Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt


Rating: (Recommended)




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Scholar Stephen Greenblatt provides colorful and descriptive context in his new book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. By connecting the world in which Shakespeare lived, ripe with religious and political landmines for everyone, with his verse, Greenblatt describes what formed the bard as a person and as a writer. Other scholars may find Greenblatt’s connections tenuous and his speculation weak, and will doubtless challenge him on many fronts. General readers will delight in Greenblatt’s informed conjecture and will enjoy learning more about both Shakespeare and his times.


Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, “Laughter at the Scaffold,” pp. 256-263:


However generously he may have been rewarded for the sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare did not choose to stake his fortunes, financial or artistic, on his relation to a patron. He chose instead, when the plague abated, to return to the theater, where he rose to preeminence as a playwright remarkably quickly. The playing companies needed to please many different tastes, and they had a huge appetite for new scripts. Hardworking hacks could make good money grinding out dozens of plays: Three Ladies of London, Peddler’s Prophecy, Fair Em, A Sackful of  News, The Tragical History of the Tartarian Cripple, Emperor of Constantinople. But until the impressive, boisterous arrival on the scene of Ben Jonson in 1597, Shakespeare had only one serious rival, Christopher Mar1owe. The two immensely talented young poets, exactly the same age, were evidently locked in mutual emulation and contest. They circled warily, watching with intense attention, imitating, and then attempting to surpass each other. The contest extended beyond the momentous early works, Tamburlaine and Henry VI, to a brilliant pair of strikingly similar history plays, Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II, and an equally brilliant pair of long erotic poems, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. Marlowe would not have made the mistake of underes­timating Shakespeare. He would have immediately understood that in the words of the hunchback duke of Gloucester, in the third part of Henry VI—“I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown” (3.2.168)—Shakespeare was at once invoking and slyly mocking Tamburlaine’s dream of “The sweet fruition of an earthly crown” (2.7.29). Shakespeare, for his part, was in no danger of underestimating Marlowe. Marlowe was the only one of the university wits whose talent Shakespeare might have seriously envied, whose aesthetic judgment he might have feared, whose admiration he might have earnestly wanted to win, and whose achievements he certainly attempted to equal and outdo.

One of Marlowe’s achievements might have seemed to Shakespeare, at this early point in his career, beyond his grasp. Doctor Faustus, the pow­erful tragedy of the scholar who sells his soul to the devil, drew deeply on Marlowe’s theological education at Cambridge. Though years later, in Hamlet, Shakespeare depicted a bookish prince who has been abruptly pulled away from his university studies, and in The Tempest he explored the fate of a prince who becomes rapt in his occult reading, he never attempted, early or late, to make the scholar’s study the center of the the­atrical scene. His fullest answer to Marlowe came on neutral ground, that is, in the depiction of a person whom neither of them is likely ever to have encountered, a Jew.

But how did Marlowe and Shakespeare come to write two of their most memorable plays, The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, about Jews? Or rather, in the case of Shakespeare, why did the character of Shylock the Jew take over the comedy in which he appears? For almost everyone thinks that the merchant of Venice of the play’s title is Shylock. Even when you realize that the merchant is not the Jew, even when you know that the title is referring to the Christian Antonio, you still instinc­tively make the mistake. And it is not exactly a mistake: the Jew is at the Play’s center. The Merchant of Venice has a host of characters who compete for the audience’s attention: a handsome, impecunious young man in Search of a wealthy wife; a melancholy, rich merchant who is hopelessly in love with the young man; women—three of them, no less—who dress themselves as men; a mischievous clown; an irrepressible sidekick; an exotic Moroccan; an absurd Spaniard. The list could be extended. But it is the Jewish villain everyone remembers, and not simply as villain. Shylock seems to have a stronger claim to attention, quite simply more life, than anyone else. The same can be said for Marlowe’s Jewish villain, Barabas. Why were the imaginations of Shakespeare and Marlowe set on fire by the figure of the Jew?

The fire glowed against the darkness of almost complete erasure: in 1290, two hundred years before the momentous expulsion from Spain, the entire Jewish community of England had been expelled and forbidden on pain of death to return. The act of expulsion, in the reign of Edward I, was unprecedented; England was the first nation in medieval Christendom to rid itself by law of its entire Jewish population. There was no precipitating crisis, as far as is known, no state of emergency, not even any public explanation. No jurist seems to have thought it necessary to justify the deportations; no chronicler bothered to record the official reasons. Perhaps no one, Jew or Christian, thought reasons needed to be given. For decades the Jewish population in England had been in desper­ate trouble: accused of Host desecration and the ritual murder of Christian children, hated as moneylenders, reviled as Christ killers, beaten a lynched by mobs whipped into anti-Jewish frenzy by the incendiary sermons of itinerant friars.

By the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare, three centuries later, the Jewish population of England was ancient history. London had a small population of Spanish and Portuguese converts from Judaism, and some of these may have been Marranos, secretly maintaining Jewish practice. But the Jewish community in England had long vanished, and there we no Jews who openly practiced their religion. Yet in fact the Jews left traces far more difficult to eradicate than people, and the English brooded these traces—stories circulated, reiterated, and elaborated—continually and virtually obsessively. There were Jewish fables and Jewish jokes and Jewish nightmares: Jews lured little children into their clutches, murdered them, and took their blood to make bread for Passover. Jews were immensely wealthy—even when they looked like paupers—and covertly pulled the strings of an enormous international network of capital and goods. Jews poisoned wells and were responsible for spreading the bubonic plague. Jews secretly plotted an apocalyptic war against the Christians. Jews had a peculiar stink. Jewish men menstruated.

Even though almost no one had actually laid eyes on one for gener­ations, the Jews, like wolves in modern children’s stories, played a powerful symbolic role in the country’s imaginative economy. Not surprisingly, they found their way into the ordinary language that theatrical charac­ters, including Shakespeare’s, speak. “If I do not take pity of her I am a villain,” says Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, tricked by his friends into declaring a passion for Beatrice. “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” (2.3.231—32). Everyone knew what that meant: Jews were by nature vil­lainous, unnatural, coldhearted. England’s royal kings, says the dying John of Gaunt, are renowned for their deeds as far from home “As is the sepulchre, in stubborn Jewry, / Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son” (Richard II, 2.1.55—56). Everyone knew what that meant: even in the wake of the Messiah’s presence in their midst, Jews stubbornly and per­versely clung to their old beliefs, beliefs that could not cleanse and hence ransom them from sin. “No, no, they were not bound,” says Peto, contra­dicting Falstaff’s brazen lie that he had bound the men with whom he says he had fought. “You rogue,” rejoins Falstaff, “they were bound every man of them, or I am a Jew else, an Hebrew Jew” (1 Henry IV, 2.5.163—65). Everyone knew what that meant: a Jew—here, in Falstaff’s comic turn, a Jew squared—was a person without valor and without honor, the very antithesis of what the fat braggart is claiming to be.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries found Jews, along with Ethopi­ans, Turks, witches, hunchbacks, and others, useful conceptual tools. These feared and despised figures provided quick, easy orientation, clear boundaries, limit cases. “I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives,” says the clown Lance in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Every­one in his household weeps at Lance’s departure, but the “cruel-hearted cur” does not shed a tear: “He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew would have wept to have seen our parting” (2.3.4—5, 8—10). The Jew was a measuring device—here of degrees of heartlessness. He was also an identity marker, as another remark by the merry Lance makes clear: “If thou wilt, go with me to the alehouse. If not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian” (2.5.44-45). The dog is real, at least in the special sense in which stage animals are real; Lance is real, at least in the special sense in which theatrical characters are real; but the Jew has no comparable real­ity. Perhaps the most casually devastating sign of the disappearance of real Jews is a quiet joke, rather than an insult: “Signor Costard, adieu,” says the diminutive page Mote in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the clownish Costard replies, “My sweet ounce of man’s flesh, my incony Jew!” (3.1.123-24). “Incony,” meaning “fine,” was a piece of Elizabethan slang. But what is “Jew” doing here? The answer: nothing. Perhaps Costard has simply misheard “adieu” (presumably pronounced “a-Jew”); perhaps in a slangy way he is calling Mote a “jewel” or a “juvenile.” Whatever he is saying, he is not referring to actual Jews; Shakespeare calculated, probably correctly, that the accidental reference would make his audience chuckle.

So, some three hundred years after their expulsion from England, the Jews were in circulation as despised figures in stories and in everyday speech, and Shakespeare, particularly early in his career, reflected and furthered this circulation, apparently without moral reservation. For though the audience is meant to feel various degrees of detachment from Benedick, Falstaff, Lance, and Costard, it is not distanced from a casual anti-Semitism that is simply an incidental feature of their comic energy. Jews do not actually appear in these plays, nor do they occupy a signifi­cant place in the language the characters speak; on the contrary. they are all but invisible, even in those few minor instances when they are invoked. Shakespeare was being a man of his times. Jews in England in the late sixteenth century had virtually no claim on reality; they had been subject to what the German language so eloquently calls Vernichtung, being made nothing.

Yet that is not quite right, for Jews were also constantly and more sub­stantially present to all Christians as “the People of the Book.” Without the Hebrew Bible, whose prophesies he fulfills, no Christ. It is possible to be unclear or evasive about whether Jesus was a Jew, but, conceptually at least, it is not possible for Christianity to do without Jews. Every Sunday, in a society in which weekly church attendance was obligatory for every­one, ministers edified their parishioners with passages, in translation, from the sacred Scriptures of the ancient Israelites. A people utterly despised and degraded, a people who had been deported en masse from England in the late thirteenth century and had never been allowed to return, an invis­ible people who functioned as symbolic tokens of all that was heartless, vicious, rapacious, and unnatural also functioned as the source of the most exalted spiritual poetry in the English language and as the necessary con­duit through which the Redeemer came to all Christians.

This conceptual necessity—this historical interlacing of the destiny of Jews and Christians—had, of course, nothing to do with toleration for actual Jews. Certain cities—Venice among them—permitted Jews to reside relatively unmolested for extended periods of time, forbidding them, to be sure, to own land or practice most “honest” trades but allow­ing, even encouraging, them to lend money at interest. Such fiscal liquid­ity was highly useful in a society where canon law prohibited Christians from taking interest, but it made the Jews predictable objects of popular loathing and upper-class exploitation. Medieval popes periodically voiced a wish to protect Jews against those more radical Christian voices that called for their complete extinction, man, woman, and child, but the protection was only for the purposes of preserving an object lesson in misery. The papal argument was that an unhappy, impoverished, weak, and insecure remnant was a useful reminder of the consequences of rejecting Christ. Protestants had a somewhat greater interest in exploring the historical reality of ancient Judaism. The drive to return to the prac­tices and beliefs of early Christianity led to a scholarly investigation of Hebrew prayer, the Passover, atonement, general confession, funeral cus­toms, and the like. For a brief time Luther even felt kindly disposed toward contemporary Jews, who had, he thought, refused to convert to a corrupt and magical Catholicism. But when they stubbornly refused to convert to the purified, reformed Christianity he was championing, Luther’s muted respect turned to rage, and in terms rivaling those of the most bigoted medieval friar, he called upon Christians to burn the Jews to death in their synagogues.

Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies probably had little currency in Elizabethan England. There were, after all, no synagogues left in Eng­land to burn, no Jewish community to hate or to protect. Marlowe and Shakespeare encountered “strangers,” vulnerable to attack, but these were men and women belonging to the small communities of Flemish, Dutch, French, and Italian artisans, mostly Protestant exiles, who lived in Lon­don. In economic hard times, these aliens were the victims of resentment, targeted by gangs of drunken, loudmouthed, club-wielding idlers baying for blood.

The evidence that Marlowe and Shakespeare personally concerned themselves with this xenophobic violence is, in both cases, suggestive but ambiguous. In 1593 someone nailed up, on the Dutch Church wall in London, an incendiary placard against the resident aliens, one of a series of attacks that the authorities feared would incite violence. The authori­ties, launching a sweep against the troublemakers, apparently suspected that the author of the placard was Marlowe. Informed that Marlowe had been living with Thomas Kyd, officers went to Kyd’s rooms. They did not find Marlowe there, but they searched the rooms and found heretical and blasphemous papers. Kyd, subjected to a brutal interrogation, said that the papers were all Marlowe’s. Marlowe was called before the Privy Council, questioned, and released only under orders to report daily in person to the Palace of Westminster.

The suspicion that Marlowe wrote the Dutch Church libel was probably baseless, but it was not motivated by idle paranoia. The author or authors of the toxic words that worried the authorities complained that “like the Jews” the aliens “eat us up as bread”—the image may well have been drawn from a popular play like The Jew of Malta—and the nasty placard not only alluded to Marlowe’s play The Massacre at Paris but was also signed “Tamburlaine.” The allusions show that Marlowe’s fan­tasies were current in the minds of some aggrieved people, that his plays had excited them, that his famous eloquence had helped them give their feelings a voice.

Shakespeare’s very different response to the xenophobia was signaled in a play that he apparently collaborated in writing with several other playwrights, including Anthony Munday (the probable originator), Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, and Thomas Dekker. Before its first performance, the script, Sir Thomas More, ran afoul of the censor, Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels. Tilney did not reject the play outright, but he demanded substantial revisions in several scenes depicting the hatred of “strangers,” and he called for the complete elimination of a scene showing the 1517 riots against their presence in England. The rea­son for this demand seems clear: intensifying tensions culminated in periodic outbursts of rioting. There were particularly ugly episodes in 1592—93 and again in 1595. The authors of Sir Thomas More obviously wanted to capitalize on the tensions—everyone in the audience would understand that the scenes from the past were a thinly disguised repre­sentation of the world just outside the playhouse walls. The censor evi­dently was afraid that the play, even if it formally disapproved of the riots it staged, could stir up more trouble.

Though alterations were made and new scenes were written, possibly in response to the censor’s demands, the script does not seem to have received official approval, and the play was apparently never performed. But the manuscript, written in multiple hands, somehow survived (it is now in the British Library) and has been pored over for more than a cen­tury with extraordinary attention. For though many puzzles about it remain unsolved, including the year the play was first drafted and the year or years when the revisions were made, the manuscript contains what most scholars agree are passages Shakespeare himself penned, the only such autograph manuscript to have been discovered.


Will in the World helps Shakespeare come alive for readers.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



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