Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

The Bard as a chat-show celeb
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The jacket of this book tells us that Stephen Greenblatt is "the founder of the school of criticism known as New Historicism". It has been well said that New Historicism is old historicism minus most of the ideas. But this charge cannot be levelled at Greenblatt, who has illuminated Renaissance thought with wide historical reading for a generation.

Indeed, there has not been for more than a century a biography of Shakespeare more steeped in our historical knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Will in the World will be immensely valuable to anyone interested in Shakespeare. It serves as a magnificent digest of our knowledge and a good guide to the history and politics of the period. Many assume we know little of Shakespeare, but the traces of his economic being - the transformation of a penurious son of a Stratford glover to a gentleman with landed interests - are exceptionally well documented.

But, from this perspective, Shakespeare's writing all but disappears. After a brief foray into publishing at the beginning of the 1590s, his texts are all at the service of his interests as a player and theatre owner; we do not even know if Heming and Condell's folio of 1623, seven years after his death, fulfilled an intense desire of the author or whether he was indifferent to the fate of the writings that had fulfilled the function of securing his position as a gentleman.

We have nothing except legal documents that are written in Shakespeare's own voice. No political statement, no religious credo, no love letters. Actually, we do have love letters, but the Sonnets achieve that Renaissance perfection of form where deeply felt emotion is expressed in an anonymous voice.

Many biographers have tumbled into this void and Greenblatt tumbles routinely after them. The book is full of sentences of the form "he must have thought" and "he must have felt", which tell you a great deal about Greenblatt but little about Shakespeare. At this level, it is trite and dated. Greenblatt's Shakespeare is the one discovered by the Romantics: the man of unique sympathy who could identify with privates and kings, with Moors and Jews. It is the idea captured by Coleridge's coinage "myriadminded" and Keats's "negative capability".

The problem is that Greenblatt's own formulations, 200 years down a well worn line, lack conviction. "Shakespeare's imagination took it all in", "words came easily to him" - this is the Shakespeare of a celebrity booker for the Oprah Winfrey show. These phrases are not momentary lapses; they litter every page.

It is a curiosity of intellectual history that three decades of theory in the American university result in this. The engagement with Foucault or Derrida, Althusser or Lacan, was made in the name of an emancipatory understanding that would engage with the Eurocentric focus of the profession. What we get here is a Europe without Islam or Judaism. Shakespeare's genius was to take the figure of the Moor or Jew and dramatise encounters with Christian society. The handkerchief or the pound of flesh, the "Do I not bleed?" or "I have done the state some service", crystallise centuries of conflict and occasional illumination.

There is no attempt to light up Othello by considering the cultural origins of Western European love in Moorish Spain, nor a reading of The Merchant of Venice that reflects on Protestantism as Christianity's renewed engagement with Judaism. We are offered the psychology and prose of Hello!. To engage in the battle of popular culture is honourable; to fall at the first hurdle foolish.

The book relies on the most challenging biography of Shakespeare - provided by Joyce in the library sequence of Ulysses - while missing the point. For Joyce, Shakespeare is a paralysed figure, broken on the rack of a new sexuality ushered into being by the commodity relations in which he was intimately involved. Greenblatt takes many details from Joyce but ducks the central analysis. He relates Hamlet to Shakespeare's dead son, Hamnet, but will not think through how this relates to Hamlet's disgust at his mother's sexuality.

Greenblatt's image is of a man outside his time, a 20th- century professor parachuted into the 16th for a briefing visit. Historicising Shakespeare in relation to a new masculinity doesn't seem to occur to him. Partly this is because he is so keen on, rightly, emphasising Shakespeare's relation to the old Catholicism, so he cannot read that even a closet Catholic was incubating the new Puritan germ. Partly, no doubt, it is because any ambitious professor on a US campus would find it embarrassing to talk of Shakespeare's despairing misogyny. There is a great deal of valuable history in this book, but of the historical Shakespeare, there is hardly a trace.

Colin MacCabe teaches English at the universities of Exeter and Pittsburgh

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