Boston Globe reviewer and Wellesley English Professor William E. Cain had some upsetting news for Stephen Greenblatt in today’s today’s Globe review of Will in the World. According to Cain, Greenblatt’s book “is based less on hard fact than on conjecture and speculation, much of it credible and convincing, much of it not.” Cain goes on to indicate that the man Greenblatt describes as the author “may not have been the man at all.” Following are extended excerpts from Cain’s review:
Vividly written, richly detailed, and insightful from first chapter to last, Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating biography of Shakespeare is certain to secure a place among the essential studies of the greatest of all writers. But “Will in the World” is also a disquieting book, because ultimately it is based less on hard fact than on conjecture and speculation, much of it credible and convincing, much of it not.
The materials for a Shakespeare biography are extremely limited. We have some documents, records, property transactions, and brief references to Shakespeare by his contemporaries, but not a great deal beyond that. Except for his last will and testament, there are no personal papers, no diary or letters, no manuscript of a play or poem in the author’s hand. So little is concretely known that a few scholars, amateur historians, and skeptics have even made the giddy but unjustified claim that someone else—Francis Bacon, the earl of Oxford, and Queen Elizabeth are among the nominees—is the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.
From time to time Greenblatt makes clear that he knows he is close to giving a local habitation and a name to airy nothings, as when he considers the story that Shakespeare fled Stratford and made his way to London because he was in trouble for deer poaching. “The question,” says Greenblatt, “is not the degree of evidence but rather the imaginative life that the incident has.” Later, as he identifies the possible real-life figures to whom Shakespeare may be referring in the sonnets, he concedes he is “groping in the darkness of biographical speculation.”
So why even attempt a biography of Shakespeare? Because we crave contact with the person whose powers of perception, representations of consciousness, and uses of language exceed those of which any mortal seems capable. But, as a person, Shakespeare is beyond our grasp. “Will in the World” is thus a wonderful work of the imagination, an engaging and risk-taking evocation of a Shakespeare who may have been the man whom Stephen Greenblatt describes but who, quite simply, may not have been that man at all.
It is curious indeed that Professor Cain should describe alternative authorship theories as “giddy and unjustified” but still conclude his review by suggesting that the man Greenblatt describes “may not have been the man at all.” One cannot fail to remark that this discrepancy suggests that Dr. Cain, although honest in his evaluation of the weaknesses of Greenblatt’s megabucks defense of the orthodox Shakespeare industry, has not actually troubled himself to investigate the existing evidence in favor of Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespearean oeuvre or the weaknesses of the orthodox paradigm as documented, for example, in Charlton Ogburn’s 1984 opus or Diana Price’s Unorthodox Biography (2000).