Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

This is the first book covered in the online Shakespeare course I joined. Shapiro’s work goes into detail on Shakespeare’s achievements in 1599 (a remarkable output--Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and the first draft of Hamlet ), his business dealings, and the national scene within which he worked. The approach of Shapiro’s work is to explore the world in which the author and works are rooted, providing additional meaning to the plays. “At the heart of this book is the familiar desire to understand how Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” I was glad to see that Shapiro avoided speculation for the most part, focusing on social and political history to “convey a sense of how deeply Shakespeare’s work emerged from an engagement with his time.” While Shakespeare’s plays stand regardless of the age, understanding the environment of the time in which he wrote adds depth to the works, as well as provides a glimpse at how the works were originally received.

I read Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare last summer, which provides a wonderful overview to all of Shakespeare’s life and times. Speculations regarding the influence certain events must have had on Shakespeare can be a little heavy at times, but for a layperson like me wanting to understand more about his time and the influence on his works it provided a wonderful overview. The events of his time, full of drama and intrigue, offer a background for understanding not just the atmosphere in which the plays were performed but possibly many influences on the works themselves. Shapiro’s book is a great follow-up for someone that wants more detail on the historical and professional context of that time.

Notes on some of the major themes:

Professional—the concerns of the author weren’t just in creating the plays but also how they were staged. For a part-owner of the acting troupe, as Shakespeare had just become, this especially covers the business end. Whether obtaining the timber framework for the Globe or competing with actors in the troupe, professional matters would have to be considered. Given that a performer’s livelihood depended on patronage and royal approval (or at least avoiding disapproval), the plays of this time were remarkably topical and yet avoided censure.

National—1599 was right in the middle of a special time regarding government and power in England. Many questions about Elizabeth’s successor came to the fore with her advancing age. The Ireland question seemed to bring out the worst in everyone—if Elizabeth really wanted to subdue the country, her half-hearted tactics were much too little. For those serious about subduing Ireland, their recommended genocidal tactics are offensive (although Mountjoy’s success with them demonstrates such tactics were required for success). The “invisible Armada” from Spain that year, a threat that caused rumors and intrigue on a daily basis, undermined (long term) the royal power. Who was really being guarded with the conscription and constant alerts? The distance between the privileged class and everyone else seemed to widen with the court’s response to real and alleged threats.

General Outlook—the uncertainty of the age was unsettling enough, but alternatives highlighted in Shakespeare’s plays would demonstrate outcomes that could spiral out of control in undesired directions. Several of Shakespeare’s plays specifically addressed this issue. Also highlighted was the changes going on in the general world. The rise of the merchant class helped emphasize the underlying impotence of the privileged class. Their level of control continued to diminish, ironically at the same time as empire expanded with commerce. In addition, Shapiro underscores the waning of chivalry, both in reality and representation. Courtly love became a satiric target, no longer an elevated ideal.

Shakespeare’s creation process—Well, the actual creation process remains unknown, but Shapiro goes into detail on the works where early drafts are available. A (probable) early draft of Sonnet 138, published probably without Shakespeare’s knowledge or approval in 1599, underscores the substantial difference minor changes can make in meaning. But the huge find is the first draft of Hamlet as well as its revision. Again, the changes between the two allow a glimpse into what the writer hoped to convey and achieve. Normally I find this type of literary history tedious, but Shapiro does a wonderful job of laying out a few of the revisions and the change in emphasis that a few words can make.

Religion—anyone with a passing acquaintance of this time period knows the importance of religion, yet Shapiro provides additional depth in areas not necessarily apparent. The focus on Lancelot Andrewes’ Lenten sermon focuses on the role that pastors played beyond religion, incorporating the desire of the state into performance art. The aural culture that existed means that sources and influences extended well beyond the printed word, of which sermons would be one element.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shaprio’s book and highly recommend it if you would like an introduction to Shakespeare’s time and influences as well as learning specific background on the works written in 1599 (and beyond).

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