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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Stephen Greenblatt
W.W. Norton, 430 pages, $26.95
Spying on Shakespeare

An imaginative look at a playwright who remains mysterious


Popular culture is vexed by three questions about Shakespeare. They concern his “real” identity, his sexuality and his religion. Is Shakespeare the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, or is he really Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or even Queen Bess herself? Given that 126 of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a beautiful young man, readers wonder whether Shakespeare was homosexual or bisexual. And, finally, readers debate whether Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, an adherent of the “old faith,” as Michael Wood argued in a recent PBS series, “In Search of Shakespeare.”

In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt adds little new to the first two questions, but he does give considerable attention to Shakespeare’s religious affiliation. He concludes that even before Shakespeare went to London he was skeptical of both Catholicism and Protestantism, that “nothing in his work suggests a deep admiration for the visible church” and that the only form of sainthood he believed in was “erotic sainthood.” Absent among the forms of heroism in Shakespeare’s plays, Greenblatt contends, is “ideological heroism -- the fierce, self-immolating embrace of an idea or an institution.”

The evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is scant, and considering the swings in religious “orthodoxy” between Henry VIII and James I, we can say nothing definitive. Shakespeare’s father may well have been a Papist (the derisive term for Catholics). In the 18th century, a spiritual testament signed by John Shakespeare was discovered in the rafters of the family house; it was a testament composed by Charles Borromeo and smuggled into the country by Jesuits. That testament disappeared soon after its discovery. Richard Dye, a clergyman, recorded in his diary: “He dyed a Papist.” But the principal source of argument supporting Shakespeare’s supposed Catholicism rests on “the lost years,” 1577-81, when no one knows for certain where he was. He could have been working for his father or as a legal clerk in Stratford. He could have been working as a schoolmaster/performer for prominent Catholic families in Lancashire. He was probably not in a seminary in France.

Greenblatt puts Shakespeare -- desirous of a theatrical life -- in Lancashire and even imagines young Will meeting the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion: “Let us imagine the two of them sitting together.” Greenblatt has Shakespeare and Campion agreeing on the importance of theater, rhetoric, Virgil and Horace, but parting ways on erotic poetry. Had Shakespeare been in the north of England working for the Heskeths and the Hoghtons, he might have met Campion, but Greenblatt’s narrative is a supposition on a supposition. It is fiction, not scholarship.

The second major “argument” Greenblatt introduces is also fictional. And he admits it. At the graveside of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, John Shakespeare tells William to “buy” Masses to release his grandson’s soul from purgatory. William refuses, and instead writes “Hamlet,” which dramatizes the anxiety over Protestantism’s abolition of purgatory: No longer could the living assist the departed through intercessory prayer.

I was much taken with Greenblatt’s book. It is energetic; in places, excellent; but in others, eccentric. Greenblatt is a close reader who has an uncanny ability to unlock passages and to make connections across the Shakespeare canon. He also possesses an enviable command of Elizabethan/Jacobean history and culture. But I am uneasy about his method and the influence of his book on non-specialist readers. Will teachers of Shakespeare begin hearing about Shakespeare’s disagreement with Campion or his quarrel with his father at his son’s graveside?

On the other hand, Greenblatt’s fictional construction of the impetus for that most problematic play, “The Merchant of Venice,” is interesting, even persuasive. It presents a Shakespeare that aficionados want to believe in. Is “Merchant” a play that challenged London audiences on its ostracization of Jews? There weren’t that many Jews to ostracize (under a thousand), but there was a heap of hatred, not only against Jews but Turks and Moors as well.

Shakespeare’s Shylock as both victim and villain is undecipherable. And this brings me to Greenblatt’s best point, his characterization of Shakespeare’s genius: It resides in his “strategic opacity,” involving an “excision of motive.” Try as we have and will, we will never know what motivates Iago or Lear or Antony. Therein lies Shakespeare’s amazing command of the stage.

Greenblatt’s biography is a jeu d’esprit with some objectionable parts but thoroughly brilliant insight. But it will not replace Samuel Schoenbaum’s honest documentary life or Park Honan’s careful assessment. Nor does it quite capture Shakespeare’s luminosity -- the quality that produced a selfish old king to say to his daughter upon their imprisonment: “And take upon’s the mystery of things/As if we were God’s spies.”

To see, read or study Shakespeare is to be one of God’s spies.

Michael Allen Mikolajczak is chair of the English department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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