Monday, January 24, 2005

The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Essay: Who Owns Shakespeare?

Published: January 23, 2005

Will in the World,'' the biography of Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, was on this paper's best-seller list for nine weeks. Its publisher, W. W. Norton, estimates that out of 200,000 copies in print, 150,000 have been sold. With its intense yet informal prose, wealth of historical material and illuminating textual analyses, the book paints a vivid picture of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's place in it.

But whether it belongs on the nonfiction list, where it was, or the fiction one, is a matter of some debate. Outside of his astonishing body of work, the playwright didn't leave materials of the kind biographers have traditionally relied on. So in order to unite the Shakespeare who left a will and one surviving letter with the Shakespeare who wrote ''Hamlet'' and ''King Lear,'' Greenblatt took imaginative leaps. The result is a book shot through with ''might haves,'' ''could haves'' and ''may well haves,'' chief among them that Shakespeare's father might have been a Catholic and an alcoholic and that Shakespeare could have seen the execution of a Jew accused of treason, which may well have affected his characterization of Shylock in ''Merchant of Venice

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