Sunday, October 03, 2004

Colm Toibin reviews Stephen Greenblatt's 'Will in the World'

A thoughtful review in the NYTBR of Greenblatt's Will in the World. I haven't read the book, but I did hear its author deliver an excerpt a year or two ago at Columbia. And there are some fundamental issues with this kind of speculative biography that were not addressed in (for instance) Adam Gopnik's outrageously glowing paean in the New Yorker. Obviously this is a book well worth reading; I'm going to get hold of a copy soon and check it out. But I appreciated Toibin's candor on the limitations of this approach (as well as the fact that it clearly didn't stop him from appreciating and singling out for readers the book's many good qualities):

Almost every step forward in reconstructing [Shakespeare's] life involves a step backward into conjecture and a further step sometimes into pure foolishness. Greenblatt discovers, for example, that Shakespeare's father in his official capacity was responsible for paying two groups of touring players who came to the town in 1569. Would the father ''have taken his 5-year-old son to see the show?'' Greenblatt asks. The answer is as emphatic as the question is banal: We do not know. In the following paragraph, nonetheless, Greenblatt writes as though Shakespeare had in fact attended the play. ''His son, intelligent, quick and sensitive, would have stood between his father's legs. For the first time in his life William Shakespeare watched a play.''

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