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.
Greenblatt proposes the possibility that in 1581 Will might have gone north to Lancashire to be a tutor in a Catholic household. There he might have met Edmund Campion, a secret Jesuit subversive who was ultimately subjected to a cruel death.
But Greenblatt's evidence for this Lancashire adventure is tenuous, if not downright tendentious, based as it is on the slender supposition that the "Will Shakeshafte" mentioned in the will of one of the Catholic Lancashire hosts is in fact Will Shakespeare.
The story hits the ground again, though, when Will makes his way to London, in 1587, probably as a member of a traveling acting troupe, leaving behind his wife and three small children. Very quickly he became a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the intimate acquaintance of a group of gifted playwrights, the "University Wits" - George Peele, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, Robert Greene, and especially Will's exact contemporary and only rival, Christopher Marlowe.
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.
"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.