BBC Radio 4 Extra, 30 May - 3 June 2011
Subtitled "How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," this adaptation - first
broadcast in 2004 - reconstructed the Bard's life using historical evidence supplemented by material from his plays.
Read by Toby Stephens, with contributions from Alice Hart and John Rowe, it was perhaps most interesting for
the strategies it adopted in order to communicate Shakespeare's greatness to modern listeners.
First and foremost the production assumed that Shakespeare was a Great Artist
- someone whose plays continue to live in the public consciousness over three hundred and fifty years after they
were first performed. Author Greenblatt and adapter Davies looked to justify his greatness, and did so
ny drawing on a strategy which I thought had been discredited by academics in the postmodern era. Shakespeare was
great because he is universal; the issues he discusses can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of whether they know
English or not.
On the other hand Greenblatt suggested that Shakespeare's life was dominated by paradoxes:
although a member of a leading theatre troupe, patronized by King James, Shakespeare himself was a very private person, who
rarely talked about himself (hence the lack of available evidence to reconstruct his life). Although marrying young,
and having two daughters and a son, Shakespeare turned his back on family life as he left Stratford and moved to London. He
spent much of his professional career living alone in spartan rented accommodation; it was only when he retired
in 1614 that he reassumed the role of a family man. However this was not to last long, as he died two years later.
Although Greenblatt did not overtly state it, the implication was clear: Shakespeare actually hated the idea of living
an ordinary life, shorn of the celebrity he had enjoyed in London.
Greenblatt's tale also emphasized the contradictions in Shakespeare's life;
while spending his formative years in London drinking culture, with Marlowe, Greene and other university wits for
companions, he remained at heart a provincial person, whose life was shaped by his formative years in Stratford. His sonnets,
while ostensibly written in praise of the Dark Lady, were actually written for the Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare had been
commissioned to write them in order to persuade the errant Earl to pursue a socially advantageous marriage. The sonnets'
subject was superficially about women, but actually about a man.
Finally Greenblatt emphasized the links between Shakespeare's art and his life -
most of the major plays were inspired by external events. Thus Hamlet was conceived in the wake of Shakespeare's
son Hamnet's death; the "to be or not to be" speech represents Shakespeare's meditation on whether there is actually any point
to life. Macbeth was inspired by Shakespeare's patron King James' continuing interest in witchcraft; while The
Tempest was a reflection on the long and distinguished career of the soon-to-be-retired dramatist. Such connections are
tenuous at best (they tend to minimize the idea that a dramatist's work is solely the product of his imagination), but they
made for a good story.
Stephens' enthusiastic reading emphasized that Will in the World was a labour
of love; a popular biography written by an academic who was part of the New Historicist movement that dominated the critical
agenda from the late 1970s onwards. I thoroughly enjoyed it.