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Will in the World

Will in the World

A young man from a small provincial town – a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections, and without a university education – moves to London in the late 1580’s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? Will in the World addresses the essential, and as yet unanswered questions of how Shakespeare’s astonishing achievements came about. In other words, how did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?


This is a full, brilliant and highly accessible account of Shakespeare’s life, his work and his age. Charting his progression from a small boy, ‘obsessed with the magic of words’ to the staggeringly successful playwright we all now know. Will in the World is about the amazing success story and aims to give a gratifying account of Shakespeare’s character and the blossoming of his talent.


Will in the world is revelatory: it transforms the way we see and understand both Shakespeare and his age. The theatre for which Shakespeare wrote and acted was a cut-throat commercial entertainment industry.  Yet his plays were also intensely alert to the social and political realities of their times.  Shakespeare had to make concessions to the commercial world, for the theatre company in which he was a shareholder had to draw some 1,500 to 2,000 paying customers a day into the round wooden walls of the playhouse to stay afloat, and competition from rival companies was fierce.  The key was not so much topicality – with government censorship and with repertory companies recycling the same scripts for years.  Instead, Shakespeare had to engage with the deepest desires and fears of his audience. 


There have, of course, been many biographies of Shakespeare. The problem each one faces is the thin amount of material surrounding his life. They lead us through the available traces but leave us no closer to understanding how the playwright’s astounding triumphs came about.  The real-world sources of Shakespeare’s language – of his fantasies, passions, fears, and desires – lie outside the scope of these earlier books. Will in the World will set out to recover the links between Shakespeare and his world and with them construct a full and vital portrait of the man. It is a journey that centres on the perils and pleasures of Shakespeare’s unfolding imaginative generosity – his ability to enter into others’ imaginations, to confer upon them his own strength of spirit, to make them live and breathe as independent beings as no other artist who ever lived has done.                                                      

About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and is the founder of the school of literary criticism known as New Historicism.  As visiting professor and lecturer at universities in England, Australia, the United States and elsewhere throughout the world, he has delivered such distinguished series of lectures as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford and the University Public Lectures at Princeton.  He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and has been President of the Modern Language Association.  Professor Greenblatt is the author and co-author of nine books and the editor of ten others, including The Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th edition) and The Norton Shakespeare.