A Sharply Critical Review of Stephen Greenblatt’s New Book by William Niederkorn

I’d like to recommend a review by William S. Niederkorn, formerly of the New York Times, in the current Brooklyn Rail – Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture.

William Niederkorn

He reviews Shakespeare’s Freedom (a series of lectures) the latest book from Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, whom he calls “The Bard’s Evangelist.”

Greenblatt’s biographical fantasy Will in the World (2004) was a bestseller despite the fact that it demonstrated (yet again) the lack of evidence that William of Stratford could even write, much less create plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Richard III, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, etc., etc.

My only question is whether, deep down, Professor Greenblatt actually believes the things he conjectures about the man who was Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's Freedom" by Stephen Greenblatt

For example, in the “biography” mentioned above he turns to the question of how in blazes the newly arrived actor from Warwickshire came to write seventeen private sonnets urging the seventeen-year-old Earl of Southampton to hurry up and marry and have a child to continue his bloodline … not to mention how the actor-poet could have had the courage (and sheer madness) to lecture and even scold the earl for refusing to obey — “Murderous shame! … Profitless usurer!” — and finally to beg him to beget a child in the most personal way:  “Make thee another self for love of me.”

The circumstance in the early 1590’s was that Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister William Cecil Lord Burghley was pressuring Southampton, a royal ward in his custody, to marry his own granddaughter, the fifteen-year-old Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter [of record] of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford … who, according to the ever-growing evidence, was the true “Shakespeare.”

Stephen Greenblatt

It is possible,” Greenblatt wrote, in effect warning us he was about to take a wild and totally unsupported guess, “that some one, either in the circle of Burghley or in the circle of Southampton’s mother, had taken note of the fact that the young earl was excited by the talents or by the person of an actor who was also a promising poet.”

How could the professor write such stuff?

“Whoever noticed this excitement – and a wealthy nobleman’s slightest inclinations would have been carefully watched – might well have had the clever idea of commissioning the poet to try his hand at persuading the narcissistic, effeminate young earl to marry.  Such a commission would help to account for the first seventeen of the extraordinary sequence of 154 sonnets…”

Sir George Greenwood

Let’s call upon Sir George Greenwood, whose 1908 book The Shakespeare Problem Restated still stands as a classic in the anti-Stratfordian world.  Oh, how I’d love to see a debate between Greenblatt and Greenwood on the authorship question; I have no doubt that the latter would win hands down.

“The idea that Will Shakspere, the young provincial actor,” Sir George wrote,  “was writing a succession of impassioned odes to the young Earl of Southampton, urging him to marry at once and become a father ‘for love of me’ appears to me, in the absence of anything like cogent evidence to that effect, simply preposterous.”

He was right.  And if he’d heard Greenblatt’s suggestion that Shakspere of Stratford might have been “commissioned” to write the sonnets urging Southampton to marry and procreate, he would have thought it even more preposterous!

“In Shakespeare’s Freedom,” Niederkorn writes, “Greenblatt is careful to avoid authorship issues and the sticky problems that he and a considerable majority of Shakespeare professors refuse to face as they ridicule the subject and preclude it from academic study.”

Among those problems, he notes, is the “vexing question” of how Shakespeare escaped punishment for his play Richard II, which the Queen herself knew had been used as propaganda for the Essex Rebellion of February 8, 1601, whose leaders (Essex and Southampton) were accused and found guilty of high treason.

Niederkorn’s final lines in the review amount to a direct hit against the “scholarship” of Professor Greenblatt, who, he reminds us, has equated doubts about the authorship to “claims that the Holocaust did not occur.”

I won’t steal Niederkorn’s thunder by repeating his final lines, but I will take this opportunity to commend him for having the courage to raise his voice amid the crowd and to speak the truth that’s finally coming to light — the truth that “Shakespeare” was not, after all, the man named William Shakspere of Stratford.

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