Landscape in the Language: The Shakespeare of Places

All In All
| The Globe Theater from a 17th century woodcut

I've been reading two recent biographies of Shakespeare -- Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" and Peter Ackroyd's "Shakespeare: The Biography". Reading about Shakespeare (as opposed to reading the plays) is generally a prelude to disappearance down the rabbit hole of authorship disputes, but that doesn't interest me.

I'm not entirely sure, in fact, what reason I had when I downloaded Greenblatt's book to my phone, maybe because I was made to read three or four of the tragedies when I was in high school -- Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet, if I remember correctly, and the tragi-comedy that is The Merchant of Venice.

Something in Shakespeare lingers, even if all you remember are plot arcs and random quotes. Perhaps it had to do with growing older.


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As every commentator since the 17th century has said, Shakespeare is so capacious -- ancient Rome, ancient Scotland and Denmark, contemporary Italy in just those four plays -- with a freely roaming imagination fed on words, many of them in histories and collections of tales.

But Greenblatt and Ackroyd want to reposition Shakespeare's imagination in the particularities of places -- initially Stratford and Warwickshire -- and ground his imagination in the ways of being and seeming that were possible in those places when Shakespeare was young.

Stratford and its imprint never left him, even on Prospero's imaginary Bermuda near the end of Shakespeare's writing career.

(A meditation on the durability of youthful places -- from an unusual starting point -- is Liam Heneghan's "The Ecology of Pooh" in Aeon.)

Shakespeare's place is crowded. Just one step away from the tragic or comic or villainous or love drunk men (and a few women) who stand at the front edge of Shakespeare's mental stage are throngs of lesser men and women -- some with the actual names of the neighbors he knew in Henley Street in Stratford -- who speak and act in the plays and wish and pray and work and gossip with the words, the gestures, and the attitudes that never failed Shakespeare's imagination.

They're not Everyman or Everywoman, most of them. They're specific glove makers, legal copyists, butchers, farmers, dyers, wool merchants, housewives, and municipal officials who speak in the technical terms of their work, but now transformed by Shakespeare into images that support the necessary shocks of tragedy and the necessary license of comedy.

Even more than in the crowded streets of Stratford or London when we're with Shakespeare on stage, we're in the wooded copses of the remnant Forest of Arden just beyond the town and in the fields and meadows of Warwickshire. Shakespeare makes use of everything in those in-between places -- the local names for plants and birds, the patterns of weather and climate unique to the West Midlands of England, and the cycles of farm life and in the half-wild country beyond.

London made Shakespeare of Stratford the Shakespeare of the world, of course. But the Shakespeare who is nearly universal also is the man from a specific country town and its actual fields. His playwriting contemporaries had come from universities to London with hearts and heads stuffed with the glories of Roman drama and Latin rhetoric, which were deliberately stereotypical and grand. Shakespeare, it is assumed, has some of the same formal stuffing, but the everyday and ordinary were equally important, perhaps more so, to make a Shakespeare of places.

As a writer who only thinks with the things he knows and in the place that he has, I'd like to think so.

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