BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Stephen Greenblatt, what did you write about Shakespeare that others haven`t?
STEPHEN GREENBLATT, AUTHOR, "WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE": I`ve tried to bring Shakespeare back into the world, in the world he lived in and in our world. I`ve tried to take the traces that he left, little chicken scratchings, really, in the sand, and make a human being out of them.
LAMB: What`s your reaction when you read about professors that say he didn`t even exist?
GREENBLATT: I don`t think too many professors say this, but there are people who have this idea...
LAMB: Or that he didn`t write these...
GREENBLATT: People have a lot of strange ideas about a lot of things, Brian. I mean, in the case of Shakespeare, he left a lot of records. He was famous in his own time as a playwright, and it would require a conspiracy theory quite of an extraordinary magnitude to cover his tracks.
LAMB: Are you comfortable that he wrote everything that you -- you know, what is it -- how many plays?
GREENBLATT: Yes, 38 plays and lots of poems. Did he write everything, absolutely everything by himself alone? No, absolutely not. He collaborated on a bunch of the plays. He worked in a medium in which collaboration was quite widespread, like television writing or movie writing.
But what`s very striking is that the work that has been done in the last few years, very serious computer work and other work trying to establish exactly the parameters of how much he wrote and how much collaborators wrote, seems to confirm, astonishingly, more conservatively than I would have imagined, the least interesting plays or the most problematic of plays, the ones that aren`t simply as good, are the ones he tended to collaborate with someone else on -- "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," "Titus Andronicus," the ones that are exceedingly creaky for one reason or another -- "Henry VIII."
They have interesting things in them, but aren`t fully achieved. Those tend to be the ones that were collaborative performances. The ones that he apparently wrote by himself seem to be precisely the ones we would hope he wrote by himself.
LAMB: When did he live?
GREENBLATT: He was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midlands in England and died in 1516 -- in 1616.
LAMB: Which made him what, 52?
LAMB: What does it mean, Stratford-upon-Avon?
GREENBLATT: It`s a town that was and is located on the Avon River, so it`s upon the Avon. And there was a very fancy bridge in Shakespeare`s time. The same bridge is there now.
LAMB: What is there now of Shakespeare?
GREENBLATT: Well, since the 18th century, the town has been a tourist site, the major kind. So there`s a lot of Shakespeare there, or at least, a lot of things claim to be Shakespeare`s, and actually, quite a few things that are actually from the time that he lived -- the house that he lived in, that he was born in. The birthplace is there, the school room that he was in. The Guild Hall, where he might have seen his first play, is there. Lots of things, because, actually, it became so valuable to the town to keep anything associated with Shakespeare that things are very well preserved in Stratford. It`s a lovely place.
LAMB: One of the reasons we wanted you to come here was because over the years of “BOOKNOTES,” some 15-and-a-half years, we checked, and some 50 different authors mentioned in our discussion William Shakespeare. I want to show you just a couple so you can get the flavor of what they`re saying about, and then ask you about them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - AUGUST 3, 2004)
MAUREEN DOWD, AUTHOR, "BUSHWORLD: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK": What I try to do with humor and with serious columns is to let the readers see politics almost like a Shakespearean drama, in the sense that you have running characters.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - SEPTEMBER 21, 1989)
KENNETH ADELMAN, AUTHOR, "THE GREAT UNIVERSAL EMBRACE": If you want to understand life, there`s no better way than reading Shakespeare and then discussing it with a lot of people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - AUGUST 11, 1997)
HOWARD GARDNER, AUTHOR, "EXTRAORDINARY MINDS": One of the characteristics of some extraordinary people -- in particular, Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats are often used as examples -- these individuals are said to have negative capabilities. What negative capability means is that rather than having a strong personality themselves, they have an incredible ability to pick up the personalities of individuals around them and be able to capture that in their works.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - DECEMBER 23, 2003)
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM, AUTHOR, "NO EXCUSES": These children have to learn English. How are they going to learn English? Let`s read Shakespeare.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - FEBRUARY 11, 2002)
FRANK WU, AUTHOR, "YELLOW": I`m a huge Shakespeare fan. I can recite for you the opening 45 lines of "Richard III" from memory.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - APRIL 21, 2000)
DAVID CROSBY, AUTHOR, "STAND AND BE COUNTED": Shakespeare was right about the lawyers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - JANUARY 13, 2000)
CORNEL WEST, AUTHOR, "THE CORNEL WEST READER": I`m a New World African who dreams in a European language, who dreams in English. And that language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Toni Morrison.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - FEBRUARY 23, 2000)
ALLEN GUELZO, AUTHOR, "ABRAHAM LINCOLN": The only figures who had more things written about him than Lincoln are Jesus, Shakespeare and Napoleon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: When Allen Guelzo mentioned Lincoln, it brings back memories of reading about how he used to read Shakespeare when he was very young. Did you ever study that part of Lincoln?
GREENBLATT: I didn`t, but it doesn`t surprise me because the fashioning of eloquence, first of all, in the 19th century, was very much bound up with reading Shakespeare. And still, really, there`s no better way of crafting your mastery of the language, I think, than Shakespeare.
LAMB: Why is that?
GREENBLATT: Because he was the best, because he had the most astonishing, creative mastery of his medium of anyone in our language. And he was unrivaled in his own time and unrivaled now.
LAMB: What makes him the best?
GREENBLATT: He had astonishing natural gifts. That is to say, there are things that are difficult to explain other than they must have been genetic accidents -- a fantastic alertness to language. And then he found a way of deepening and deepening and deepening his experience and understanding until he could create whole worlds. He has the most -- at least, in the English language tradition, the most powerful imagination, the most powerful ability to conjure up human beings in complex, convincing circumstances of any writer in our language.
LAMB: What were his parents like?
GREENBLATT: Simple people, at least in their social background. Shakespeare comes from a modest social family. One of the reasons we don`t know as much about him as we would certainly like is that this is the family that goes under the radar of the usual 16th century, 17th century attention, not because they weren`t in some way significant -- the father was the equivalent of the mayor of Stratford and had other civic offices -- but because they`re not aristocratic people, not gentry.
And the father was a glover, made fancy gloves for the trade, and also probably a small-time usurer, also bottom-sold wool illegally, maybe some other things to get by. His mother came from a farming family. Actually, the mother`s parents were the yeoman farmers that the father`s father was a tenant farmer for. So the farmer married up by marrying into her family.
But they`re -- compared with other writers from the period, Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh, these are people of very modest means, modest backgrounds.
LAMB: How many kids did his parents have?
GREENBLATT: The parents had, actually -- now, I forget the actual answer, partly because the kids died in the usual way rather quickly. Six, I think. But of those, only Shakespeare`s sister, Joan, a brother Richard, a brother Edmund, brother Gilbert survived, four of them. There might have been eight, actually, if you do the count. I`m sorry.
LAMB: And what`s the first document you can find in his life that still lives?
GREENBLATT: A perfectly good document, which is a Christening record, so we know he was christened. And the date, the birth date, April 23 birth date, is just a convention because he was christened three days later, and that`s the usual -- it`s usually a three-day interval. We don`t have a birth record, but we have a christening record.
LAMB: And he was born into what religion?
GREENBLATT: He was born in -- very good question. He was born officially into Protestantism. England had decisively become Protestant in 1559, after going -- rocking back and forth, but with the accession of Queen Elizabeth. So there wasn`t tolerance of -- religious tolerance in the 16th century, or 17th century, for that matter, and so England was officially Protestant. Shakespeare nominally was born into a Protestant family. Whether they actually were Protestant, thereby hangs a rather complicated tale.
LAMB: Well, you say that his father, John, was a Catholic and maybe a Protestant and we`re not sure.
GREENBLATT: Yes, it`s a complicated world, though probably not more complicated than our life world, our spiritual world. It`s not so clear if, when push comes to shove, that people are unequivocally one thing and not another. There are plenty of people who are very, very clear about their religious beliefs, but they don`t want to walk under ladders and have all kinds of other things that, if you push very hard, would look a little strange in terms of an equivocal, single thing.
In any case, I think Shakespeare`s father -- we know certain things that he did. We know that he signed off on the order to destroy some of the old Catholic -- whitewash over the old Catholic paintings on the wall of the Guild Hall as part of the iconoclasm, part of the destruction of religious art in the period. So he`s definitely on board, as it were, as a civic official, in the new Protestant world order.
On the other hand, there are lots of strange signs that seem to indicate that he has ties in the other direction, toward Catholicism. So often, it`s said that -- at least recently, it`s been said more unequivocally that the father was a secret Catholic, and there are interesting signs of this. But as I say, I try not to simply hedge my own bets but hedge the bets of that family by saying that, Well, maybe Shakespeare discovered that his father was both Catholic and Protestant.
LAMB: What about his mother?
GREENBLATT: His mother comes from a more unequivocally Catholic family. The father`s will -- her father`s will is manifestly, from its formulas, a Catholic will. And his mother`s family is related to one of the leading Catholic families in the area, the Ardens of Park Hall, near Birmingham. So that`s a quite important Catholic connection. So the likelihood for the mother, though we don`t know, is that the mother`s roots are more decidedly Catholic.
LAMB: Queen Elizabeth I was a reigning queen for how long?
GREENBLATT: She came to power in 1569. She died in 1603.
LAMB: A lot of years.
GREENBLATT: A lot of years.
LAMB: And why was it that, for instance, a pope back in those days had really authorized the assassination of her, if anybody could get away with it?
GREENBLATT: Well, she wasn`t popular among the popes at the time -- several of them were in office during her reign -- for good reason. Her father, Henry VIII, was a kind of equal opportunity persecutor, basically a -- doctrinally rather a staunch Catholic, but at a certain moment decided to seize the wealth of the monasteries and tilted the country, at least to that extent, in a Protestant direction, but managed to continue to persecute Protestants.
Then his son, Edward, was a child when he came to the throne, was really much more doctrinally Protestant, was in the hands of tutors and guardians who were very, in a much more determined ideological way, Protestant. And they persecuted the Catholics.
Then when Edward died, Edward`s sister, Mary, came to the throne, his oldest sister. And Mary Tudor was a very committed Catholic, so they started burning Protestants in the country, those who hadn`t been able to escape to the continent, seeing what was going to happen. So the country had gone back and forth.
Elizabeth had been extremely circumspect. She had a fantastically dangerous childhood because any indication -- she was in the Tower much of the time. Any indication that she was unequivocally Protestant would have been greeted by lots of suspicion and the possibly that she`d be executed. It was -- this happened. And she was -- though a very young girl, she was unbelievably adroit at hedging her bets and at hinting that she might be one, might be the other, though it was reasonably clear to people that she was Protestant. And when she came to power, she made it much more unequivocally clear that she was a Protestant.
So to that extent, she was fair game in the political assassination business because that was all that was holding England clearly in the Protestant camp. It wasn`t at all clear to the pope and to his spies that England -- because there were many spies for the papacy in England, that -- and they -- spies were sending reports back to the Vatican saying that the English aristocracy was fundamentally in sympathy with Catholicism, but they were keeping their counsel because of the Protestant queen. So the pope figured that if he could get rid of the queen, they could bring England back, via the queen`s cousin -- Mary Queen of Scot, was a Catholic -- back into the Catholic camp. That made it very dangerous.
LAMB: When did you get interested in all this?
GREENBLATT: Oh, I got interested in it actually back in college, or graduate school, in any case. I became interested in Sir Walter Raleigh and fascinated by that life and fascinated by the whole idea -- this was a lot of years ago, 40 years ago or so -- about what ties the things that people write and the lives they lead, particularly if those lives are striking or interesting. What ties these things together? Why did Sir Walter Raleigh, an adventurer, a courtier, a remarkable fellow -- why did he leave poetry behind and history? What accounts for the integration of writing and life in this period? And that interest has continued through to the present.
LAMB: When did you first read Shakespeare?
GREENBLATT: First memory I have of reading Shakespeare is being assigned "As You Like It" in junior high school and hating it.
GREENBLATT: "Sweet my coz, be merry!" I thought, Oh, man! I can`t deal with this. It was -- it just seemed impossibly old-fashioned and silly.
LAMB: What do you say to someone who says, You know, I like the story of Shakespeare, but I really don`t like to read him?
GREENBLATT: Well, I usually would say, Why don`t you rent a video? Take a look. Because the plays were certainly written -- they may have been written to be read, though they were read in the time, and things were printed and people bought the books at the time. But principally, they were written to be performed. So that is it`s -- I can see that someone wouldn`t want to pick up a libretto, a Mozart`s libretto and read it. But you wouldn`t expect someone to say, I don`t like Mozart. I can`t make any sense of this. Well, you need a little work to make sense of it. You have to know how to read music. But if you listen to Mozart, you don`t have that much difficulty getting magnificent...
LAMB: What do you prefer, the plays or the sonnets?
GREENBLATT: I don`t -- I mean, I`m not someone who feels compelled to make a choice, but I do prefer the plays, fundamentally, to the sonnets. I find the sonnets remarkable, fascinating, but I find them so richly worked, so fine and complex, such complicated mechanisms, that I rarely allow myself the time to play with them enough to open them up, whereas the plays give themselves much more easily to you.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
GREENBLATT: I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts.
LAMB: And where did you go to college?
GREENBLATT: I went to college at Yale, and then I was in England for a couple of years afterwards on a Fulbright.
LAMB: Were you at Oxford or...
GREENBLATT: No, Cambridge.
GREENBLATT: And then I went back to Yale for my graduate school.
LAMB: And where do you teach now?
GREENBLATT: I teach at Harvard.
LAMB: And what you teach?
GREENBLATT: I teach English literature, a lot of Shakespeare, to be sure. But from time to time, I teach other things, as well, partly in the field of the Renaissance as a whole. But I`ve taught over things over the years, courses on memory, courses on the invention or the reimagining of curiosity. Curiosity used to be thought of as a vice, and then at a certain point, people began to think it was a good thing. And lots of other things.
LAMB: Why has Shakespeare lasted so long? And everybody -- you know, you hear people say it`s the most important writer in the English language. Do you agree with that?
GREENBLATT: I do agree with that. I think, actually, rather few people would disagree with it. Why has he lasted so long? Because he is infinitely pleasurable and rich. It`s not that -- we can say lots of wonderful things about him that sound morally uplifting, but it starts with pleasure and interest, not -- in my view, not with meaning and truth. It`s not fundamentally like reading something that`s making a truth claim on you. The Bible, let`s say, would be an example. But it`s about giving you pleasure, deep pleasure, complex, rich pleasure.
And Shakespeare was fantastically good at this and was very clever in his own time, and then, astonishingly, turns out to have been good for centuries at doing what looks like an impossible thing, of pleasing the most sophisticated, complex, rafine, complex, demanding literaturs of his time and drawing in hundreds, thousands of ordinary people into the theater. The theaters depended on bringing 1,500, 2,000 people on in an afternoon. You couldn`t take 10 people with fancy educations and please them, you had to get a huge crowd in there, paying a penny to stand up to watch the play. And you had to do both at the same time. And Shakespeare almost uniquely figured out how to do that.
LAMB: How much education did he have?
GREENBLATT: More than people think. He didn`t go to Oxford or to Cambridge, and thereby hangs a tale. I mean, something happened in the family. He might have been expected to go to Oxford, not that his father did or his mother did. They might have been illiterate. But they would have wanted him to go, if they had the possibility, I think, because it was part of a strategy of social advancement. But he didn`t go.
On the other hand, there`s an exceedingly high likelihood that he would have continued all the way through or very close to the end of a quite rigorous secondary school education, which would have come free to him and we know quite a bit about. It was very, very good. And that`s true, by the way, not just of Shakespeare but of that whole environment in the Midlands, in Warwickshire. There are unusually good schools and lots of remarkably good writers. These aren`t people living in a remote backwater in -- where they have no access to education.
This is someone who had, by our standards, at least -- maybe not by the highest Renaissance standards, but by our standards -- a rather impressive education, at least in the -- what we call the humanities.
LAMB: Stratford is how far from London?
GREENBLATT: A couple of hard days` ride in his time.
LAMB: On a horse.
GREENBLATT: On a horse, yes. It was a long, difficult trip. I mean, it wasn`t something you did -- I mean, Shakespeare must have done it relatively regularly, but not every weekend.
LAMB: How many miles is it?
GREENBLATT: I want to say 80 or 90 miles, but I -- someone will call me in and correct me. I`m sure I`ve got it wrong by something or other.
LAMB: And at what age did he marry?
GREENBLATT: He married at 18, which was probably not the best idea he ever had in his life. He married a woman who was 26 years old. And there`s -- he was a minor, she wasn`t. And we know that six months later, she gave birth to their first child. So...
LAMB: That was Susanna.
GREENBLATT: Susanna. And the reasonable presumption is that therefore, they knew each other before they married.
LAMB: And what was she doing at the time, do you know?
GREENBLATT: A farmer`s daughter living in a town called Shottery. Her father was dead, which gave her an unusual liberty, freedom. She didn`t have brothers, either, who were watching over her. So she was an unusually independent woman with a small income and, obviously, a will of her own.
LAMB: And what was he doing when he got married?
GREENBLATT: Well, we don`t know exactly. It`s part of that time of his life about which the records are silent. There`s lots of speculation, including the ones I indulge in. What we know is that he was walking -- it wasn`t very far, a mile-and-a-half or two miles, whatever it was, from Stratford, where his family lived, up to Shottery, the little town of Shottery, and visiting Anne Hathaway. I think he might have gone to Shottery because there`s a complicated Catholic set of traces that lead back to this very small town and that can be connected, I think, though you have to connect the dots, to Shakespeare. So he might have gone originally for something -- an errand for somebody, but in any case, he met and eventually married Anne Hathaway.
LAMB: This -- we`re going to jump to the very end. And his will, as you say, had nothing in it for Anne Hathaway.
GREENBLATT: First draft of the will doesn`t mention her, not, To my loving Anne, not, To Anne, nothing, To my wife of 34 years, zero. It doesn`t mean that she wouldn`t have inherited something anyway. There were what they called dower rights in the age, and the people who want to sentimentalize this will say, Well, there was no reason for Shakespeare or the lawyer to write anything in because everyone understood that she`d have these dower rights, as his surviving wife.
But it`s very peculiar. I`ve looked at a lot of these wills now in the period, and most people make some gesture or other to their wife, often very touching gestures of affection and love. And there`s nothing -- what there is, is a very strange interlineation. That is to say, after the will was written, the lawyer came back and he wrote something in between the lines on Shakespeare`s behalf. And between the lines is written that he gives to his wife his second best bed. If that isn`t an insult, I don`t know quite what is.
LAMB: How many years did he live in London? And did his family live in Stratford?
GREENBLATT: Almost the whole of their marriage. The first -- presumably, the first two years, between `18 and `20, he was around. At least, we know he was around long enough to have two more kids, a set of twins born before Shakespeare`s 21st birthday. And then I think quite shortly thereafter, he must have gone. We don`t know the exact time, but he must have gone up to London.
And then he stayed there, as far as we can tell, right through virtually his career, until in -- probably in his late 40s, he returned again -- the date isn`t exact -- he returned to Stratford, to the wife, to the two surviving children back in Stratford. But it was, basically, his whole professional life and, in effect, his whole married life he spent apart from his wife.
LAMB: You say that his son, Hamnet, died when he was 11, one of the twins. What was the death caused by?
GREENBLATT: We don`t know. They didn`t keep death records that specified this. We just have a death record that says the son died at the age of 11 in 1596. Could have been any number of illnesses. The actuarial chances of making it through were fairly modest, though it`s interesting that the twin sister, Hamnet`s twin sister, Judith, lived a good, long life by the standards of the age, so something...
I mean, look, in your life or my life, probably if we actually think back, there`s something that would have been likely to have taken us off, if they hadn`t invented penicillin or they hadn`t done this or that, or we could have got strep throat and recovered from it, also. But who knows? So it could have been anything that took him away.
LAMB: And what impact did the death have on Shakespeare?
GREENBLATT: Well, some people say no impact. Some people say he was a cold bastard who just went on with his work because we know that in the years after the writing of -- I mean, after the death of Hamnet Shakespeare, his father went on the write plays like "Much Ado About Nothing" or "Merry Wives of Windsor" or "As You Like It" -- that is to say, light-hearted, happy plays with lots of laughter, joy, happy marriages.
But I don`t believe it. I don`t believe it not for sentimental reasons, really, but because, first of all, in addition to writing those plays, he also wrote "King John," for example, which has excruciating, beautiful and painful lines about the death of a son, the death of a child. And he also in 1601, so five years afterwards, he wrote a play that basically bore the same name as his dead son. Hamlet and Hamnet are basically the interchangeable names in this period and were used interchangeably in the time. And I think there are many, many fingers of the dead son and of Shakespeare`s grappling with the death of his son in the writing of "Hamlet."
LAMB: What was "Hamlet" about?
GREENBLATT: The play "Hamlet"? The play that Shakespeare had inherited -- Shakespeare tended to use what was given to him, what he could find in his voracious reading, what he could pick up and steal from somebody else. So the play that he inherited was a revenge story about a son taking vengeance for the murder of his father. But Shakespeare freighted that story with extraordinary weight, extraordinary material about mourning and grief and loss and what your relationship is with dead people, whether they can speak to you any longer, whether they live in some other place or simply have been erased forever. And that weight, that extraordinary weight, I think, can be traced back to the experience of this loss.
LAMB: Of the 38 plays, which one, in your opinion, is the most important, if there such a thing?
GREENBLATT: Well, I think "Hamlet" is actually a watershed play. I mean, it`s hard to decide among -- with a playwright who had so many astonishing achievements, whose career is so full of recreating himself. But I think that "Hamlet" does represent a startling pivot in Shakespeare`s life. I think if he died before he wrote "Hamlet," we would think exceedingly highly of him. I mean, this is a man who had written "Midsummer Night`s Dream" and "Rome and Juliet" and other magnificent works. But I think we wouldn`t have guessed that he had in him what then came out after the writing of "Hamlet." That is to say, I don`t think we could have predicted that what lay on the other side of "Hamlet," if "Hamlet" didn`t exist, was going to be "Macbeth," "Othello," "Anthony and Cleopatra," "The Tempest," "King Lear," this astonishing outpouring of genius, tragic genius, especially, tragicomic genius.
And I think that "Hamlet" is the pivot point. And there are other signs of it being the pivot point. There are -- there`s a kind of volcanic eruption of language in "Hamlet," though he had already written about 20 or so plays. There are suddenly 600 words not only that he had never used before, but that had never been used before in any printed text that survives in the English language. That is astonishing. Something just erupting from him. And then...
LAMB: Did he invent the language?
GREENBLATT: He did largely invent the language. I mean, he invented it usually -- he`s very cunning at telling you what the words actually mean. When Lady Macbeth says that blood on her hands, that she`s imagining on her hands, is going to make the multitudinous seas incarnadine -- incarnadine -- the next line is "making the green one red." That is to say, incarnadine means making something red. But Shakespeare, if he`s introducing a very fancy 50-cent word, will usually give you a five-cent explanation afterwards, so that you`re not completely lost in the plays.
But lots of the -- where he does this -- I couldn`t off the top of my head recite to you the words that he uses, but many of them are words that we use in the English language now, like "unpolluted," let`s say, in the -- for the first time in "Hamlet." People might have known "polluted," but they wouldn`t have used "unpolluted," and so forth and so on. He often plays with language that way.
And then there`s something else that`s going on in "Hamlet" that fascinates me, which I think Shakespeare does here, as far as I can tell, for the first time. He had been very good at giving motivations to his characters. If you think back at "Richard III," for example -- quite energetic, a wonderful tragedy -- he had -- history, tragedy -- that he had written, let`s say, a decade, roughly, before he wrote "Hamlet," he gives you a character who tells you so much about why he`s acting this way. I`m acting this way, I`m this miserable villain because I have a hunchback, my mother didn`t love me, I can`t get any women, dogs bark at me in the street. He gives you 58 different reasons why he`s the miserable wretch that he is, murderous fellow that he is. So you get a very elaborate structure of motivation.
When you get to "Hamlet," Shakespeare had a play that had a very good motivational structure for what is going on. The play that Shakespeare inherited from the ancient -- from the older medieval Danish source, and then again from the Renaissance adaptation by a Frenchman named Belforet, that source said, look, king`s brother killed him, openly. King`s brother was not named Claudius in the original thing, but Fing. So Fing kills Horvendil, the equivalent of old Hamlet, openly. And it`s a Scandinavian world, in which you`re expected to avenge a murder like that.
So naturally if the old king had a son, which he did, named Hamlet, Hamlet would be expected when he grows up to take revenge against the uncle. And therefore stands to reason that the uncle is no fool, he would want to kill Hamlet as well as killing the father, because he wants to protect his life.
So in the original story, Hamlet has a problem. He`s a little -- he`s basically a little kid, a minor, and he has to live long enough to be able to exact revenge for his father against this miserable, murderous uncle. And everyone knows what this is about.
So what little Hamlet does is start drooling and acting strangely and behaving like a lunatic, and people laugh at him in a rather coarse way. People laughed at -- at least in those days, people felt comfortable laughing at idiots, and the result is that they let him live, because he`s kind of a trophy of -- in the Danish court, and he lives long enough in order to grow up to be -- it`s basically "The Lion King" -- version of "The Lion King" story. He grows up to be -- to go back and take revenge, kill off his miserable uncle, and exact revenge and become the triumphant prince.
Shakespeare takes the story, makes perfect sense as to why the original story as to why Hamlet is -- had to behave like that, that he`s mad. He takes that story. He has instead the murder as a secret, and no one knows, they think it`s a serpent that`s killed the old king while he`s sleeping in his garden. They don`t know that the brother has poisoned him.
The only one who knows is Hamlet, who knows because a ghost has told him, the ghost of his father. So Hamlet is alone in the kingdom knowing besides the murder himself, knowing the secret.
And then Hamlet pretends he`s mad. It makes no sense. It made great sense in the original version. It now makes no sense. And instead of ruining the play, which you would think it might, because the whole play is constructed now around something that is crazy, it actually makes the play the greatest thing that Shakespeare had written up to that point, the deepest, the most complex, the most motivationally maddening, the thing that you can`t completely -- I mean, Hamlet is the bone stuck in the throat of Western civilization. We keep trying to swallow it and spit it out over and over and over again. It`s everywhere. It`s in Freud. It`s in Marx. It`s the great haunting in our life, and it has to do -- it`s not only this, but it has to do with this extraordinary move of cutting out the motivation and throwing it away.
And then he did this again and again in years afterwards. He discovered that he could do this. So that if you look carefully at many of the great plays that follow, at "King Lear," at "Othello," you find that he does the same thing.
LAMB: Born in 1564, died in 1616, 52 years old. What year would he have written "Hamlet?"
GREENBLATT: He wrote "Hamlet" in 1601.
LAMB: Where was that in the context of the poems that he wrote and the plays that he wrote?
GREENBLATT: He had probably written -- he hadn`t written any of the great -- this is the first really -- I mean, he had written "Romeo and Juliet," that`s the one major tragedy before. And then the other outpouring of major tragedies follows. He had written about two-thirds of what he would eventually write. He had probably written most of the sonnets, in my view.
LAMB: How do you teach this? What -- I don`t want to accuse you of using techniques, but when you`re in a classroom, how do you approach your students and when do you see them getting interested?
GREENBLATT: Lots of different ways of teaching Shakespeare. I mean, one of the pleasures of Shakespeare is there are a million different ways of getting into these plays. I have my students often look at versions of the play, videos. I have my students sometimes act out things, but mostly we sit and look carefully, try to slow down. Because I am assuming that my students are perfectly capable of -- it`s hard work, of reading the plays through and getting the gist of them. But it`s the ability to sit and be patient and let it unlock itself, as you can`t do on stage.
On stage or if you watch it in the video, it`s going along at its pace, and that`s fine. It gives you a wonderful effect. It`s meant to produce that effect. But I do with Shakespeare what people with music -- who are teaching music do, slow it down. See what happens, see how it`s put together. So that`s one way of doing it.
Another thing I often do is to read other things written in the same period that are rather similar and see how -- what Shakespeare is doing that the other people aren`t doing, or what changes he`s making to sources, for example. Have students -- we know lots of the sources -- have students look at the sources and see what happens when he takes Plutarch and he turns it into "Anthony and Cleopatra" -- sometimes very, very close, sometimes very daringly far away.
Or something I have done recently that I haven`t done before is to have students try to think about this as if they were going to try to write some of these plays. There are a couple of lost plays of Shakespeare. At least one play we know for sure that he wrote with -- in a collaboration with a playwright named Fletcher with whom he had worked on a couple of other plays, and it`s lost now. But we know the source. So I have the students start playing with the source and seeing if they can invent scenes that have a Shakespearean feel to them, try to figure out what 10 or 20 or 50 things that Shakespeare characteristically does. How does he do this? As if -- instead of rolling up one`s eyes and holding up one`s hands and saying this is incomprehensively great, we can actually figure out how this is done, as if it were done by a real human being.
LAMB: How much of his plays have politics in them?
GREENBLATT: A lot of them have politics in them. I would say, depending on how you -- how broadly you define the term. Most of the plays have some kind of politics in them, of some kind or other.
On the other hand, contemporary politics, he had to be rather careful about, as did everyone in the theater. This is a censored theater. Shakespeare was actually quite good at staying out of jail, unlike many of his contemporaries.
LAMB: Who censored his material?
GREENBLATT: Well, it was censored both by someone called the master of the rebels, who worked -- you would have to present the script to the master of the rebels, and a few of those scripts where the master of the rebels` comments, the censor`s comments survived, including one that Shakespeare handed in.
And then if you were publishing it, if you were printing it, it went through a different censor, ran out of the bishop`s office, and he would read the text and decide whether it could be printed. So we have two different censoring systems working on Shakespeare.
LAMB: Did he have secret messages that he liked to deliver for political reasons, and what did he think of the monarchy?
GREENBLATT: It`s hard to tell, of course. If it was really secret, I mean, and it`s probably the case that there are parts of it -- some secrets that we would have difficultly unlocking.
I think that on the whole -- but this is a subject about which there can be many, I think quite legitimately competing views -- I think on the whole he was deeply, deeply skeptical about the system of charismatic monarchy in which he lived.
But I think at the same time that he was fascinated by it, and willing to imagine it and think through it. I mean, this is a writer who wrote "Henry V," let`s say, about a kind of charismatic warrior king. But it`s a strange play, because on the one hand it`s a celebration of that kind of regal heroism; on the other hand Shakespeare goes out of his way to depict this king ordering the massacre of prisoners, violating the rules of war, threatening rape, behaving in a monstrous way. And of course it would be possible to say that Shakespeare approved of that behavior, but actually I think there`s very strong internal evidence in the plays that he is not approving of this behavior, that he`s actually interested in the ways in which certain kind of charismatic authority is often intertwined with something that we might call criminal behavior.
LAMB: In that earlier bunch of clips we showed from earlier "BOOKNOTES," Maureen Dowd was there, and she talked about, when she was here for "BOOKNOTES," about studying Shakespeare and using a lot in her columns.
I want to run another little clip about -- she is talking about comparing Karl Rove to Iago. And you can explain this after we listen to it, but let`s listen to what she was saying then.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DOWD: Iago in Shakespeare is Othello`s top military aide who keeps whispering in his ear, saying that Othello`s wife has been unfaithful, when she hasn`t, because it serves his own purposes, and he makes Othello crazy, and then Othello ends up killing his wife. So.
LAMB: And why Karl Rove?
DOWD: Well, Karl Rove I guess was early on, because Karl Rove, you know, is kind of -- they call Bush`s brain, although I don`t think that`s fair. I think Bush is bright, he`s just a -- more malleable than his father, because he hasn`t studied up on foreign policy as much as his dad.
Karl Rove, I think, you know, he was the one, they found his computer disks or whatever, and found out that he intended to -- he thought, you know, he could win majorities in Congress by pushing the war. And so, in the beginning of the book, Karl Rove is featured as someone who wants to use war for political purposes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What do you think of the way she used Shakespeare?
GREENBLATT: She`s using Iago as a figure for a kind of cold, reptilian evil. Can be used that way. It`s a slightly strange analogy, only because you`d have to believe that Karl Rove ultimately was trying to destroy George W. Bush, which is what Othello -- what Iago is trying to do to Othello. And I`m not sure that she`s claiming that. I think she wants to, as maybe we all try to do, to carve off a certain piece of the character. He`s certainly the most hateful character that Shakespeare imagined, I think. And attribute that to the manipulative, dark power behind...
LAMB: What do you think of using -- and she`s not the only one who does this -- using Shakespeare to define politics?
GREENBLATT: I plead guilty to the charge. I...
LAMB: Can you give us an example?
GREENBLATT: Well, I confess I wrote something about the first debate, the first presidential debate recently, that in "The Times" op-ed page that simply tried to talk about the debate between -- if the debate is the right word for it, but is debate the right word for this current enterprise -- between Anthony and Brutus, over the body of Caesar, trying to decide the course of the republic, in which I tried to tease out a kind of analogy, rough analogy, something Maureen Dowd-like, between those two figures and the current figures.
Now, why does one do that? I suppose because the plays are cunning about human behavior. The plays reveal, as one of your other clips said, it`s actually a very good way of thinking about how human beings behave. It`s one of our best representations that we have available to us, for the way in which human beings behave. And so it`s irresistible.
LAMB: Another fellow you talk a lot about is Christopher Marlowe. Who was he?
GREENBLATT: Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare`s contemporary, exact contemporary, born in 1564, as Shakespeare was. From a provincial town the way Shakespeare was, Canterbury in Marlowe`s case, and from a middle-class family, not an aristocratic family. In Marlowe`s case, a shoemaker father, rather than a glover like Shakespeare`s father. So they`re almost eerily like twins. But Christopher Marlowe went to Cambridge University, made it to university, and made it to London before Shakespeare made it to London.
So that when Shakespeare arrived in London, he would have encountered lots of people in a rather wild London theater world, but the most brilliant was Christopher Marlowe, the most adventurous, the most imaginative, and the most reckless and dangerous. And I think Marlowe made a profound impact on Shakespeare.
It`s sometimes said about Shakespeare that he was so magnificently powerful that he was completely indifferent to his rivals. But I think this is not true. I think that there`s -- there are the fingerprints of Christopher Marlowe all over Shakespeare`s work, and very, very clear evidence of Shakespeare brooding about Marlowe, thinking about him as a rival, as a model and also as a fate, a destiny that he doesn`t want for himself.
LAMB: Do I remember correctly that Paris and Naples were the only towns bigger than London, and London was about 200,000?
GREENBLATT: That`s it. About 200, yeah. A huge city by European standards, London.
LAMB: Back in the 1500s.
GREENBLATT: Yeah. There are -- as you say, only three cities like this in Europe. I don`t know actually whether -- whether Istanbul, what the size of that was at that point, but in any case -- these are remarkable cities, and London was unique certainly in the British Isles.
LAMB: I don`t know if there`s a way to do this, but Shakespeare in those times, if he moved to today, how big a name would he be? Can you compare him with anybody today? You suggest he was quite an entrepreneur, he owned theaters. He -- did he make a lot of money?
GREENBLATT: He did. He made a lot of money. And he was quite celebrated in his time. It`s hard to sort of pick out a single figure now who would be comparable, because Shakespeare dominated his industry, if that`s the way to put it, in a way that no one I think dominates writing now.
Let`s say, I sometimes thought because I admire the person, and I love him as a human being, that Seamus Healey (ph), the poet, has something of what I might have encountered in Shakespeare, a kind of exuberant linguistic generosity that`s recognized as -- as admirable by a very, very wide swath of people, but I`m speaking now, after all, of an Irish poet, not of American.
But if you walk around Dublin, as I once had the occasion to do with Seamus Healy (ph), you see everyone sort of smiles at him and knows who he is and looks at him. I mean, waves to him. And I think Shakespeare had something of that celebrity in his own time. Though, of course, that didn`t mean that anyone sat down and wrote his biography. They didn`t.
LAMB: Now, today we think of him obviously as quite intellectual, and that it was an intellectual experience. You say it was entertainment in those days, 1,500 to 2,000 people there. How much did they pay to get into one of these plays?
GREENBLATT: Cheap seats were -- if you go to the public theater, that is to say the outdoor theater, the Globe, for example, you paid a penny to get in the door. And it went into a box -- hence box office. And the -- if you wanted to get -- that just got you into the theater and got you a place where you could stand.
As you know, it rains from time to time in England, and the weather is often miserable. Also, it can even be sunny in England, unpleasantly sunny. So that if you wanted to get into a sheltered place, you had to pay another penny to get into one of the out of the standing area and onto a -- into a covered gallery. And if you wanted a cushion, that would cost you another penny. So there -- that was in the public theaters.
LAMB: Can you relate that form of entertainment then to something we do now? Would it relate to Broadway, or would relate to a concert, or how would you...
GREENBLATT: Probably -- well, I don`t know a comparable system in which you would -- you -- although we have the -- we have the -- we`ve changed the rules in a way. Now our rule is, the more you pay the closer you get to the stage. In those days, the more you paid, the further back in effect you were under one of the canapes.
But I think that the experience would probably be closer to a concert -- rock concert, or maybe a football game, than it would have been to decorous entertainments that we think of as theater. After all, we -- there`s lots of evidence that prostitutes were working the theaters, and people were selling oranges and other things to munch on, drinks at the theater. I mean, it was a much rougher by our standards -- much rougher world.
LAMB: What was the first thing he ever wrote?
GREENBLATT: No one knows for sure. The dates of these things aren`t so clear. If you really want to know the first thing that I think we have a trace of that he wrote, I think there`s a little jingle that he wrote to sell gloves in his father`s workshop, that is Shakespeare`s. A jingle that someone named Alexander Aspinall bought some gloves -- I think at the Shakespeare family glove shop. And there`s a poem that survives in a commonplace book, as it`s called -- people kept these record -- it says the will -- "the gift is small, the will is all, Alexander Aspinall." He gave it to the woman he was courting.
And the person who wrote that in the commonplace book in the 17th century said, "posy (ph) on a pair of gloves, written by Mr. Shakespeare." So I think Shakespeare was probably a teenager and wrote that totally undistinguished little poem, a jingle to go with the gloves. But the first serious -- there`s lots of leeway to argue about this, but probably "Two Gentlemen of Verona."
LAMB: What year?
GREENBLATT: Again, these things are very, very difficult to say. Maybe the late 1580s. Could have been another play, too, could have been one of the "Henry VI" plays.
LAMB: So he would have been in his late 30s?
GREENBLATT: Oh, no, in the...
LAMB: Oh, no, 20s, late 20s.
LAMB: The first -- you say the first 17 sonnets, and you say he wrote 154 sonnets.
LAMB: First 17 were written for the Earl of Southampton?
GREENBLATT: Well, that`s what I say. But we don`t -- we don`t know for sure, and we don`t know for sure because they`re rather canny, these poems.
LAMB: Canny ...
GREENBLATT: Canny in not identifying exactly whom they`re being written for, or identifying exactly what the social situation is in which they`re being written. That`s the game that sonnets played in this period. Sonnets are curtained rooms, and there are more and more diaphanous curtains around them. And you sort of look through the curtain, you think you see someone doing something somewhere back in there, but you can`t be sure who it is or what they`re doing.
And Shakespeare was a genius at constructing those little boxes within boxes.
LAMB: Did he was a personal relationship with the Earl of Southampton?
GREENBLATT: He did. That we do know, because almost the only documents of the kind that we have are the two dedicatory epistles that he wrote for the two narrative poems -- the long, marvelous mythological poem, "Venus and Adonis," and the classical poem, "The Rape of Lucrece," that he wrote for -- both of which are dedicated in extravagant terms, particularly "The Rape of Lucrece," in very, very loving terms to the Earl of Southampton, unusually intimate language for a poet of no particular social standing, to write to an earl who is absolutely at the highest point of a social hierarchy.
LAMB: You talk about Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare writing a play about Jews. And then you also tie that into the fact that the Spanish kicked Jews out of their country, and that there were no Jews back in Great Britain back in his time. Explain all that. And what was -- why?
GREENBLATT: The English had -- the English had performed their act of ethnic cleansing before any other country in Europe. 1290 I think it was that they expelled the Jews of England for reasons that are not clear. We can reconstruct the usual anti-Semitic story.
The -- so that when Shakespeare was writing, there were no Jews, legally no Jewish community in England. There might have been a few people who belonged to Marano communities, secret Jews, but we don`t have a really clear record. There were some rumors of this kind.
There were some people who were from Converso family, that is to say they were families that had been Jewish a generation or more before, but have converted to Catholicism, under pressure of the persecutions, first in Spain and then in Portugal. And one of those people from a family that had been Jewish a generation or more before was the queen`s physician, named Lopez, Roy Lopez. And he fell into trouble in the 1590s, accused of having accepted a very large bribe from the king of Spain to do some skullduggery and it was charged -- the skullduggery was poisoning the queen. Whether it`s true or not, your guess is as good as mine. There are some people who think there`s some evidence for it, and some people who think there wasn`t. That he was on the take is very, very likely, but everyone who was in the court who had access to the queen was almost certainly on the take in this period. That`s the way the system worked. The closer you were to the person in power, the more money you could make. I know this never happens any longer, but in those days it happened.
LAMB: The two plays...
GREENBLATT: So what happened was that Christopher Marlowe had written a very brilliant play called "The Jew of Malta," brilliant but wild and reckless, that was anti-Semitic, also anti-Christian, anti-Muslim -- you name it, it was anti. A kind of a very, very reckless play, and it was successful. And it was revived on numerous occasions, and one time it was almost certainly revived was at the time that the charges came against this man, Lopez, because at the trial, the treason trial for Lopez said not only you are an agent of the Jesuits, the wicked Catholics, the king of Spain, but you are a Jew, and you are worse than Judas, and so forth and so on.
Lopez said he was a Christian, a good Christian. And when Lopez was taken out to be executed, the queen protected him for a while and then finally withdrew protection. Lopez was taken out to be executed. And the executions were unspeakably horrible in this period, but were also major public events.
And he said from the scaffold in his speech, when he was bidding farewell to the world, he said that the charges against him were not true, and that he loved the queen as much as he loved Jesus Christ. And the crowd that was at the foot of the scaffold burst into laughter.
Now, why did they burst into laughter? They burst into laughter because they thought that he was lying, but specifically, they thought he was making a joke. And where they had learned that joke was from Christopher Marlowe. Because Marlowe`s Jewish hero, anti-hero, Barabak (ph), who poisons people, he is a doctor who poisons people, who poisons wells, he does every unspeakable thing. He`s always making jokes of this kind, "I love you with a burning zeal, enough to burn your house down," he says, in an aside. Or someone says, "how much is it going to cost you?" "Oh, just your life," he says. I mean, planning to kill someone, and so forth. He`s that kind of joker. So I love you as much as I love Jesus Christ is a Marlovian joke.
And I think Shakespeare was in the crowd watching this execution. And I think he heard that laughter. And I think he had two different kinds of responses to the laughter that abraded together in a play that he wrote, that was in effect a response to "The Jew of Malta," and the play he wrote was "The Merchant of Venice."
And the two responses are on the one hand, this is a man who makes his profession making people laugh. He`s interested in crowd laughter and he is excited by the fact that he`s heard this mass response. And there`s lots of laughter in "The Merchant of Venice." "The Merchant of Venice" is obsessed with laughter. People are always talking about laughing. When will we laugh again, how can I make you laugh, and so forth and so on?
At the same time, I think he was made tremendously uncomfortable by the laughter at that execution, and I think that that discomfort is eloquently registered in "The Merchant of Venice," where every time you want to laugh at Shylock, the laughter turns to a kind of gagging in your throat. This is a very, very complex comedy, as anyone who`s ever seen it or performed it knows.
LAMB: Because we`re near the end, he died in 1616 of what?
GREENBLATT: We don`t know. We have a record that says he drank a lot. His daughter was getting married, so maybe he did drink a lot, more than he should have. But it`s not likely that a father who drinks too much at his daughter`s wedding is going to die, but -- so we don`t know.
LAMB: If I heard right this morning, you have been nominated for the National Book Award today.
GREENBLATT: I have.
LAMB: The day we are taping this.
GREENBLATT: Yes, it`s true.
LAMB: Was that a surprise to you?
GREENBLATT: A complete surprise.
LAMB: Have you ever had this before?
GREENBLATT: Are you kidding? No. I`m delighted.
LAMB: What does it mean to an author?
GREENBLATT: I wanted very much in this book to figure out a way of telling an audience other than the audience that I usually write for, which I am happy about, the audience of people who read academic books, of telling them about this astonishing life, telling them about what in the 40 years of thinking about Shakespeare, I have learned about this human being, of crossing a line from the world -- little swimming pool in which I am happily paddling around most of my life, to a much larger pool, or at least -- maybe something even bigger than a pool -- and that`s what this means to me, that this book has reached the audience that I dreamt that it might reach.
LAMB: "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare." Our guest, Stephen Greenblatt. And the cover of the book looks like this.
Thank you very much for joining us.
GREENBLATT: Thank you very much, Brian.
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