This is the 2006 literary historical analysis of Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it lost; Greenblatt later won for his book The Swerve, which I haven’t read. This book takes to the historical evidence of the lived life of Shakespeare, provides historical context, and uses his plays and poems to make reasonable speculations or run over an array of reasonable speculations based on the evidence for what Shakespeare might have been like as a person and what kind of life he lived.
So the goal of the book is to make reasonable inferences. Greenblatt tells us early on that the vast majority of these speculations, are just that, speculations. But when I teach inference in literary analysis, I tell my students that any kind of interpretation we make in reading needs to be based in textual evidence (I know, duh), but that ultimately no inference is any more than a guess. There’s always a gap between what we know for sure, and what we can best guess based on the evidence. Making guesses that leap that gap clearly or narrowing the gap is the goal. And that seems to be Greenblatt’s premise here. The text moves chronologically in Shakespeare’s life, and eventually through the bibliography. He focuses of themes that can be drawn from the world around him (political upheaval, literary events, plagues) and pairs them up with evidence from the plays and poems to make some guesses. It’s way more literary scholarship than historical scholarship, know that going in. And Greenblatt makes a convincing and reasonable case (no conspiracies here [well, one tiny one]). The best thing the book does is makes you excited again for reading Shakespeare.