by James Shapiro. New York, HarperCollins, 2005, 416 pp., $27.95.
Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting William Shakespeare’s many biographies is why his life is such a mystery. We know many more details about the lives of distinguished, but clearly less talented, contemporary playwrights and poets, including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Sir Phillip Sydney, John Donne, and Edmund Spenser. Yet Shakespeare was extremely popular and well-known in his day. His plays sold out at the Globe, and the few publications of his work during his lifetime were bestsellers. He was well-known to the royal court and probably performed with Queen Elizabeth I in attendance. He was one of the wealthiest citizens of Stratford-on-Avon and certainly owned one of the grandest homes in the town. Yet despite this, he left us no letters or diaries, and there are few descriptions of him by contemporaries. In essence, the historical record about the greatest writer in the English world, and by some accounts (including mine) the entire Western canon, is nearly blank.
Columbia University professor James Shapiro acknowledges this problem in his fascinating and highly enjoyable new book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599. His plaintive refrain at the end of the book’s prologue is, “We just don’t know” (p. 13). In that prologue alone, I counted 22 instances of phrases like “it could have been,” “it must be,” and “it’s likely,” clear indications that speculation will be unavoidable throughout the remainder of the text. Nevertheless, Shapiro boldly sets out to relate the events of 1599 to Shakespeare’s mind, emotions, and accomplishments, particularly as reflected in the three plays he wrote that year, Henry the Fifth, As You Like It, and Julius Caesar, and the play Shapiro and some scholars speculate he started, Hamlet (although we cannot be certain that this is the case, as the play was not performed until several years after). Near the end of the book, Shapiro nicely sums up the attempt:
Looking back at the year at Christmastime in 1599, Shakespeare must have recognized how much he had thrived on the highly charged political atmosphere of the past twelve months, when the nation had confronted everything from an ‘Invisible Armada’ [based on fears that an invasion by Spain was imminent] and an ill-fated Irish campaign [to quell a rebellion] to the banning and burning of books and the silencing of preachers—experiences that had deepened his bond with an audience that had come to depend on the theater to make sense of the world and had found in Shakespeare its most incisive interpreter (p. 331).
Along the way, Shapiro provides intriguing insights into what was going on around the Bard during the year. He speculates upon the special regard the Queen had for him: “A monarch who wrote every day must have been an especially discriminating critic and perhaps better disposed than most to a playwright who did the same” (p. 26). Despite the great victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, 1599 saw the English people in a frenzy over what they believed was an impending invasion by Catholic Spain. Not unlike current politics, many citizens of England insisted that the Queen make peace with Spain rather than risk an expensive war. Spain did not invade England, but military action did occur as the Irish, tired of English occupation, launched a rebellion that humbled English forces at Blackwater in 1598 and reached a boiling point in 1599. Despite war mongering against the Irish by none other than the then and now celebrated author of The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser, the war to crush the rebellion was unpopular in England because of the forced muster of its young men into military service and the huge drain on the country’s already depleted treasury. Says Shapiro, “When scholars talk about the sources of Shakespeare’s plays, they almost always mean printed books like Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle’s that they themselves can read. But Shakespeare’s was an aural culture, the music of which has long faded” (p. 81). Does he really say this? As a side note (nothing to do with your review), but it really bothers me when scholars go on the “aural culture” tangent—it’s not a useful observation for our modern vantage point that necessarily depends on the survival of books and manuscripts to tell us anything about past literary figures and readers—and at this point it’s become a cliché—what does “aural culture” mean anyway? Unless he can propose a solution, why bother pointing it out? All of this, Shapiro posits, influenced the creation of Henry the Fifth, with its bold call to arms by a king who rallies the troops to defeat the French at Agincourt. Yet here we have one of the many pitfalls into which the Shakespearean biographer almost invariably falls, one that Shapiro acknowledges: “Those seeking to pinpoint Shakespeare’s political views in Henry the Fifth will always be disappointed … Henry the Fifth succeeds and frustrates because it consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism—past and present.” Hence, Shapiro first tantalizes us with the case that external events influenced the play’s creation, and then admits that knowing what Shakespeare truly thought or believed is nearly impossible.
Similarly, in his analysis of Julius Caesar, Shapiro points to censorship of literary output and attempts by various nobles to gain “popularity”—in Elizabethan times then meaning “courting popular favor”—that were both rampant in 1599 as possible influences. The Elizabethan era was also confused about religion: all of its citizens were of Catholic ancestry and either willingly or by force adopted the new Protestant religion. Yet Shapiro points out that the signs of this conversion were often ambiguous. For example, in the church in Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, drawings of saints inspired by Catholic piety were whitewashed by the Protestants, but not destroyed. This is true! In some manuscripts of a devotional/liturgical nature, we find the names of popes scratched/crossed out! “The whitewashed chapel walls, on which perhaps an image or two were still faintly visible, are as good an emblem of Shakespeare’s faith as we are likely to find” (p. 148). Is this reflected in the doubts voiced by the characters in Julius Caesar about the heavenly warrant to overthrow an absolute monarch? For Shapiro, the play is at least in part about the tensions among her subjects between Queen Elizabeth as a god or a tyrant.
All of this is great fun to read and often convincing. Later, however, the relationship between current events and Shakespeare’s intentions becomes a bit of a stretch. We see this in Shapiro’s discussion of As You Like It. True, Thomas Lodge had recently written the play Rosalind; Shakespeare needed something to counter the success of his rival Ben Jonson’s Everyman Out of His Humor; the loss of renowned comedian Will Kemp and addition of a new comic actor with different talents, Robert Armin, may have factored into the nature of the play’s comic character Touchstone; and the need to compete with the proliferation of boy’s theaters in London around 1599 may have induced Shakespeare to add so many songs to his play. Yet none of these seem all that monumental and after so many pages in which Shapiro has convinced us of the grim situation for Londoners as they faced war, religious upheaval and national debt it seems hard to understand how current events substantially influenced Shakespeare’s decision to write a pastoral romance in which the nature of true love seems the central element.
Most problematic may be Shapiro’s attempt at linking what was going on in 1599 to the creation of the overarching masterpiece Hamlet. Here there are enlightening discussions of the emergence of the personal essay—mastered by Montaigne, whom Shakespeare could have read in the original French—and their possible influence on the brilliant soliloquies that become more of a force in Hamlet than in any of Shakespeare’s preceding plays; of the major revisions that Shakespeare made in the original text of the play, revisions that have left many scholars and directors puzzling over what version to which they should adhere; of the “the death of chivalry…[and] the birth of empire” (p. 274), as the East India Company was created mostly by members of the merchant class; and even of the invention of “an odd verbal trick called hendiadys” (p. 287), examples of which are “law and order” and “sound and fury.” All of this makes for wonderful reading. But the problem here is that none of this convinces us that Shakespeare was as focused on what was happening around him as he was on his own internal struggles. A telling passage in Shapiro’s book occurs when he attempts to forge a relationship between a plot to overthrow Elizabeth and the events in Hamlet. Shapiro writes:
It’s extremely unlikely that more than a handful conspirators [sic] knew anything about this plot…so the fact that Hamlet contains both an abortive coup … and a neighboring foreign prince at the head of an army … is sheer coincidence. But it was a time when such things could be imagined … Hamlet, composed during these months, feels indelibly stamped by the deeply unsettling mood of the time (p. 283).
Maybe so, but there is something unsettling about a link between a series of events that is acknowledged to be sheer coincidence and a literary influence. Here I must admit my own bias, one I am sure is shared by many other readers and even some scholars. I strongly disagree with Shapiro when he writes, “Shakespeare didn’t write ‘as if from another planet,’ as Coleridge put it: he wrote for the Globe; it wasn’t in his mind’s eye, or even on the page, but in the aptly named theater where his plays came to life and mattered” (p. 319). Coleridge may have been correct, an opinion that still seemed tenable even after reading A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599.
True, Shakespeare may have made his own opinions so obscure because, as Shapiro wants us to believe, he was attempting to avoid political censure. But I would counter that John Keats’ invocation of Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” the talent of providing alternative viewpoints for nearly every strongly expressed belief in his plays, was equally likely to have been the product of pure literary genius. One comes away from A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599 enormously enriched in at least two ways: Shapiro provides so many fascinating descriptions of the world of Elizabethan England at the turn of the seventeenth century that the book breezes by in pure pleasure; at the same time, one’s conviction that Shakespeare existed and wrote in some dimension outside of and indeed far above ordinary human events remains intact.