I received a message from Scott Atkinson today mentioning the Gospel According to Shakespeare classes. Scott mentioned that he had just finished Greenblatt's biography Will in the World. This bio was a NY Times bestseller last year – Paul Ragan recommended it to me as well – so, I read it earlier this year.
What a wonderful book. It apparently sparked some controversy for taking imaginative liberties with Shakespeare’s life. Most likely, Greenblatt did take excessive liberty – I’m not sure I agree with the portrait that he paints of Shakespeare, save for one chapter (see next paragraph) – Greenblatt’s mastery is in painting the landscape of the time – the religious uncertainty, the beginnings of modern urbanism, the pastoral fantasy of country living, the political intrigue and paranoia around Elizabeth’s court, the freewheeling and indeed decadent atmosphere of the early Elizabethan theatre. All of it Greenblatt sketches out for us in colorful and captivating detail.
But he ultimately paints Shakespeare as a cautious, brilliant, but ultimately somewhat petty figure. Shakespeare is almost the ultimate Walter Mitty who is able to live out his fantasises and desires for revenge through his plays. His brilliance at absorbing language wherever he heard it (so comically depicted in the film Shakespeare in Love) was what made him a star – apparently he lived a humble life, not carousing with fellow playwrights. He was estraganged from his wife, and if his last will and testament is any indication, there was no reconciliation.
But the chapter that captures my heart is the one called “The dream of restoration”. Greenblatt tells us that Shakespeare’s father was a prominent citizen of Stratford and a successful businessman – he had even applied for a coat of arms, which would propel the family into a new social status. But then suddenly, the fortunes turned – John Shakespeare lost his prominence and his positions. He slipped into debt, and the hopes of being granted a coat of arms were lost. Greenblatt believes alcoholism contributed to the fall.
But years later, Young William, now a successful playwright and part owner of a company, reapplies for the coat of arms and it is granted – he adds the motto “Not without right”, a seeming jab to say “I do come from a good family”. Greenblatt shows how often in Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the comedies), the noble hero loses everything and must endure the wild world seeking a way to attain restoration – this is the story in twelfth night, comedy of errors, merchant of Venice. In the later romances, this loss of position and then later restoration is darkened by pain – the winer’s tale and the tempest being examples where there is a happy restoration, but with a melancholy twinge – a loss of innocence, as it were. The early comedies return to innocence, the later romances move to transcendence beyond the pain.
And this is what fascinates me – Shakespeare always presents the dream of wholeness – the dream of bringing order out of chaos – the dream of the good society. And the dream is usually attainable (save in Troilus and Cressida – perhaps the darkest Shakespeare play yet – where there are no sympathetic characters – it is an ironic lampooning of the Trojan war). Is this dream not reflective of our desire for the edenic state. Is it not reflecting something deeper within – a longing for the “real countries” beyond these shadow lands.
This is the longing that is reflected in Isaiah:
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together: and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Is 11:6-9)
There is the longing for order out of chaos – the longing for all to be put right – for the forces of destruction to be put at bay – for our own destructive impulses to be transformed (the lion will eat straw like the ox – no longer a carnivore). It is a picture of society – not an individual paradise, but a society. And it is a picture of a society focused not upon ourselves, but upon knowing God. When we get our minds off ourselves, we find ourselves able to extend the graciousness of spirit and generosity. While we live in the present, the Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste, a hint and shadow, of the ultimate dream of restoration.
What do you think? Where do you see the dream of restoration played out? Have you seen this in Shakespeare? What are your thoughts about Greenblatt’s book. Just make a comment and join the conversation.