Stephen Greenblatt: Shakespeare's Life Stories

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 61

There are a surprising number of characters in Shakespeare who propose or ask or even demand that someone tell their life’s story. (Think of Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio: “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.”) While that may not seem surprising on the face of it – Shakespeare was a storyteller after all – this idea of reimagining your life so that it tells a story was not a common one in Shakespeare’s time. 
In this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, Harvard University’s Stephen Greenblatt expands upon the talk he gave earlier this year for the Folger Institute’s Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series, about how Shakespeare shapes characters and narratives. He also explores how the French Renaissance writer Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, and how Shakespeare pushed back on Montaigne’s ideas.
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of – among other books – Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 15, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Teach Him How To Tell My Story” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Professor Greenblatt's assistant, Aubrey Everett; from Anna Steinbock in the Harvard Office of Public Affairs & Communications and from Jeff Peters and the staff of the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called, “Teach Him How To Tell My Story.”

Throughout 2016, the Folger Institute Center for Shakespeare Studies commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a series of public lectures. The April offering in this series was a talk by the eminent Harvard Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt. His deep reading of Shakespeare’s work brought him to a conclusion: There are a surprising number of characters in Shakespeare who propose, or ask, or even demand that someone tell their life story. While that may not seem surprising on the face of it—Shakespeare was a storyteller, after all—as you’ll hear, this idea of reimagining your life so that it tells a story was not a common one in Shakespeare’s time.

To take a moment to retell my own life as a story, I should mention that Stephen Greenblatt was one of my teachers as a graduate student. His influence, and that of others along the way, helped prepare me to be a Shakespearean and director of the Folger.

The Shakespeare Unlimited podcast team invited Professor Greenblatt to come back and talk about his lecture, to pull out and distill some of the major points of his talk to see how they bear on Shakespeare’s work, and on our own concept of storytelling and personal celebrity. Stephen Greenblatt is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I think that we very much cling to this idea that our lives have not only meaning but that there’s a narrative to tell and that it has integrity and meaning to tell that narrative. It’s almost impossible to imagine that there was a time when people didn’t think of their lives as telling a story. But that’s exactly what you said in your lecture, that this idea was up for debate in the Elizabethan era.

GREENBLATT: Yes, it’s true that not everyone in Shakespeare’s world, by any means, thought that lives naturally fell into the pattern of stories. Partly, you have to remember that this is a world before the novel. And there are a variety of different ways of understanding what it is to reveal things about yourself, to present yourself in the world. And telling your life story is not necessarily one of them.

Where I started was simply being struck by something that looks perhaps overly familiar, which is the urge that Hamlet has, and other characters have in Shakespeare, to have either themselves or to have someone else tell their story.

[CLIP from Hamlet:]

In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

GREENBLATT: I thought, “That’s interesting. ‘To tell my story.’ Did everyone think that their lives were stories to tell?” And the answer is, “No.” 

BOGAEV: Well, does Shakespeare grapple with that a lot? What plays do you think, besides Hamlet, most concern themselves with that idea?

GREENBLATT: It turns out that a lot of characters in Shakespeare, or a number of them, crucial characters, talk about their lives as stories—maybe most strikingly, Othello, who runs through the whole story of his life, as he puts it. That’s how he seduces Desdemona.

[CLIP from Othello:]

She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her.

GREENBLATT: And, likewise, toward the end of Shakespeare’s career, Prospero offers to tell people his life story, and they say, “Oh, yes. We’d love to hear the story of your life.”

[CLIP from The Tempest:]

Such discourse as, I doubt not, shall make it
Go quick away: the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle. Then in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship, and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptials
Of these, our dear-belovèd solemnized,
And thence retire me to my Milan...

I long
To hear the story of your life

GREENBLATT: This is a impulse that a lot of Shakespeare characters seem to have. Shakespeare didn’t seem to have it for himself, as far as we know, Barbara. Shakespeare never told the story of his life. And so it’s not something that even he necessarily thought everyone had.

BOGAEV: Right, and you say that Shakespeare, in grappling with this issue, was likely responding to a debate that was raging at the time which seems to break down into two separate questions. And one is whether your personality is fixed, or whether it’s something that can change. And the other is whether a life is a random series of events or, as you say, a coherent story, a narrative that’s worth telling. So, why don’t we take them one at a time? And Ben Jonson seemed to epitomize the side that personality is fixed. His characters seem just frozen. They didn’t change, as opposed to Shakespeare’s, at the time. So, what was Jonson drawing his idea from, and what does it say about this Elizabethan period’s understanding of the self and its story?

GREENBLATT: Jonson’s plays are sometimes called, the comedies of humors, the humor being your characterological disposition, type of personality you have. And it’s part of the pleasure of watching Jonson, to watch the characters come back, over and over again, to their characteristic humor, whether it’s anger or jealousy, folly, of one kind or another. And it’s probably the case that behind that comic trick—which is extremely familiar to us, as it were. There are still lots of comedies built out of seeing people… If you think of Seinfeld, people are what they are. They always turn out to be exactly what you expect them, but behind that is probably a set of philosophical ideas about what constitutes fully achieved personhood. And that achieved personhood, someone who has reached the point that he should be at in life is someone, precisely, who doesn’t change.

You know those awful people who write in your… Maybe people don’t do this any longer but who used to write in your high school yearbook, or whatever, “Don’t ever change.” You know, really? Don’t ever change? But that was somehow the moral idea here, that you should reach a point of fixity in your identity. And, precisely, if it was a good kind of fixity, not a asinine one, that’s the point to which you should cling, and you shouldn’t be pushed off that point you had achieved.  

BOGAEV: I suppose we call that strength of character.

GREENBLATT: Yeah. I mean, and, of course, there’s a long, as they say, philosophical tradition that goes back, at least to the philosophers called Stoics, in the ancient world, who believed that that was the point you wouldn’t be vulnerable anymore, to all the vicissitudes of life. You would have reached a kind of firm ground. And I get it. I mean, it just happens not to be Shakespeare’s idea. 

BOGAEV: And what is Shakespeare’s idea?

GREENBLATT: Well, I think Shakespeare thought that you do change, you reveal certain things about yourself, perhaps quite early. If you are kind of an obnoxious little brat, you are likely to show signs of obnoxiousness later in life. And if you are generous and giving, that might continue as part of your disposition. But it wasn’t fixed. And it would develop, often in ways you didn’t anticipate. “Shipwreck” is one of Shakespeare’s great emblems for the strange things that happen in life. You think you’re going one place, and you wind up somewhere else. So, Shakespeare was interested in what happened to you when you crossed borders, and what happened to you was precisely that you didn’t remain perfectly the same through all of these things. 

BOGAEV: And in the context of Elizabethan thinking, is this the emergence of this modern idea of the self, that it’s mutable, in constant evolution? And what was he drawing from to explore an idea very different from his contemporary?

GREENBLATT: Mutability, per se, was certainly not Shakespeare’s own invention. There are plenty of people in his time and, for that matter, going back for many, many centuries, who recognized, as you would expect them to recognize, that actually there’s lots of changes. It’s very unusual actually to remain the same, or be in a fixed point. But I think that what is interesting about Shakespeare is he thought through the possibility, not simply that there would be change, mutability, but that it would have the form of a narrative. It would take the shape of a story.

And, that one of the things that makes Shakespeare so remarkable and fresh is that he had a fantastic eye for these narratives. I put it that way because he didn’t invent most of them, himself. He borrowed them from somewhere. But he had a very good eye for what would be an interesting story.  

BOGAEV: And that brings us to the second point, whether life is just a bunch of random events, or a coherent story. And again, when you look back at Elizabethan times, there’s a square-off. On the one hand, you have Montaigne, and his ceaseless examination of his constantly evolving thoughts and self and all their disorderly and meandering ways. He famously turned himself into a book. And then, on the other hand, though, we have Shakespeare, the least, as you say, autobiographical of authors. So, what specific aspects of this Elizabethan debate do you think the two pulls illustrate?

GREENBLATT: I think it’s likely that Shakespeare already read Montaigne, the manuscript. He could’ve read him in French, for that matter. But he probably read him in the translation that someone who was almost certainly his acquaintance, John Florio, had done, and was circulating before its publication. And I think he was quite powerfully—as any sentient human being could’ve been then, and is now, by Montaigne. Montaigne is an unbelievably wonderful and seductive writer. And Montaigne precisely avoids telling the story of his life. He thinks that’s just a fraudulent idea. So, his work is an astonishing achievement, his essays of turning himself onto the page, but precisely without giving it a form of a narrative. And indeed, even intellectually, he went back and revised, several times, his essays. But he revised his essays not by crossing out his first thought but by simply adding the second or third thought, without crossing out the first one. So, one of the things that’s extremely weird and delicious about reading Montaigne is he seems to contradict himself, sometimes every third sentence. He’s always smart when he’s doing it.

BOGAEV: And how do you see his influence, then, on Shakespeare? What plays or characters most reveal that influence?

GREENBLATT: Well, there are several, but the ones that are probably the most revealing are Hamlet and Lear, where you actually see, I think reasonably clearly, Montaigne’s fingerprints, in different ways, on those plays. I think Shakespeare was fascinated by Montaigne, and struck by him, powerfully, by what he represented. But at the same time, I think Shakespeare was quite skeptical—skeptical on several different grounds, skeptical on aesthetic grounds. That is to say, I think Shakespeare thought, “If I try to do this, I’ll never write a successful play in my life.” But I think he also thought it was not true to, at least, Shakespeare’s vision of what life was, when you finally reflected on it, what its shape was, for anyone. I think he also thought, perhaps, Barbara, that Montaigne was a very privileged fellow.

BOGAEV: So, you think it came down to class, Montaigne the privileged, retired…?

GREENBLATT: No, not what it came down to. I mean, that wasn’t the only factor. That would not be true. But I do think that Shakespeare felt that… Here’s an example: Montaigne and these remarkable essays on the relation of parents to their children. Montaigne says, you know what? Fathers are incredibly stupid to hold onto their wealth, try to keep their wealth from their children, especially as they get older and older. It’s one thing if a parent dies young but if a parent keeps living a long life, he should just give his money to his children, and let the children enjoy life. Then, if he’s not happy with the way things are going, he’ll just take it back.

Montaigne expresses this with great power, and says, “Look, if you didn’t want to be a father, you shouldn’t have messed around with it.” Children don’t have any real powerful feeling toward their parents. But parents have it to their children, and they should give the money over to the children. I think Shakespeare thought, “Yeah, right.” And Shakespeare wrote King Lear, in which the view that Montaigne expresses, for himself, is put into the mouth of the villain, Edmund.

[CLIP from King Lear:]

I hope, for my brother’s justification, he wrote this but as an essay or taste of my virtue.

This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times, keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways not as it hath power but as it is suffered.

GREENBLATT: I think Shakespeare thought Montaigne, you know, was too privileged, too protected, to have a clue what would actually happen in the world, the real world, if a parent gave over everything to his children and then decided to take it back.  

BOGAEV: It’s very interesting to me because we don’t really know what Shakespeare thought about anything. But listening to you, it’s very clear that you’re working from an interesting point of view, that playwrights do write from what they know, as well as what they imagine. So, where do you stand on this question of whether Shakespeare’s plays tell us about Shakespeare himself, what he felt or thought, given that we’re talking about this concept that Shakespeare was so fascinated by telling the story of your life?

GREENBLATT: Well, it certainly can’t be the case that anyone truthfully believes that Shakespeare never drew upon his own life, but only what he imagined. And it also can’t be the case that anyone who’s read Shakespeare thinks that he only drew on his life, the life that he lived in Stratford and London, and didn’t allow his imagination to go out from that. Obviously, it’s both. And he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did without bringing both into effect. And we know from lots of moments in the plays, very specific moments, let’s say in the beginning of Taming of the Shrew, or in Merry Wives, when you actually see Shakespeare using sort of local knowledge, as it were.

[CLIP from The Merry Wives of Windsor:]

There is an old tale that goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime...
Walk round about an oak tree, with great ragged horns,
On his head.

GREENBLATT: But I think Shakespeare used local knowledge, his own knowledge, in lots of different ways, most of which we probably can’t detect now—except in detecting the incredible intensity and curious sense of what’s at stake in the lives of his characters. Shakespeare, as far as I know, had never been to Venice or to Cyprus, but I think that it’s not an accident that his ancient Rome, for example, in Julius Caesar, is actually filled with the life that he must have seen around him.  

BOGAEV: Do you have any idea whether this idea of a life having a coherent thread or telling the story of your life as a story for posterity, that that was something he was drawing from popular culture, from the vernacular?

GREENBLATT: It’s not the case that Shakespeare lived in a world in which ordinary people published memoirs, or people went to… Now, of course, there’s a whole small industry of people who will help you write the story of your life, and then you could self-publish, after all. And so forth and so on, there. You, of course, can find a little of everything, at any time, in the world. But there’s actually almost nothing like that in Shakespeare’s world. And I think, as I said before, Barbara, I don’t think Shakespeare thought that the story of his own life was a story that needed to be told.

And after all, as far as we can tell, no one thought that, since even his friends who put together the First Folio, it didn’t occur to them whether we would’ve loved it if they had simply told us the story of Shakespeare’s life. Why didn’t they do that? 

Well, they didn’t think that somehow that was a significant thing to do. Where you see it happen is precisely in fiction, and specifically in Shakespeare’s plays. Or, for that matter, there are prose experiments by other writers at his time that try to tell the story of people’s lives.  

BOGAEV: Well, you take this conversation about the story of one’s life to a really interesting place in the anniversary lecture when you talk about Shakespeare’s characters being leeches on his arm, getting fatter and fatter off his lifeblood, as if his writing drained him of his own life story. And-

GREENBLATT: It’s only a fantasy, on my part, Barbara. I should quickly say, there’s no evidence for leeches in Shakespeare’s writing. I think this was something I said in the lecture. But maybe it wasn’t in my text. But it was in an extravagant and the moment of enthusiasm in my lecture, when I was trying to talk about the strange feeling that you get from Shakespeare, that somehow, he’s everywhere. He’s in all the characters. What fascinates me about Shakespeare, and not just me—I think that anyone whom Shakespeare reaches feels this—is the weird way in which Shakespeare brings the characters so eerily to life.

And it’s not just Hamlet and Lear. It’s also Osric, or Parolles, or Goneril, or minor characters, sometimes tinier characters than that. One of the gravediggers in Hamlet, they seem eerily insistent on their own voices and on their own lives. And I ask myself, “Where does this come from?” And I think it must not only come from his abstract literary skill, if that’s the way to put it. But it must have come from some way that he figured out to reach into his own life, or to let, as they say, his characters draw on his own lifeblood.

BOGAEV: Right, and you’ve written about this in a very evocative way, about how Shakespeare was perhaps the world’s greatest expert at something called “distributed personhood,” the ability of an artist to create something that carries agency into the world that others can act on, that he left this instead of the story of his life.

GREENBLATT: You know, it isn’t that phrase, “distributed personhood,” which I love. It’s not mine but it comes from a very interesting, now alas deceased, English anthropologist, and art historian, named Gell, Alfred Gell, who was not interested in literature at all. In fact, was actually rather hostile to high culture, in general, but was interested in magic and charms, and little statues, and in sorcery. He tried to figure out, how do you make something that hurts somebody else? Or how do you make something that gives someone sexual excitement, or whatever? How do you produce those objects, in New Guinea, let’s say. And the idea there was that, somehow, you could get the… This is all connected to getting a piece of someone’s hair, and getting it into an object that you’re making, a fetish object that you’re making.

And so, obviously, we’re not in that world when we’re talking about Hamlet or King Lear. But I wanted to say that, “Well, maybe we are a little bit in that world.” That Shakespeare figured out how to get pieces of his own body into these works. And they continue to give us pleasure and fear and power, 400 years later.  

BOGAEV: This is switching topics, slightly, or shifting them. But Shakespeare wrote about princes and kings, and this year we lost an American king, Muhammad Ali. And after his death, you really saw in the media everything that we’re talking about now, really. How his story was retold and remixed, in so many different ways, by individuals but also for posterity. And we also saw that more recently with Prince, and when David Bowie died. And you mentioned in the lecture that you love to read obituaries. Are these the obits that you’re drawn to, the figures who are Shakespearean in that sense?

GREENBLATT: I tend to be not so much fascinated by those. But I am interested in the big, grand ones. I’m interested in the big, grand ones largely because, in the case of Muhammad Ali, let’s say, we have the question of how the culture handled those sides of Ali that actually might well make you not feel that he was a hero but make you feel a little queasy. There was a very complicated process in the way in which we celebrated Muhammad Ali, and there was much to celebrate. There was a very complicated process in which certain things that make us uncomfortable were cast in the shadows, let’s say.

And I think Shakespeare had the opposite impulse, which is to take those sides and explore them, without diminishing the heroism. But he didn’t like to clean up the figures as much as we, in the case of major heroes, culture heroes, that we tend to try to clean them up. The obituaries that fascinate me tend to be the ones where you don’t expect the turns of events that happen, the person who’s had some unbelievable, insane World War II experience, and then winds up selling paint in a hardware store.

And you try to think, “What’s the relationship between these astonishing adventures, and the life that’s lived in El Cerrito, California, for the next 40 years, in the hardware store?" I don’t know what you do with those, but I am fascinated by them.  

BOGAEV: It does seem a piece of this conversation, that you’re trying to assemble the coherent self.

GREENBLATT: Yes, or, in any case, if it’s not coherent, at least to be fascinated by the incoherence. Because I think, actually, I don’t want to come down too heavily in this conversation, Barbara, on Shakespeare as the fashioner of coherent lives. I think what’s fascinating about Shakespeare’s plays and what we care about them, still, is that the lives don’t completely fit together. How do you fit together the pieces of Hamlet, or of Antony, or of Lear? It’s precisely their incoherence, their being pulled in different directions, that is haunting.

BOGAEV: It does make me curious about your own life story, how you think about your own life story differently. Or the relevance of telling your own life story, if only for yourself, not even in public, in light of how much you’ve thought about Shakespeare’s ideas on this. 

GREENBLATT: Oh, my own life story is a very modest affair, indeed. I would’ve said that I wouldn’t imagine my own life story as a particularly exciting adventure.

BOGAEV: Although talking about all of this, it does bring up this idea that at the core of the American dream, we have this idea that you can write your own story, and by extension, you can make up any old story and, well, you can get people to believe it. I mean, just look at our presidential election, this year.

GREENBLATT: Wow, I’d rather not, to be honest with you. 


GREENBLATT: But at least not half of it. But, look, for myself, Barbara, I would say if I have a story at all, the interesting thing is not that gypsies stole me as a child, and I was raised in X and Y. That’s not the way it works. It’s that I fell in love with literature, at a certain point in my life. I read these things that reached me, in a very deep way. And then, because of a combination of fantastic good luck and the way in which certain institutions have evolved in the world, I wound up being able to spend my adult life playing in exactly the sandbox that I loved to play in already when I was a teenager. That’s unbelievable. And it has to do with a love affair, a love affair with—it wasn’t originally with Shakespeare—but a love affair with what our imagination can do. 

BOGAEV: Well, it’s a little bit of a false equivalency that we’ve set up these boxing matches between Jonson and Shakespeare, and Montaigne and Shakespeare. But do you have any sense of who’s won out in the end in this argument over whether a life is just a set of circumstances, or something more of a through line?

GREENBLATT: I’m not addicted to Instagram, or Snapchat, or all the things that my 15-year-old knows very well. But my sense is that people have somehow done an end run around the idea of stories, at least as Shakespeare would’ve understood them, and simply put it all out there without any editing, as it were, at all, or very little editing. And I think that world of Snapchat and Instagram is a kind of, on the whole, often quite uninteresting, but sometimes maybe engaging version of Montaigne, not Shakespeare. It’s the turning of the constant vicissitudes of your life into representations of those vicissitudes. It’s sharing with the entire world every one of your moods and changes.

There’s a crazy moment in one of Montaigne’s essays in which he talks about visiting someone who kept his bowel movements in vases on a kind of mantelpiece in his house, a nobleman. And he kept track of his life that way. He just kept all of them that way. And Montaigne has this weird admiration for doing this crazy thing.  



BOGAEV: That was the original Instagram.

GREENBLATT: [LAUGH] Yeah, I think of that as the Instagrammic impulse. I’ll share it all with you. You want it all? I’ll give you all of it.

And I think that wasn’t what Shakespeare thought he was up to. So, in that sense, if we’re actually saying who won, though most people will have heard of Shakespeare, and many people will not have heard of Montaigne, I think it’s Montaigne who won. The one who was the least plausible one is, for us, Ben Jonson, unless you think that the weird robotic showing of certain personality traits, let’s say, kind of weird aggression and unpleasantness that’s in some of our political candidates, turns out to be a triumphant way of being in the world.

But I think Jonson is the least likely of the characters. But I do think Montaigne is, in a way, a hero for our times. Montaigne says, “If I could depict myself naked, I would just depict myself completely naked.” That’s how he imagined what he was doing. I think that’s not at all what Shakespeare, himself, certainly, but also that’s not what Shakespeare’s characters are doing. They’re shaping something. 

BOGAEV: Now I’m imagining a huge rebirth of Montaigne, a second coming of Montaigne.

GREENBLATT: Well, it wouldn’t be bad. I, as I say, adore Montaigne, but it happens that Montaigne is fantastically inventive and intelligent at what he’s doing. It turns out to be harder to do than it looks. 

BOGAEV: It has been so lovely talking with you. Thank you so much, Stephen.

GREENBLATT: Thank you, Barbara.


WITMORE: Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of, among other books, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Professor Greenblatt was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“Teach Him How to Tell My Story” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Professor Greenblatt’s assistant, Aubrey Everett; from Anna Steinbock at the Harvard office of Public Affairs and Communications, and from Jeff Peters and the staff of the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.