Wednesday, October 31, 2007

James Shapiro/1599

James Shapiro's book (subtitled 'A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare') is a survey of a pivotal stage in the writer's development; but it necessarily focuses on the social and historical context of his writing, and on the reflections of this in the writing itself, rather than on the life of the man - about which virtually nothing is known. Shapiro reminds us of this caveat at the the outset, but it is still just a little frustrating that we so often become aware of just how broadly he is speculating; and how many times he is forced to use "we simply don't know...".

The core argument for the crucial significance of the chosen year is well made. It was the year in which Shakespeare's theatre company, The Chamberlain's Men, made a decisive split from the legendary clown, Will Kemp (and hence from the broader, more physical comedic tradition which he represented), signalling new opportunities and ambitions for Shakespeare's writing in both serious and comic genres. It was also the year in which The Globe Theatre theatre was built, a hugely risky enterprise that might as easily have brought fortune or ruin on Shakespeare and his co-investors among The Chamberlain's Men (this is one point where I really wish Shapiro had enquired a little more deeply - how much and where is Shakespeare likely to have had to borrow in order to fund this undertaking? can we gauge the eventual return on his investment?). The rapid success of this venture - despite a sudden upsurge in the number of competing theatre companies and rampant uncertainties about the dangers of censorship or complete suppression by a paranoid government - gave Shakespeare, it would seem, a unique platform on which develop his artistry in new directions.

This was the year in which Shakespeare, just turning 35 (but already an actor and playwright with at least a decade's experience), completed final polishing of his great, long-in-gestation history play Henry V, dashed off the decidedly sui generis tragedy and comedy, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, in an improbably short space of time, and then settled down to produce the gargantuan first draft of his masterpiece, Hamlet. A truly remarkable year, even by his standards; and one that can aptly be seen as laying the foundation for the great plays of his mature years - Lear, Macbeth, Othello.

It was also an unusually turbulent year in England's domestic politics. The aging, childless Queen Elizabeth was still obstinately refusing to settle her succession - which was breeding anxieties about the risk of foreign invasion, civil insurrection, or the return of the vicious religious persecutions of half a century earlier. There was a bloody rebellion in Ireland, which threatened to drain the national treasury dry. There were innumerable rumours of assassination plots and possible invasions (the country was on an all-out war footing throughout the summer, expecting the imminent onslaught of another Spanish Armada - although this fear proved a mere phantom). And there was endless anxious speculation about the designs of the Earl of Essex, the charismatic but impetuous nobleman who had recently quarrelled with the Queen - and had then been handed the poisoned chalice of a command in Ireland to suppress the rebellion (an appointment probably prompted largely by a desire to have him out of the way, but which also raised the unwelcome prospect that he might - like Julius Caesar - use his command of the army to establish himself [or the King of Scotland, or the King of Spain] as England's ruler).

What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is how - at a time when the insecurities of Elizabeth's government were driving it to some quite brutal oppression and censorship, and most Englishmen were very evidently afraid to speak their minds openly even in private correspondence - Shakespeare somehow got away with alluding to so many of these contemporary events in his plays that year. Better than any book I've read before on Shakespeare, this one really shows you convincingly how the background events find expression in the work.

All in all, then, it's a damn good read. If you're hoping to find out more about Shakespeare "the man", you'll be disappointed; but if you're interested in the development of his work, or in the society that gave rise to it, this is a fascinating book. I fret that many of Shapiro's inferences are very tenuous, his juxtapositions sometimes trite and mechanical; but in general, the book is well-written and surprisingly easy to read. I usually struggle with non-fiction, but I got through this in a week.


moonrat said...

hmm, sounds interesting. have you read any other nf about shakespeare?

Froog said...

Hmmm, can't remember what. Not since I was a high school teacher, which is a long time ago now.

I'll see if I can recall any titles later.

Leigh Russell said...

Sounds interesting. As you point out, anything written about Shakespeare is going to be speculative but I admire people who write this stuff. I'd be terrified of all the 'experts' who pick up on gaffs with such righteous (and, to be fair, justified) alacrity.

Ello said...

Great review. I'm not a big Shakespeare fan, is that bad to say? But this was quite fascinating!

pacatrue said...

I was just thinking what it would be like to have written anything like Hamlet or Lear or .... Unfathomable.