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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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Shakespeare's association and competition with Marlowe, according to Greenblatt, was a stupendous stimulus to them both. "Tamburlaine" contrasted with the "Henry VI" histories; "Edward II" countered "Richard II"; and "The Jew of Malta" and "The Merchant of Venice" presented disparate views of that oppressed and outlawed minority. In each pairing, Marlowe's heroes are colossally unpleasant, ruthless, willful, while Will's are kinder, gentler, or at least more sympathetic.

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"This was a crucial experience, a challenge to all his aesthetic and moral and professional assumptions," Greenblatt observes. "Had Marlowe never existed, Shakespeare no doubt would have written plays, but those plays would have been decisively different."

Marlowe's "mighty line" and what Greenblatt calls his "visionary poetic genius" were permanent inspirations to Shakespeare: Among other things he learned to concentrate emotional and psychological power in his heroes. Even Marlowe's untimely death in 1593 did not dispel his influence. Greenblatt surmises that "the neophyte Shakespeare and his collaborators seem to have been looking over their shoulders at Marlowe's achievement."

Perhaps Greenblatt's most cogent explanation for how Shakespeare became Shakespeare is his examination of what the dramatist learned from writing the great tragedies - "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," and "Macbeth" - between 1600 and 1606. Shakespeare was always leery of easy rationales and explanations for human behavior. By a device of opacity that Greenblatt calls "the radical excision of motivation," Will learned to represent inwardness, the inner life of his heroes. They seem enigmatic because they do not simply reveal their thoughts or purposes. The audience must come at these insights by watching them respond to extraordinary forces - the visitation of a ghost, the anguish of loving not wisely, the collapse of moral order in the universe, and the bewitched displacement of the real world with a hellish counterpart.

In a kind of summary, he says, "Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions."

What is finally endearing about Greenblatt's examination and explanation is his obvious affection and admiration for his subject. And a study as fine as this one can only encourage more devotion.

Norman A. Anderson is a retired professor of English living on Mercer Island, Wash.