PW: You've been studying Shakespeare for a long time. How did the idea for Will in the World come to you?
The idea came to me in the wake of a series of conversations I had with the filmmaker Mark Norman. He came to see me in Berkeley more than 10 years ago and said he wanted to make a film modeled on Amadeus on the life of Shakespeare, and he wanted to pick my brain. I discouraged him at the time, saying the life wasn't that interesting.
The movie was eventually made—it was Shakespeare in Love. Actually, I thought the movie was quite good, hilariously and deliberately inaccurate. I began to think about academics like me who are passionately interested in history and the relation of his work with history, but had an odd allergy to the man himself. Biography is the only literary genre in which the larger public is interested. I began to think of the popular instinct—that something in the life must explain the intensity of the work—a correct impulse on the part of millions of readers.
Much of your account is speculative. Are you frustrated by how much it's not possible to know about Shakespeare and his life?
I probably should answer yes, but I would say two things. First of all, we have rather more information about the historical Shakespeare than is widely thought. That said, you're absolutely right, when you actually try to do the work of connecting the life to the writing in a meaningful way, to make them speak, you do have to speculate. It's risky because you can get it wrong. But Shakespeare encourages you to use your imagination—that's the nature of the work. It doesn't strike me as unreasonable.
Do you now really feel you know who the man Shakespeare was?
I feel I do know him rather better than I did when I began. I feel I know certain key things. One test of knowing him, for me, if I could sum it up in a word, is that I had to change my mind about what it was I wanted to say about him.
I thought I was going to write about Shakespeare as a figure of immense generosity, and in some sense I did. But not in the way I thought I was going to. It became increasingly clear to me that in his life, the last will and testament, in relations with his colleagues, generosity is not the appropriate word. There was a much more complicated relation than I understood between his imaginative generosity, which is truly immense, and what we would normally think of as generosity.
Another example: there's a wonderful book by John Bayley about Shakespeare and love, Shakespeare as an extraordinary lover. But the more one grapples with his life, the more difficulty you come up with in loving. Of course he's an immense poet of love, but it's much more troubled and difficult than I had fully anticipated in the beginning.
What's next for you?
At the moment, there's a lost play of Shakespeare's called Cardenio, which he wrote with John Fletcher. With a professional playwright friend of mine, Charles Mee, we have written a play inspired by the lost play. We have a draft of it, and we hope to see it performed. This is a different experiment from the biography, but an experiment to see if I can do something differently—step behind the curtain and look at a play from the making side.