William Shakespeare, widely considered the greatest writer in the English language, lived from 1564 to 1616. This book, by the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and editor of the The Norton Shakespeare (2015) is a book about what life was like in the time and place in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Some of it also speculates about what Shakespeare himself thought and felt, mostly based on common themes in his plays, sonnets, and narrative poems, since there is not much documentation on Shakepeare’s actual life.
Occasionally I thought Greenblatt’s speculation went a bit too far, especially about Shakespeare’s childhood. But still, it showed what a childhood in that period may have been like, even if it did, or did not, necessarily apply to Shakespeare. And I greatly enjoyed learning about the history of that era in Elizabethan England. Greenblatt highlighted the religious wars of the time, the fears over the sometimes harsh laws, the ever-present threat of recurring bouts of Bubonic plague, and the variety of entertainments available to the populace for escapism.
I have seen two main criticisms of the book. One is that, of course, much of the content about Shakespeare’s life is conjecture. But the author clearly identifies it as such, and adduces much evidence for why it could have, or might have, been true. In any event, all the historical information about the period is well documented, and is very interesting.
The second is that the author seems to fall into the “apologist” camp for “The Merchant of Venice,” focusing on Shakespeare’s addition of humanizing aspects to Shylock, the reviled Jewish merchant. While it is certainly true that Shylock is perhaps (incredibly enough) the most humane portrayal of a Jew from that time period (c.f. Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”), there is in fact a good reason why “The Merchant of Venice” was a favorite in the early Nazi era between 1933 and 1939, during which time it was produced about 50 times. In any event, Greenblatt’s analysis is thought-provoking, and also teaches us about the sensational (at the time) case of the suspected treason, trial, and execution of Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Rodrigo Lopez, who may have been an inspiration for Shylock.
I listened to this engaging book on audio, and I think that medium added immeasurably to my enjoyment. To demonstrate the points he makes, the author quotes at length from many passages in the plays and sonnets. Here is where an audio version shines, especially with this narrator, Peter Jay Fernandez, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor. Not only does he read the passages beautifully, but through his intonation, provides meaning often missed just be reading the text. (In addition, the author adds explanations for the context and meaning of Shakespeare’s words that greatly add to the reader’s (or listener’s) understanding and enjoyment.)
If you love Shakespeare, you will love the book, and if you aren’t as familiar with Shakespeare, you may become a new fan.
Published in hardback by W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
As indicated above, Peter Jay Fernandez is a Shakespearean actor and he is terrific. (If you watched the 2016 Tony Awards, you might find it amusing to know that Fernandez has also appeared on “Law and Order.”)
Published unabridged on 13 CDs (15.25 listening hours) by Recorded Books, 2004
Note: You can access the complete works of Shakespeare here. You can also learn more about Shakespeare’s life here. Last but not least, this terrific site instructs on how to “decode” Shakespeare and includes excellent analyses of a number of the sonnets and plays.