Review of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599 by James Shapiro, HarperCollins, 2005.
This book by the noted scholar James Shapiro is a couple of years old now (published in 2005) but is well worth reading and can be had at a deeply discounted price. It is one of those works of "popular scholarship" that retains the interest of the casual reader and the serious scholar; an unconventional year in the life biography, Shapiro admitting that conventional biography "...will always be with us--less for what they tell about Shakespeare's life than for what they reveal about our own fantasies of who we want Shakespeare to be" (xv). It is a thoroughly enjoyable and fresh approach, as surprising as that might seem.
More Year than Life, this book puts in perspective the prodigious output of the world's greatest dramatist in this his watershed year. In this remarkable year in which Shakespeare wrote or completed Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and began, at least, Hamlet. Shapiro takes us into the flow of events in England, the court, the city, the countryside, the theatres as they were in 1599. It was the year of Essex's Irish (and personal) disaster (called the 'end of chivalry' by Shapiro); a year of renewed threat of invasion from Spain, the 'invisible Armada;' the year the Globe was constructed Bankside by Peter Street for the Lord Chamberlain's Men from the timbers of the Theatre; the year of Will Kemp's unlamented (by Shakespeare, according to Shapiro, who is undoubtedly right) departure from the company, and the arrival of the more subtle, sensitive, engaging Robert Armin; the year the Passionate Pilgrim was published, a ragtag collection of poems only two of which were serious poetic efforts by Shakespeare, who must have been greatly annoyed to see them in print; the year Shakespeare left behind the genres he had helped to invent and certainly mastered, romantic comedy, and the history play, with the notable exception of the later Twelfth Night and perhaps Henry VIII; the year Shakespeare was swept into the uncharted waters of introspection and doubt, birthing Hamlet; the year Elizabeth neared her end.
Had Shakespeare died in 1598, the year of Mere's encomium in Palladis Tamia, he would still have had the reputation of the greatest English playwright, built on the foundation of his romantic comedies The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, his farce, The Comedy of Errors, and his history plays, especially the invention of Jack Falstaff. And yet, greatness would have meant less than it does today because the great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, his greatest comedy, Twelfth Night, and the superlative The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were yet to come. The transition year between great and indubitably the greatest was 1599, a year of lightning creativity and industry.
Shakespeare in his time was unique, not simply for his gifts, but for his historical position. He was virtually alone in straddling both generations of Elizabethan playwrights: the earlier generation of Kyd, Marlowe, Peele, and Greene, and the later generation of Jonson, Dekker, Heywood and the Jacobeans--from upstart crow to emulated veteran. He was the first, the inventor, of the playwright's theater. Shapiro makes much of the departure of Will Kemp from the Chamberlain's Men: "...ironically if unintentionally mirrored in Hal's icy repudiation of Falstaff--was a rejection of not only a certain kind of comedy but also a declaration that from her on in, it was going to be a playwright's and not an actor's theater..." (37). Therefore 1599 was the watershed year for the theatre itself: "As Shakespeare found himself moving steadily at this time toward a more naturalistic drama in which characters like Rosalind and Hamlet feel real..." (40). The days of the improvisational, free wheeling theatre of Tarleton and Kemp were over, happily so for Shakespeare, according to Shapiro. This year would witness the inception of a new presentational realism, its crowning achievement (an achievement for all time) being Hamlet's naturalistic introspection.
Much of the early part of the book is given over to explaining the current Irish war, Tyrone's victory at Blackwater, Essex's command of the English retaliatory army, and to Essex himself, a great "sulking boy." The corruptions rife in the English military system are exposed--where soldiers' inadequate pay was taxed to provide non-existent supplies. Interestingly, Shapiro identifies Thomas North, translator of Amyot's Plutarch's Lives, as one of the prime offenders. The enormous hypocrisy of poseurs like North is painted as rising to embrace the arrogance of the Queen. It was a near universal shakedown, from degree handed down to degree, that supported the Queen's Irish campaigns.
Shakespeare deftly portrays the repressive political atmosphere of 1599, where 'silence is the softest armor.' The play Shakespeare was completing at year's start, Henry V, was a bit of externalizing patriotism in the grip of theological self justification; so much at odds with the existential bewilderment of the play that ends the year, Hamlet.
Shapiro repeats the truism that Shakespeare almost never invents his plots, but was at his best reworking the plots of others (86). So it was in Henry V, which drew on the earlier, anonymous, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, but, Shapiro says, Essex's Irish campaign seems at the heart of the play.
The next play, Julius Caesar (called Shakespeare's first great tragedy by its Arden 3 editor, David Daniell) reveals Shakespeare's un-Aristotelian conception of tragedy "...as a collision of deeply held and irreconcilable principles embedded in characters who are destroyed when those principles collide" (131). This was a tragedy "...that hadn't been attempted since works like Antigone in the great age of Sophoclean Athens" 131).
Shapiro's discussion of the themes of Julius Caesar, especially the assassination, is a deft intermingling of Shakespeare's life, his nuanced drama, Elizabethan politics, and theatrical scholarship. We learn in the months preceding Julius Caesar there were a rash of assassination attempts upon the Queen, and that Shakespeare's emersion in Plutarch bridges the gap between Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, worked out through Julius Caesar. "Shakespeare probably worked from a copy of Plutarch given, or lent him, by [his friend Richard] Field, an expensive and beautiful folio that cost a couple of pounds" (133).
Interestingly, "Shakespeare even seems to have subscribed early in his career to the belief that Brutus was Caesar's illegitimate son and that the assassination had also been an act of patricide: 'Brutus' bastard hand / Stabbed Julius Caesar" (Second Part of Henry the Sixth, 4.1.137-38). But Shakespeare's engagement with Plutarch seems to have shifted his interest in this chapter of Roman history from the familial to the political and made him impatient with his earlier take on this story" (134). We can only be thankful that Shakespeare abandoned the puerile Oedipal implications (via Seutonius) to a deeper vision.
From a consideration of the death of Caesar, Shapiro shifts the discussion to the broader implications of assassination for Shakespeare's immediate political context: "...the real problem with political assassinations for Elizabethans--and Shakespeare's play makes this abundantly clear--was that it unleashed forces that could not be predicted or controlled" (144), i.e., let slip the dogs of war, indeed.
In one of the few unconvincing passages in 1599, Shapiro presses the material on dates and times in Julius Caesar, relating it to Elizabeth's Accession day (November 17) and English civil discontent to "touch a deep cultural nerve." I cannot follow him in believing Shakespeare's auditors were so astute (and remember the play was not printed until 1623) or so self-analytically perceptive in the presence of the rapidly moving drama. (See p. 150).
Part three of the book is taken up with a discussion of 'the invisible Armada.' Elizabethans' fears ran wild in 1599 over an imaginary invasion by a new Spanish Armada in connection with the Irish campaign. "By mid-July English spies reported home that the Spanish were ready to attack..." (174). Shapiro rehearses the many false alarms and tremors that shook the country that summer from fear of the Spanish invasion: "...'we were all here in a hurle as though the enemy were at our doors'" (175) wrote courtier John Chamberlain.
In the midst of the Spanish fears a new book was published, and became a best seller: The Passionate Pilgrim, by W. Shakespeare. The Passionate Pilgrim contains only two serious sonnets by Shakespeare (138 and 144), three lifted from Love's Labour's Lost meant to be send ups of the sonnet form, and a gallimaufry of "sonnets" (a very plastic genre) by other known and unknown authors (including an abbreviated version of Marlowe's "Live With Me and Be My Love" and a reply by Raleigh). Since all were attributed to Shakespeare, the publisher, the dubious William Jaggard of later Folio fame, obviously deduced that Shakespeare's name was the one with star power.
The chapter dealing with The Passionate Pilgrim is Shapiro's opportunity to do his best analysis of the book by comparing the version of Sonnet 138 published in that volume with its final form published in the collected sonnets in 1609. It is an accomplished analysis, showing how the poem grows in subtlety and deepens in psychological understanding of the mutual deception practiced by the lovers. It also presages the much more subtle understanding, and presentation of, love in As You Like It, Shakespeare's next play.
Shapiro's analysis of As You Like It seems conventional (how difficult it is to say anything original about Shakespeare). The interesting part is the connection between the play and Shakespeare's interest in heraldry and his pursuit of his family's Arden inheritance:
"The Arden of Shakespeare's As you Like It and the Arden of his legal heraldic pursuits have much in common. There's a tension in the work as in the life between the real and the romantic, between the way things once were and the way things now stood. Even as we see two versions of Forests of Arden in the play--the wooded forest of days of yore and the deforested, enclosed, and economically fraught one of the present--so, too, we get two vastly different versions of Shakespeare's Arden legacy. The fantasy of a heroic Shakespearean past and of a connection to Arden that stretched back to the days when it was indeed a magnificent forest, competed in Shakespeare's mind with the reality that his ancestors on both sides had never been more than husbandmen. One of the most teasingly mysterious things about Shakespeare is his ability to sustain such contradictions; the same writer whose work exposed how embellished historical narratives often were, found himself, when it came to his own past, making it up as he went along" (248).
After the analysis of the play, Shapiro returns to the story of Essex, from Essex's and then the queen's points of view. This is surely the most fascinating farce/tragedy of the age. The tragedy led to Essex's downfall and ultimate execution, the farce involves Essex's penchant for knighting any man who might do him service, and the queen's incensed responses. Clearly, it contained lessons for Shakespeare's drama:
"Shakespeare's long-standing interest in his history plays in the struggle over chivalric values, coupled with his strenuous efforts in the late 1590s to secure for his family a coat of arms, suggests that he himself was torn by the tension between past and present, between the form and substance of what it meant to bear arms" (259).
What to us seems the farce played out on the day Essex burst into the queen's bedchamber, the Queen unprepared and disheveled, Shapiro describes as the flaunting of the most serious social law: "No man had ever entered into her bedchamber in her presence, had seen Elizabeth beside her famous walnut bed...For the queen and her ladies-in-waiting it must have come as an unbelievable shock. It's next to impossible today to grasp how great a taboo Essex had violated" (268). Essex never saw the queen again after that day, and Shapiro says conclusively "From that moment, at least in England, it's fair to say that chivalry was dead" (270).
At the same time--and this is what is so good about this book, the opportunity to hold up parallel movements in the context of a single year--"...the cream of London's merchant class were assembling at Founder's Hall..." to form the East India Company. It is a remarkable turn of events that the end of chivalry and the inception of the commercial British empire occurred so near the same date. With the thrusting forth of the merchants the unprofitable, adventurous nobility must disappear (or at least conform): "The death of chivalry coincided with the birth of empire" (274). The consequent loosened moorings of Elizabethan society lend much to the impetus of Hamlet.
The problem with the play Hamlet and the character Hamlet is that they are too big for any container. They threaten to run away with the vehicle in which they are discussed. Shapiro does a good job of containing his discussion.
To show just how unique Hamlet is, Shapiro analyzes Shakespeare's vocabulary before and after the work: "Shakespeare introduced around 600 words in Hamlet that he had never used before, two-thirds of which he would never use again" (286). He also touches on Shakespeare's extraordinary use of hendiadys in Hamlet (borrowing from George T. Wright)--more than in any other play by far, and Hamlet more than any other character. "Something happened in that year--beginning with Henry the Fifth and As You Like It and continuing for five years or so past Hamlet through the great run of plays that included Othello, Measure for Measure, Lear, and Macbeth, after which hendiadys pretty much disappear again--that led Shakespeare to invoke this figure almost compulsively" (287). It is a remarkable observation, and to Shapiro's credit he does not attempt to settle on a simple explanation for the inexplicable genius who was Shakespeare.
Another interesting take on Hamlet is the relationship Shapiro notes between the origin of the personal essay (pointing to Montaigne, of course, but closer in time and place to Cornwallis' essays). The personal essay contains, for the first time, that spirit of intense, internal self-revelation that we see for the first time in drama in Hamlet.
The reason that 1599 was such an important year for Shakespeare is that "Through the soliloquy and its internalization of conflict, he had at last found his own way forward" (327). His way forward led to plays greater than any that had ever or ever would be written. It was his doorway into the apotheosis of the plays of the early seventeenth century.
Shapiro deserves much credit in writing this highly engaging book on a very familiar subject. He also deserves the credit for a very thorough Bibliographical Essay following the text, which most readers will find important. Works of "popular scholarship" too often stress popular at the expense of scholarship altogether.