (we are still in the insubstantial cloud-capp'd towers of conjecture) was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason against the queen in 1583, two years after Campion, who had been sheltering a priest.

Lining himself up with a growing group of scholars, Greenblatt offers this religious persecution as the crucial background to Shakespeare's missing years after he left school, as well as his later motive for leaving Stratford. For after such (possible) brushes with high treason, Shakespeare had to melt into the capital and disguise himself through a hundred writerly acts of empathy and dramatic impersonation. Secrecy became a way of life. In a gripping passage, Greenblatt envisions the playwright, now married with three children, arriving in London for his new existence and passing the severed heads of his kinsmen impaled for all to see and fear on London Bridge.

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