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James Shapiro on Shakespeare at the Turn of Centuries and Cultures Hot

Michael Meigs
Written by Michael Meigs     December 22, 2011    
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James Shapiro on Shakespeare at the Turn of Centuries and Cultures

Photos: James Putori (book design), HBO

  • A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
  • by James Shapiro
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Published in 2005
  • 5

James Shapiro opens his narrative with the close-up, confidential tone of a detective novel. In his first paragraph he establishes the scene as snow-covered London on December 28, 1598 and continues,

As the snow fell, a dozen or so armed men gathered in Shoreditch, in London's northern suburbs. Instead of the clubs usually wielded in London's street brawls or apprentice riots, they carried deadly weapons -- "swords, daggers, bills, axes, and the like." [. . .] The Chamberlain's Men were in trouble, and the only way out was to get in a bit deeper.

You'd be hard put to situate your story any more in medias res than that. Headed by master carpenter Peter Street, this gang is about to disassemble a theatre building and haul every bit of it away to a warehouse facing the frozen Thames. Two days earlier the Chamberlain's Men had performed at Elizabeth's court at Whitehall Palace and they were expected there again on New Year's Day. In the interval their laborers were reappropriating the timbers, lumber and fittings from the site where their lease had expired and storing the dismantled theatre for later use on a south bank property with a newly signed 31-year lease.

Given the dispute over the ownership of the building that would become the Globe, the enterprise had the makings of a conspiracy. It was also a new type of business venture. Richard Burbage had convinced five company members to invest the enormous sum of 70 pounds each for the new construction. In exchange, each was to receive ten percent of the profits of the new venture. Among those investors were Will Kempe, the company's renowned clown and jig-maker, and William Shakespeare, its principal playwright.

The theatre raid isn't the only developing story available to Shapiro with his choice of the final year of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare was at mid-career, of course, and in the following twelve months he and the company would be premiering Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It. At the end of the year Shakespeare would be writing Hamlet, a remarkably different type of play both for him and for the English stage. In addition, intrigue and politics at Elizabeth's court would be deeply marked by the mercurial Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, who had ambitiously courted the queen. Elizabeth would send him off to Ireland with the assignment to put down Tyrone's rebellion; Essex would fail, negotiate ineptly with the adversary, and then abruptly sail home and ride back in haste to burst in upon Elizabeth in her private quarters. By Easter of 1601 he would be dead -- executed for conspiracies against the queen.

Shapiro's narrative, vivid with historical detail and rich in literary comment, unrolled in my mind against the cinematic images of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth and Hugh Dancy as Essex in the Channel 4 (UK)/HBO film Elizabeth I, coincidentally also produced in 2005, the date of Shapiro's book.

Equally compelling in 1599 were the unresolved religious issues and questions of royal succession. Spain's naval armada had been defeated thanks to the fury of the weather only eleven years earlier, but the Spanish crown and church continued to plot Elizabeth's downfall. In August, London and southern England would be panicked by false reports of another approaching Spanish attack. Elizabeth, Anglican protestant, unmarried and childless at the age of 67, was aware of the ambitions of her nephew,  James VI of Scotland, to take her place.

Shapiro tells us in his preface that thanks to the Folger Library and other collections he has read almost all of the books that might have passed through Shakespeare's hands. That's only a subset of his extensive study. He has much of the scholar about him but none of the pedant, for his prose is clear, his narrative is nowhere tedious, and his juxtapositions often make the casual Shakespeare aficionado sit up with the impact of unexpected insight.

Shapiro brings alive historical circumstance and events, offering rich meditations on an arc of the plays that began with Henry IV, Part II andThe Merry Wives of Windsor in 1597-1598. Sir John Falstaff was a principal figure in each, played by the boisterous, physical Will Kempe. In the immediately succeeding Henry V, staged in spring of 1599 Falstaff is present but invisible as his confederates Pistol and Nym prepare to embark for the wars. Shapiro sees the off-stage death of Falstaff in Henry V as both emblematic of Shakespeare's move into a more 'interior' drama and as a forced adaptation to Kempe's abrupt departure at that time from the company. Kempe with his bounding gusto and mastery of the bawdy concluding jigs was Falstaff.

Shapiro reinforces this point with impressive textual legerdemain. His close study of the epilogue for Henry IV, Part II, makes a convincing case that the text as established in the 1623 Folio and generally accepted by later editors is a conflation of two separate epilogues: one as spoken by Kempe as Falstaff in the players' text and the other prepared and delivered by Shakespeare himself for the presentation at Court. Kempe's text jovially promises "our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France" (anticipating the unfinished Henry V) and opens the way to the final jig. Shapiro presents the alternative text as "the only time in his plays when we hear" [Shakespeare] "speak for himself":

First, my fear; then, my curtsy; last my speech. My fear is your displeasure; my curtsy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look for a good speech now, you undo me, for what I have to say is of my own making, and what indeed I should say will, I doubt, prove my own marring. But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise a better. I meant indeed to pay you with this, which if like an ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle, creditors, lose. Here I promised you I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies. Bate me some and I will pay you some and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely. And so I kneel down before you; but indeed, to pray for the Queen.

This was an artful speech from the playwright to his noble audience. Probably not to his patrons, for the Chamberlain's men received no retainer or subsidy from the Crown; rather, they were paid generously per performance. In a foreshadowing of the Globe venture, Shakespeare uses the language of commerce and investment, speaking to the "creditors" to his "venture" (commercial expedition).

Shapiro draws on many texts to bring these scenes to life. The descriptions of Whitehall amount to a guided tour of the palace where the company performed, including the library, the sumptuously decorated formal rooms, and a stop at a wall closely hung with cardboard imprese. Nobles presented these heraldic devices to Elizabeth to symbolize their devotion to her, and they handsomely paid artists and writers, including Shakespeare, to craft them. Shapiro writes about the building of the Globe as if he had been on site, describing carpentry techniques, weather, the marshy neighborhood and the rapidly developing competition offered by new rivals and the new fashion of staging drama with companies of boys, such as those of Saint Paul's. He quotes examples of the highly political and elegantly rhetorical sermons of influential churchmen. He vividly describes the empressment of ordinary citizens to make up the troops intended to subject the rebellling Irish, using contemporary accounts and tying them firmly to episodes in Henry V. We learn of the close scrutiny of manuscripts by crown and church, as well as the requirements for registration and authorization of book sales. Writers and playwrights were put on guard in mid-year by book burnings and new restrictions imposed when John Hayward's floridly written history of Henry IV was deemed too popular and at the same time too sensitive, because of the unresolved issue of royal succession.

Shapiro provides his thoughts about each of the works staged by Shakespeare in 1599, particularly as they mirrored London and of English society. For example, for Julius Caesar, in addition to a graceful essay about Shakespeare's careful balance in presenting arguments for and against tyrannicide, Shapiro uses Caesar's inquiry "What's the date?" to inform us that calendars and holidays were not irrevocably fixed in Shakespeare's world; he points to the crowd's attack against Cinna (the poet, not the conspirator) as a suggestion of the climate of censorship.

For As You Like It with its story of Duke Senior and supporters in the forest of Arden the writer examines the new roles created by Shakespeare for the clowns in the piece, quite different from those of the departed Kempe. He also opens discussion from the sylvan setting into a description of the hardships of travel into the countryside and to Shakespeare's connections to the Arden family and the attempt to obtain an improved patent of nobility based upon them.

In his various commands Essex had the power to dub his followers knights, an honor many of them received. His failure against the Irish occasioned one writer's gibe that Essex "had dubbed more knights than he had killed Irishmen." Shapiro sees in the turning of the century the eclipse of one culture and the rise of another: "Hamlet was born at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of globalization."

Again, his choice of year provides robust evidence. In late September just as Essex and his closest companions were racing back from Ireland, more than a hundred prosperous London merchants, including the Lord Mayor, assembled for two days to draw up articles for the venture that would become the British East India Company. At that "seminal moment in the history of global capitalism" the list of a hundred subscribers included not a single aristocrat. In propagandizing accounts published in 1598, 1599 and 1600 Richard Hakluyt described the London merchants as England's "true adventurers" and criticized the gentry who "now too much consume their time and patrimony." Shapiro gives a meaty description of the great venture and then ponders the implications for Hamlet, almost certainly in early draft form at that time:

Hamlet [ . . . ] is marked by these forces, but, unlike the caustic Troilus and Cressida, not deformed by them. They cast a shadow over the play, though, and certainly inform its reflections on the possibility of heroic action. They also reinforce the play's nostalgia: there's a sense in Hamlet no less than in the culture at large of a sea change, of a world that is dead but not yet buried.

That ample thematic meditation opens the way for the closing chapters of the book, "Essays and Soliloquies" and "Second Thoughts," containing Shapiro's extended consideration of Shakespeare's most read, longest and "least original" play. His account of Hamlet is illuminating. Shapiro opens with sources, then comments on Shakespeare's new poetics, including particularly "an odd verbal trick called hendiadys ("one by means of two"). "Law and order" is a common contemporary example. Shapiro finds that these dual expressions create a sort of vertigo or oscillation, rich in meaning. By his count there are sixty-six of them in the play, averaging one every sixty lines. Examples include "Angels and ministers of grace defend us"; actors are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time"; and Hamlet's reference to "the book and volume of my brain."

The writer situates the new "sense of inwardness" of Hamlet in the context of the new literary form of the personal essay. Montaigne's writings were translated into English only late in the decade of the 1590s and were not well known. Shapiro makes no claim for direct influence upon Shakespeare's Hamlet, but he spends some time examining essays by William Cornwallis, first published in 1600. Like Montaigne's pieces, those essays "with their assertions, contradictions, reversals and abrupt shifts in subject matter and even confidence --captured a mind at work." Shapiro finds that such essays "straddled the spoken and the written, exsiting somewhere between private meditations and performance scripts. In redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered. Except, perhaps, the soliloquy."

Hamlet was published in several versions, including a 2000-line pirated version in 1603 ("To be or not to be. Ay, that's the point. / To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye, all. / No, to sleep, to dream, aye, marry, there it goes. . . ."), the 4000-line version authorized by the Chamberlain's Men in 1604 and presumed to be the full first draft, and the 1623 Folio version, the variants of which identify it as a previously unpublished revised text, perhaps more closely resembling the version then presented onstage. Since that time, editors and scholars "have been sorely tempted to combine the best of both" the 1604 and 1623 texts and "have cobbled together an incoherent Hamlet that Shakespeare neither wrote nor imagined." Shapiro identifies inconsistencies and revisions, tracing the playwright's reshaping of his lengthy original text. Changes were required in order to put the work up on the boards; at 4000 lines, the play would have taken four hours to perform, much more was ordinarily available at the theatre as the afternoon sun sank to the horizon.

James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 opens the eyes of the casual Shakespearian to the rough world of Elizabethan London, to the thrust and parry of politics, to literary tradition, to rhetoric of church and state, and to the richness and complexity of the playwright's achievement. The narrative is so rich and multifaceted that it invites revisiting and rewards rereading.

Last year the Harry S. Ransom Center at the University of Texas invited several of its associates and donors of literary material to nominate titles for "the book of the decade." Noveiist Penelope Lively responded,

I like books that leave me better informed, that surprise me, that change my view. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare did all that. I suppose that I held—vaguely—the Coleridgean view that Shakespeare transcends his age "as if of another planet." Shapiro demonstrates with elegance and authority how the work of that year— Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, first draft of Hamlet—sprang directly from the action and the anxieties of the age: the war in Ireland, the fear of the Spanish, the question of the succession, and the possibility of Elizabeth's assassination.

Intrigued, I purchased the book. Captivated by Shapiro's style and insights, I gave that copy to my son for Christmas of 2010. In preparation for this review I repeatedly checked out a copy from the Austin Public Library in following months, taking voluminous notes on a yellow legal pad. In October I pounced upon a used copy, priced at $2, that had been donated to Recycled Reads, the shop run by friends of the library. You can find the hardcover copy of the 2005 book on currently on offer for $5 and up, plus shipping, as well as an audio book edition; at the booksellers' cooperative website, you can get it for $3.97 (shipping included). Shapiro has since published Contested Will, reported to be an elegant detonation of all those "not Shakespeare" hypotheses, in good time for Anonymous, this year's film fantasy on the subject.

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