Friday, May 06, 2011

Will in the World, Part 1

I listened to the first two chapters of Will in the World on the way down to the beach. The first chapter is all about Shakespeare's (hereafter referred to by $, like the gangsta he was) country roots and how they later played out in the London environment. He grew up surrounded by "low drama" like the medieval pageant cycles, mystery and miracle plays, mummer's dances, traveling troupes of players, etc. He might have seen more sophisticated theatrical endeavors like the Kenilworth entertainments put on by the Earl of Leicester for Queen Elizabeth. Greenblatt's thesis in this chapter is that, while $ knew he was doing something very different in London, he still realized that he "owed a debt" to his early exposure to low and high drama.

Hearing about the dramatic milieu in which $ grew up, especially the Kenilworth entertainments, was really helpful and wonderful. It is all described in such an easily digestible way, while being lavishly supplemented with quotes from original documents. And I don't quarrel with a supposition like Greenblatt's that $ certainly heard the spectacles at Kenilworth described in great detail. I do quarrel with statements that put sentiments in the mind or mouth of an author. How do we know if $ really felt that he "owed a debt" to his upbringing? Or that, while he realized that life and art in London is where he was meant to be, he never looked down on his more homely roots? Stephen Greenblatt, did you read Shakespeare's diary again? You know better than that!

The second chapter begins by doing something similar when Greenblatt refers to John Shakespeare's vocation as a glover, and infers that this is why there are so many references to leather in $. Yes, because if there's one thing that $ is known for, it's for speeches about gloves and leather. Well, Greenblatt does provide a lot of examples, but it still seems like one of those things that once you look for it in such a large body of work, of course you're going to find some.

However, this is only an introduction to a discussion of John Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt goes on to talk more his success and high social standing, later downfall, in some persuasive and moving ways, highlighting the potential ambivalence that $ seems to show towards fathers and drunkards. And then he explains his earlier comments about glovers by saying that $ obviously had a bit of knowledge about several fields (law, theology, magic, history) and that drawing a connection with gloves only goes to show how easily $ could weave anything into a metaphor or description.

So far, I'm really enjoying it. There is some silly sentimentalizing and a bit of long-stretching going on, but on the whole, it really does what Greenblatt says it does, which is introduce the reader not only to $ himself but to the early modern period in which he lived. If only Greenblatt didn't go on to say "and into the world to which he was so open." Again, that must have come direct from the diary.

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