WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE. By Stephen Greenblatt. Norton. 384 pages. $26.95.
"What else can you say about Shakespeare?"
That was the response of the producer of a long-running festival of the Bard's works when he learned of Stephen Greenblatt's biography, the latest in a long line dating back several centuries.
Every generation, it seems, has had its Shakespeare studies. The ground around Stratford and the site of the Globe have been turned over and over, and the various shards - and there aren't many - have been examined in microscopic detail.
Shakespeare, for all his 37 plays, 150 sonnets, and two long narrative poems, left no letters or diaries. The historical record of legal documents, including his will and mentions by contemporaries, while helpful, shine little light on his character.
Greenblatt, then, like the many who have gone before him, is left with speculation:
"Why in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote - even in the sonnets - couched in a way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts?"
Greenblatt believes it was fear. Shakespeare lived in a time of great paranoia in England. The Protestant government felt under siege from supporters of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope, after all, had called for Queen Elizabeth's assassination.
She responded with a network of spies and informers, mass arrests, brutal torture, and bloody executions. Even her court physician wound up on the gallows.
The heads of the queen's victims were stuck on poles at London's Great Stone Gate, a site the playwright passed almost daily in his years in the capital.
The fact that Shakespeare's father might have harbored Catholic leanings added to his son's uneasiness, Greenblatt believes.
Also, Shakespeare's theater company depended on the patronage of the royal court, so political suspicion would be bad for business. That's why many of his plays were allegorical endorsements of the regime.
Greenblatt deftly explains the political references and imagines the motivations behind them, work that had been done before but which gets a fresh look here.
Macbeth, for example, was written to court favor with Elizabeth's successor, the Scottish James I, a peculiar man with a fondness for witchcraft and a descendant of Banquo, a contemporary of the murderous thane.
But Banquo was an ally in Macbeth's misdeeds, according to Holinshed's Chronicle. Shakespeare transforms his character into one who is slain by Macbeth for his honor.
Greenblatt writes that the play, written in haste shortly after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, served to reassure James that he held a rightful place among England's legitimate rulers.
Facts can lay the groundwork for reasonable speculation, but when the Harvard professor goes looking for the impetus for Hamlet, he must search in the thinner personal file.
What to make of this masterpiece by the author of light comedy and action-filled history?
Shakespeare had the material, including the name of the title character and the concept of a son avenging a father's death, from several sources, including an earlier British play. But where did the interior twilight of the soul come from?
Greenblatt speculates that it came from the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet at age 11 in 1596. The boy was named for a neighbor, but occasionally his name appeared as Hamlet, the biographer says. The play was written four or five years later.
"Something deeper must have been at work in Shakespeare, then, something more powerful, enough to call forth the unprecedented representation of tormented inwardness," Greenblatt posits. ". . . the act of writing his own son's name again and again may well have reopened a deep wound, a wound that had never properly healed."
With one foot in a Catholic past and another in the Protestant present, Shakespeare might have been struggling with symbolic disparity between the two beliefs, Greenblatt muses.
The funeral practices and the concept of purgatory had been rejected in the Protestant religion, leaving Shakespeare with little to comfort him.
"Shakespeare grasped that the crucial death rituals in his culture had been gutted," writes Greenblatt. "He may have felt this with enormous pain at his son's graveside."
His outlet - and religion - was the theater where Shakespeare worked through his grief and guilt, pouring them into his greatest play.
It's a thesis full of room for pondering and arguing, one of the values of the book. Greenblatt gives us the stuff of Shakespearean speculation and helps us see the plays in a new light.
Much of his book is also a broad overview of the playwright's world, making it a terrific introduction for newcomers to the Bard and his plays.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.