An interview about Will in the World

Michael Silverblatt: From KCRW Santa Monica I am Michael Silverblatt and this is Bookworm. Today I am very happy to have as my guest Stephen Greenblatt. He has written a new book about William Shakespeare called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. It is published by W.W. Norton & Company. Now, I have not done very many critics, literary critics, on Bookworm, because you know so few of them do the things that the people who taught me—Leslie Fiedler, Hugh Kenner—could do, which was to slyly manifest a surprise and to demand that criticism astonish you, if not as much as the text did, but astonish you about the text or about how much could be discovered or imputed to it. And I have always felt that my favorite critics, maybe they were telling the truth, but it didn’t matter, truth wasn’t the essence, wonder was, and the renewed love of the book you loved, the book you cared about, was the point. Now I had feared that this kind of thing had disappeared until I read Will in the World, which is a book that contains so many surprises largely as a result of its method. Could you explain the relationship then in this book of what we have known of Shakespearian biography and the wider sense of history that informs the reference here?

Stephen Greenblatt: Well, we have, Michael, we’ve known basically what there is to know about Shakespeare in the narrowest sense of the traces that he left, chicken-scratchings in the bureaucratic records of his time, we’ve known those for about the better part of one hundred years and maybe a little longer, and I have researched those precious scraps quite gleefully. It’s wonderful to know what we do know: that he didn’t pay his taxes very willingly, that he left a somewhat unpleasant last will and testament, that he was born on a certain date, he died on a certain date, and so forth. But the question is what we want from any of this information, and what happens after we have researched this information, which people have done tirelessly, and for good reason because we actually have reason to be immensely curious about this astonishing human being who left us these works. So the question is what happens, why rather you feel vaguely depressed or somewhat nauseated after you’ve read even the extremely good biographies on Shakespeare that exist and have existed for a long time? So what I tried to do in Will in the World is to see if I could combine a responsible research of these documentary traces and weighing what they mean with a conjuring act, with the possibility of actually bringing his person much more into focus, but not only into focus but into life, a life he had in his world. Because the book is written with the presumption that Shakespeare, first of all, was born with an immense innate talent, obviously an astonishing genius, and that he also did a lot of hard work, including reading books and studying, and working on his iambic pentameter. But something about the way he was living in the world, something about his responsiveness to what was around him, made an enormous difference, so what I tried to do is simply to throw windows open and see what was outside the room that he was working in, and what he descended to when he descended onto the street.

MS: I want to give listeners an example of the kind of thing I am talking about. Now, if you have read anything about William Shakespeare’s sonnets, then you have heard endlessly of the story of the young lord, the earl with whom Shakespeare had an infatuation, a deep infatuation, and then the Dark Lady; in fact it is as if these personae were the unembodied characters of an off-the-page drama. And most critics have tried with various degrees of success, but without any real interest to identify who these figures were. Instead, here in the chapter by my guest Steven Greenblatt, we are told that Shakespeare may have been hired by the ward who was dealing with the young earl’s fortune. He is being forced to marry, the earl is largely otherworldly and probably homosexual, and he’s not about to marry; this means he is going to be disencumbered of his fortune and more than that, they are trying by every kind of strategy to get him interested in marriage including paying writers to write works of literary adoration. There is one that precedes Shakespeare, I believe.

SG: Yes, the guardian’s secretary. The earl’s guardian was a wealthy man, a powerful man, and was interested in having the earl marry his niece, which would have brought fortune to his entire family. Although the guardian was going to win no matter what he did, because if the earl refused to marry the niece, he was going to be able to set a large fine against the young man. The secretary of the powerful guardian wrote a work called “Narcissus,” rehearsing the story of Narcissus who stares at his reflection in the pool, and it was clearly an allegory for the earl to look away from his own reflection, stop being a narcissist, and to look where he should be looking, namely to look at the appropriate love match that was being made for him. Shakespeare comes in the wake of that, I think.

MS: Now Shakespeare being Shakespeare comes at the idea not to tell the young man to marry, or to tell the man he is a narcissist and needs to stop his disturbing self-fascination; instead he tells the young man that there will be more beauty in the world if he will have a child.

SG: It is a very clever strategy, or a crazy strategy, depending how you want to look at it.

MS: So the first seventeen sonnets are in the instructive mood of giving the young man a way of moving beyond the discourtesy of his family and fortune, except, and here is where Steven Greenblatt becomes to my mind dear, because he knows that in criticism we need a story too. Shakespeare becomes infatuated with the young man he has been instructed to instruct.

SG: This seems to be what is going on in these remarkable poems, and it is after all not my story. It is a story that Shakespeare himself loved, was fascinated by what happens if the dependent, call him or her Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night for example, what happens when that dependent becomes emotionally involved in the person whom he/she is serving? I think that Shakespeare was drawn to that idea, that fantasy because, I think, he had been playing it out in his own life.

MS: Now I had Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard on when Shakespeare in Love came out, and my guest Steven Greenblatt who teaches at Harvard now was the advisor to that film as I believe, and one of the people that Marc Norman first spoke to when developing the materials. There is a way in which these chapters, each of them, and I would say each and every one of them could inspire a film, because there are protagonists and antagonists and in particular springes to catch woodcocks. Your ideas seem to contain a very witty device like the change in the nature of Shakespeare’s assignment. Now first of all does this also answer the question of why the sonnets were not published until after he was dead, because Shakespeare, having gone beyond his assignment and professing direct love for the lord is no longer doing his job?

SG: Well it is certainly the case that the poems—which were in fact published during Shakespeare’s lifetime—are weird if they began or originated in this form, as I think they did, because the poems get out of control. Whether we can directly argue that it means Shakespeare decided not to publish them is harder to say because sonnets would not necessarily have been published anyway because they are not written for a print world, but written for a courtly world where they are circulated, and the money that was in them (because Shakespeare was always interested in the money in what he was doing) would have been in that courtly world, and not that print world. With that said, one thing that is absolutely characteristic of Shakespeare is that he gets carried away, he allows himself to get carried away. This is the writer who let Mercutio take off in Romeo and Juliet. You know one of the earliest stories that we have about Shakespeare’s working conditions, actually one of the only stories we have of Shakespeare’s work as a playwright is supposedly he said, “I had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play.” That is a fantastic thing to say. And this is the writer who allowed Shylock to almost destroy The Merchant of Venice, this is someone who did this professionally.

MS: Now, you’re telling in a sense a very contemporary story. Here we are and Shakespeare is called by the secretary, our ward has a tendency to love theater and other men. We are about to lose a fortune, you are one of the greatest, one of the two greatest writers for the stage—and since your theater is currently closed by bubonic plague, when not closed by the protestant bans against theater—in your spare time while your theater is closed, could you write this for us? It seems like one of the most ingenious ideas in the world, and this is what I want to ask you about; your relation to the hypothetical.

SG: Yes, well, that is a good question. Since you invoke Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, when Marc Norman came to see me about a decade ago, when I was teaching at Berkeley, he said that he wanted to write a screenplay, roughly based on Amadeus, about Shakespeare. I said forget it, there is not enough in the life of Shakespeare to make it dramatically compelling. I suggested that he write a screenplay about Marlowe, now that’s a great life, fantastic double agent, triple agent, full of betrayals and full of violence, eventually murdered. Then he laughed and said no, it had to be about Shakespeare. I said I can’t think of anything for you to do, maybe you could have Shakespeare have an affair with Marlowe, and then you could bring Marlowe’s life in, at least that would be exciting. Then he laughed and said no, he was going to try to get money from the Disney Corporation, so it was out of the question and it was not My Beautiful Launderette. Then in the wake of this conversation, and in the wake of the marvelous movie being made, I began to think about whether the truth, in so far as I could understand it, in so far as I could conjure it up hypothetically, whether the truth, at least as close as I could get to the truth of this life, could actually contain enough narrative compression, enough power, enough blood to make these stories alive. Now, I confess, Michael, I have tried very hard in the book to give it this structure. It would be too easy to criticize the book, I should not do it on the radio for your listeners, but it would be easy to criticize the book for creating too many, how should we say this, Forrest Gump effects, moments when it all comes together narratively; because in Shakespeare’s life as in any life, it must have been much more dispersed. But it is possible to apprehend something about this life, and possible to produce these moments if we take the available evidence and put pressure on it. That is what I have tried to do.

MS: Absolutely, you know, as I was reading, and I suggest, I am not the best judge, because I want to be intrigued and even delighted more than I want to be convinced. But it seemed to me, and I mean this as the highest praise, that there are volumes and volumes of people writing tales from Shakespeare, retelling the stories of Shakespeare’s plays in prose of various qualities. Yours are tales of Shakespeare, they are in a way using an enormous range of knowledge of Elizabethan history, and the subsequent discoveries, really a whole gallery of impressive knowledge that would be impressive even without Shakespeare to star as the hero of the knowledge. Now because Steven Greenblatt is a scholar, his sentences are obligated to a certain amout of “may”—Shakespeare may have encountered a Catholic rebel come to visit Stratford disguised as a gardener when he went up north possibly during—and so these sentences are marred in a certain sense to be honest by their provisional nature. As you go along you see, as interpretations get richer and denser, particularly the interpretation of Hamlet, these sentences seem to fall away, and we enter the tale fully committed. Can you tell us about the background to the Hamlet idea?

SG: Yes, if I may say so, it’s a good and cunning question. First of all because at one end of things, I am always aware of the fiction out there. In the huge myriad of interpretive fiction books on Shakespeare, two of the best books ever written about Shakespeare are Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, and even better are those astonishing pages from Joyce’s Ulysses. Now these writers are not committed to anything except the telling a fictive truth as best they can, and Joyce’s pages are really sublime, but I could not do that and still keep my union card as a scholar, so what I had to do, and what I wanted to do, is to use everything that I had accumulated in the last decades of work on the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods to try to get a sense of what is on the ground and to use all of that to try to give the convincing effect of a life. But I wanted to make a claim: the claim here is that life is actually compelling and that Shakespeare’s life is what he principally had to work with. It is not that Shakespeare’s art is in technicolor and fancy, and that real life is black and white and tedious. The life that Shakespeare was living was the only life he had, and he had to use it to create what he was doing. We have to respect and use some of the same tools—principally the imagination—that we have to conjure up what is in that material to make it worthy of the works that we actually care about and love. What matters here are the works—finally without them his life would be uninteresting. What matters, that is, are the astonishing things that he left behind. If we can get the life in relation to the works, then it can take off. What happened is that already in Joyce, for example, Joyce gets that something must have happened in Shakespeare’s life to account for Hamlet. That intuition on Joyce’s part is echoed again and again. Something weird happened. Hamlet is a watershed. You would not have known it possible of Shakespeare just before he wrote it. You would have thought he was a good playwright. You would not have been able to predict this astonishing outpour just afterward, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, it takes your breath away. So, something turned in his life at this point, it is about 1601. The question is what turned and what happened. My exceedingly simple hypothesis is that whatever turned had to do with what sounds like a joke or an accident, the fact that the name Hamlet is very much like the name of his son who died, Hamnet. In fact they were the same name, and interchangeable in the Stratford records. And I began to think about what we can get from the play and the life, what it meant to lose his only son at eleven years old, a few years before he wrote Hamlet. What I tried to do with that material was to think about how people dealt with the dead, and specifically the changes that took place in the way the dead were buried. When Shakespeare put his son in the ground he would have heard the words intoned, “We commend his body to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But, in the generation before, in the Catholic generation before that Protestant service, there would have been just a one-word change. “We commend thy body to the earth ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” What is the difference between “thy” and “his”? It is the difference between being in a relationship with the dead person, and having no relationship with the dead person, that person being really dead. And that is what the Protestants tried to do, heroically or ideologically, however you want to describe it. They tried actually to kill the dead.

MS: That there is no life after death.

SG: That there is no life after death until the resurrection. You can’t do anything for the dead, they are gone, you can’t say prayers for them, it was illegal now to say prayers for them, you can’t try to relieve their sufferings in purgatory, you are finished with them. That’s what Shakespeare, and not Shakespeare alone, but his whole generation, the generation after this enormous change, a change in the relationship between the living and the dead, a change by state edict—that is what they were grappling with. And Shakespeare then writes a play about a basically Protestant child, Hamlet, who was educated at Wittenburg (with which Luther is associated) and who was visited by the ghost of his dead father who says that he is in a place where his sins are being burned and purged away. Now a Protestant confronting a Catholic ghost is exactly Shakespeare’s way of grappling with what was not simply a general social problem but one lived out in his own life.

MS: Because his father, it is discovered, had articles of Catholic faith hidden buried in the floorboards of the house, and so Shakespeare is not just hearing from his son who is being asked to be remembered, but from his father whose own death to come will be one that needs to be remembered in a different way too.

SG: Exactly. In a document that surfaced somewhat miraculously in the eighteenth century to which his father had subscribed his name, the father was asking for prayers for his soul in purgatory, and whether Shakespeare gave him those prayers or not, I don’t know. What he gave him was Hamlet.

MS: Nevertheless what we have in Hamlet is a father asking to be remembered and Shakespeare’s obligation when writing the play to rewrite again and again his dead son’s name, and so whatever it is that cracks and makes of Hamlet something stranger and more profound and as ambiguous in its design as could be, is set in your book to be this constant reminder of both his father and his son during the writing.

SG: And a weird thing happened, two weird things happened. First of all, there was a volcano of words, an eruption of words that Shakespeare had never used before that had never been used in the English language before. It’s astonishing. It pours out of him.

MS: Like what?

SG: Well, words like polluted and perverse. I couldn’t give you a list of them off the top of my head.

MS: Oh I’m glad, because I thought, you see for me Hamlet is the play in which Shakespeare brings in a lot of words that sound like nonsense: ‘this is the miching mallecho,’ or ‘bury him in hugger-mugger.’ But you are actually talking about the coining of words.

SG: Absolutely, words that have remained in the language ever since, for which we have Hamlet as the first use. Something happened and something exploded within him. And secondly, he does something even stranger. Shakespeare as you know always liked to work with somebody else’s material. He was a great magpie. He took his very good source from a French retelling of a Scandinavian story that made complete sense. A public killing, one brother kills another, it’s an open murder, and there is a little child of the murdered man that survives, and that child has to live long enough to take the revenge that is expected of him as the son of the murdered father, but the little child has to figure out how to live long enough, because his uncle was the murderer, to take revenge. He figures out how to do that by pretending that he is mad so the uncle will keep him around for amusement in the rather nasty way that people took amusement in those days. So that makes sense. Shakespeare takes the story that makes perfect sense and he destroys it. He throws it away by having the murder be in secret, the murder is then only revealed to Hamlet by the ghost, then Hamlet pretends to go mad. But why does he do that? Because that only calls attention to him, it suddenly does not make sense in the story. And what I argue in the book is that is the beginning of a tactic that Shakespeare comes back to again and again in the years afterwards, of taking something that makes the whole story coherent, identifying what that element is, and then throwing it away.

MS: Now I have a compliment coupled with a question. I noticed by the time I came to the Hamlet chapter, which is I think two before the end, that there is a dexterity in the telling of the stories. You begin with the death of Shakespeare’s son, is there any evidence that he grieved, not at first, but he must have attended the funeral at Stratford? And then we get the need for a new play, why Hamlet would be attractive given certain kinds of assassination themes that were alive in the Elizabethan court. It’s only at the end of the chapter that the death of the son comes to fill all of the gaps. So, in other words, in addition to figuring out how to link an interpretation with history, the secondary, but for me not secondary task, is to figure out how to narrate this, so all of the beats fall in the right places and all of the revelations fly out at the right moment for astonishment. You don’t want to give away your exquisite moments too soon. And there has to be a climax as well. To what extent is this a gift taught to you by Shakespeare? A gift necessitated by the nature of students now who need to be entertained and dazzled? Or a gift demanded by the material itself?

SG: Well, the first thing perhaps to say, since I feel I am being, how should we say, looked into and understood, the first thing to say is that in some sense it is a gift taught to me by my father, not by Shakespeare or students or the material. My father who in this case was an obsessive life-long storyteller, and by a very peculiar trick of my father’s. My father would tell a very, very long story, and the punch line would be in Yiddish. And there would be a hilarious eruption of laughter, but I would be excluded from it as a child, since I had no idea what he was saying at the end. But the trick of holding off and having all the pieces come together at the moment of the revelation was something I must have learned quite early. The second thing to say is that it has nothing to do with appealing to distracted students. I think the writing of literature should give pleasure. What else should it be about? It is not nuclear physics. It actually has to give pleasure or it is worth nothing.

MS: You mean it shouldn’t be grueling?

SG: It should be demanding, but only in the sense that exercise can be demanding and still be pleasurable. But if Shakespeare himself is maybe about meaning and truth, I don’t know, then he is certainly about pleasure and interest, we start with pleasure and interest, but maybe eventually it gets to meaning and truth. But if it doesn’t have pleasure and interest, then it does not have life. And the same must be true about writing about literature. One of the things that has happened that is slightly melancholy in my profession is that the sense that the people you invoked in the beginning, Hugh Kenner and Leslie Fiedler, had the deep sense of the need to give excitement and pleasure to their readers. That seems to have dropped away temporarily, and with that dropping away so has dropped much of the readership. The work that we do is wonderful in many cases because it has produced such interesting research in these materials, but it has to be made available. I am a believer in narratives; why else would I love Shakespeare? I believe in broken, fractured, complicated narratives, but I believe in narratives as a vehicle for truth, not simply as a form of entertainment, though I love entertainment, but also a way of conveying what needs to be conveyed about the works that I care about.

MS: Now when you say “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” is the emphasis on the verb or on the noun, or on the “how”? I mean who is Shakespeare to become Shakespeare? What finally, after all of these exciting discoveries and transformations, what is the Shakespeare that Shakespeare became?

SG: The Shakespeare that Shakespeare became is the name that’s attached to these astonishing objects that he left behind. The first thing to say is that I take these works not simply to be eloquent machines, I take them to be letters written from a dead person and directed to us. And the question is how is it possible that he was able to address letters to us from four hundred years ago, that we can still read, and even be seized by and want to spend our lives in? And the answer lies in a whole life and not a single key. In the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, said that there should be a secret note that you could use to unlock a whole life. He said there was such a note in his own life, but he was going to hide it. I am not a believer in a single secret note. I believe that it is a whole lifetime of work on Shakespeare’s part that enabled him to do what he did. But the question is how you can explain this whole lifetime in such a way to make it accessible and available to us, to me. I wrote this book for myself first of all, as well as for the readers it can reach.

MS: And so Shakespeare through his life becomes the person who could write these plays, much as you say that Shakespeare takes the world around him and transforms it. It is the use of the everyday, everything around him becomes grist for Shakespeare’s mill. Or as William Gass said “a porkchop thrown into the garbage is garbage, and a porkchop thrown into Proust is Proust.”

SG: Ah, that is wonderful. I mean, look, this is the son of a provincial glover, doesn’t get to go to the university, as he might have expected to when he is growing up, and is married and has three kids by the time he is twenty years old. His life is in wreckage, and he somehow manages to get from that to being the person we are sitting here talking about, the person who I am willing to spend my adult life thinking about with pleasure and gratitude. How is it conceivable that he did this? How did he do it? A huge part of the answer is innate genius, but what does that mean? That means we don’t know the answer. There has to be something that he worked with, something he used. And what he did was never let anything, as far as I could tell, go by him without seizing on it and using it, the most trivial things in his life and the biggest events, the huge conspiracies, invasions, and so forth, but also little tiny things, the way a cowslip looks when you look into it, or the way a rabbit looks when it’s running across the field. Everything that came anywhere near him, he seized and used. It is thrilling actually. I’d love to live that life.