Will in the World

Will in the World coverWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Stephen Greenblatt
read by Peter Jay Fernandez
Recorded Books (September 24, 2004), 15 hours and 21 minutes
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$22.95 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I normally read (and listen to) books that are more recent, but the discussion of Will in the World in the Nonfiction Book Club on Goodreads caught my attention, so when my August Audible credit became available, I made it my selection for the month. At 575 pages in the print edition, the book is a comprehensive discussion of William Shakespeare and life in the Elizabethan world.

Author Stephen Greenblatt is very clear about what we know and what we don’t know. We know that Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and a local official, a sort of justice of the peace. John Shakespeare “married up” when he wed Mary Arden. We know William went to school locally at Stratford-upon-Avon and as far as we know he didn’t attend college. This is notable in that although John Shakespeare was not wealthy, many of his peers sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge. There is a gap in Shakespeare’s life, from the time he finished school locally until he showed up in London as an actor and playwright. It’s not clear where he got the knowledge of literature and history that are the basis of his plays.

Greenblatt does a lot of speculation. There are many sentences that read, “Shakespeare must have…” or “He most likely…” or “Shakespeare may have been in attendance at…” This is understandable, however, as there are simply gaps in the historical record. But we know a lot about the Elizabethan world so these hypothetical surmises represent reasonable possibilities.

The author is a close reader of Shakespeare’s plays and he discusses in some detail how much of the content of the plays came from Shakespeare’s own experience: assisting in his father’s shop, raising livestock in the country, or legal matters that he possibly learned about as an attorney’s assistant (more speculation here).

Greenblatt writes about Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, and how their first child was born six months after their wedding, something that the Elizabethan world did not look kindly upon. He reflects on the fact that Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, but despite his success he left his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. In fact he bought them a spacious house there. Greenblatt describes how Shakespeare left his wife out of his will almost entirely (getting only his “second-best” bed), while his elder daughter received the bulk of the inheritance. He tells us that Shakespeare was an astute businessperson who invested wisely and was able to retire early.

We get a thorough picture of Elizabethan life. Greenblatt writes about the Protestant strictures imposed on the country, and about how Catholics had to practice in secret and at great risk. He describes the popular spectator games in London, activities which make modern cock and dog fighting look tame. And the author provides a thorough picture of the business of the theater.

Peter Jay Fernandez does a superb job reading the book. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but he slips right into the roles in the many quoted passages from Shakespeare’s plays. If there are books that are best consumed in audiobook format rather than print or e-reader, Will in the World is certainly one.

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