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A literary detective searches for Shakespeare

He told us everything about humanity, but details about the genius from Stratford are hard to find

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One of the enduring mysteries in literary history is how a bright but unsophisticated Stratford lad, within relatively few years, became the supreme writer in the English language. In "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," Stephen Greenblatt explains this extraordinary phenomenon with comprehensive evidence, skillful argument, and gracefully supple style. Its nomination last week for the National Book Award is richly deserved. (See page 16 for reviews of all the nonfiction finalists.)

Greenblatt was a consultant for the popular movie "Shakespeare in Love," but he is also a professor at Harvard University and general editor of the Norton Shakespeare.

His critical method is New Historicist: he scrutinizes the relevant historical events and the known facts of Shakespeare's life to inform and illuminate our understanding of the plays.

Each chapter pursues myriad paper trails - historical accounts by many hands; religious, legal, and literary documents; official pronouncements; known Shakespearean sources; scraps of letters, reminiscences, and recorded gossip - anything that could shed light on his subject. The result is a well-ordered analysis that is fascinating and largely convincing.

In tracing the familiar story of the early years in Stratford, Greenblatt emphasizes the likelihood that young Will would have had opportunities to act in versions of classical plays, and also would have seen traveling companies perform mystery and morality plays. He suggests that this encouraged Will's later penchant for acting, which allowed him to play parts outside his own character, an asset to conceiving the characters in his own scripts.

The vexing question of Will's religious convictions is fully explored here. At the King's New School in Stratford, he had several masters who were secret Jesuits, some of whom, when discovered, were exiled or subjected to horrible punishment. Will's father, while serving as bailiff and mayor of Stratford, would have been required to discipline Catholics; yet he hid a Catholic "spiritual will and testament" in the rafters of the Henley Street house, perhaps as an insurance policy should the religious winds change. Will watched these winds but never allied or identified himself with either position.


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