Forsaking applause

Here is one last post on Will in the World, the terrific Stephen Greenblatt book on the life and art of William Shakespeare.

Nearing the end of very successful career Shakespeare began to make preparations for a return home. Greenblatt here takes the opportunity to sum up the playwright near his leave taking, and in doing so emphasizes the personal and professional double life that the artist had led.

The writing is just splendid:

Against a background of personal caution, prudential calculation, and parsimoniousness, Shakespeare had built a career on acts of compulsive identification, the achievement of petty thefts [through artistic license] coupled with an immense imaginative generosity. Though he had in his own affairs kept himself from the fate of Marlowe or Greene [contemporaries who had wasted great literary gifts], he had in the playhouse trafficked in reckless passion and in subversive ideas. He had turned everything life had dealt him -- painful crises of social standing, sexuality, and religion -- into the uses of art and had turned that art into profit. He had managed even to transform his grief and perplexity at the death of his son into an aesthetic resource, the brilliant practice of strategic opacity. Is it surprising that his pride in what he had accomplished -- he comes before us not as one of what A Midsummer Night's Dream calls 'rude mechanicals' but as a prince and a learned magician -- was mingled at the end with guilt?

Perhaps too he had slowly wearied of his own popular success or had come to question its worth. He had, as a performer and a playwright, appealed again and again for applause, and he must have been gratified that he generally received it. But if he fully knew who he was -- and that figure of the princely magician [Prospero, in the Tempest] suggests that Shakespeare understood what it meant to be Shakespeare -- then he may have decided that he had had enough. He would finally be able to turn away from the crowd.