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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

James Shapiro looks at the plays Shakespeare (may have?) written in 1599 (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet) and juxtaposes them with the political events of the the year.

Queen Elizabeth was dealing with an insurrection in Ireland but was loathe to make too much effort to put it down. Her “Irish policies were characterized by incoherence and neglect. The queen was too miserly to pay the huge price to subdue Ireland and too distracted by other concerns to acknowledge the weaknesses of her colonial policies.” [Loc 1026] The public was growing tired of being taxed for the foreign war and tired of having their men drafted into service. Shakespeare caught that tension in Henry V. In the past, stories of Henry V who conquered the French was seen as a heroic struggle for England. But while the play does have stirring speeches about war it ultimately “succeeds and frustrates because it consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism – past and present. … It wasn’t a pro-war play or and anti-war play but a going-to-war play” [Locs 1661, 1669]

This was also the time of the Reformation; Protestantism was the official religion, pushing out Catholicism. As a result the many holy days [holidays] were done away with leaving a void in the lives of the people. Into that void came “Elizabeth’s Accession Day [which] was probably the first political holiday in modern Europe, and initiated the string of nationalist holidays that are now a staple of the Anglo-American calendar.” [Loc 2894]. Catholics were incensed that Elizabeth seemed to be placing herself equal to the Saints by giving herself a special day on the calendar. Some Anglican religious officials that got too close to the line in criticizing Elizabeth ended up in the Tower of London.

Shakespeare is there to make some sense of this tension. As the play opens there is a discussion about whether the day is a holiday (Lupercal). “…Such was the force of the argument that Elizabeth’s accession ushered in a new historical age that it produced a romanticized view of her reign that persists to this day. And one of the greatest ironies of Julius Caesar is that epoch-making political holiday that Caesar failed to create for himself on the Lupercal nonetheless led to anew calendrical moment – known to this day as the ides of March – that marked the end of the republic and the triumph of Caesarism. By locating within Julius Caesar a remarkably similar collision between political holiday and religious triumph, Shakespeare effectively translated a Roman issue into an Elizabethan one.” [Loc 2958]

My favorite section was that on As You Like It. Shapiro compares Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 (“When my love sears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies”) with the play where Rosalind lies by disguising herself to Orlando – though he finds out. While Shapiro details ways in which the play reflects the economic hardships of workers I was especially drawn to the detailing of various revisions to the Sonnet where we are shown that changing a word here and a phrase there the poem gains clarity and strength.

Finally Shapiro shows how Shakespeare reworked a well known revenge play, Hamlet, to expose “the culture at large of a sea change, o fa world that is dead but not yet buried. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, who returns from purgatory [a purely Catholic concept], not only evokes a lost Catholic past, then, but is also a ghostly relic of the chivalric age.” [Loc 4695]. This then is Hamlet’s dilemma – caught in the middle of epochal change.

Hamlet shows what a great writer Shakespeare was. “The Ghost, the play within a play, the feigned madness, and the hero’s death – familiar features of the revenge drama of the late 1580s – are all likely to have been introduced by the anonymous author of the lost Elizabethan Hamlet. Of all the characters, only Fortinbras, who threatens invasion at the outset and succeeds to the throne at the end, probably Shakespeare’s invention.” [Loc 4853] … “There are many ways of being original. Inventing a plot from scratch is only one of them and never held much appeal for Shakespeare. Aside from the soliloquies, much of Shakespeare’s creativity went into the play’s verbal texture.” [Loc 4856]

“By wrenching this increasingly outdated revenge play into the present, Shakespeare forced his contemporaries to experience what he felt and what his play registers so profoundly: the world had changed. Old certainties were gone, even if new ones had not yet taken hold. … Audiences at the Globe soon found themselves, like Hamlet, straddling worlds and struggling to reconcile past and present.” [Loc 4891]

Summing up the year Shapiro says “In Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare had broken with the model of his dramatic sources – as well as his own earlier histories – by making the alternation of the Chorus and the action rather than the rivalry of King Henry and the French Dauphin the main source of conflict. And in As You Like It he had refused to resort to comedy’s traditional blocking figures, locating the obstacle to the love of Orlando and Rosalind not in parent or rival love, but in Orlando’s need to lear what love is. With Hamlet, a play poised midway between a religious past and a secular future, Shakespeare finally found a dramatically compelling way to internalize contesting forces: the essaylike soliloquy proved to be the perfect vehicle for Hamlet’s efforts to confront issues that, like Brutus’s, defied easy resolution.” [Loc 5125]

I enjoyed Shapiro’s later book “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” more. I think he did a better job of paralleling the year with the plays. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good stuff here. I enjoyed the detailed history, including the Earl of Essex conflict with Queen Elizabeth as much if not more than the Shakespeare material. I also really enjoyed Shapiro’s deep dive into the revisions of Sonnet 138 and Hamlet which show that Shakespeare was a tireless worker to improve his material.

Be aware that there is some controversy about Shapiro’s view of Shakespeare. You won’t have to look far (and soon probably even a comment on my blog post) to see the particulars). I’m not an acadeemic and much of this seems too much of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” argument. There are various interpretations of Shakespeare’s work.

Finally a note on the e-book (Kindle) format I read. There are no chapters and no page numbers making it difficult to keep track of where I was in the book. I realize that page numbers are an anachronism in e-books (I like them anyway because they provide a common ground for referencing parts) but at least give me chapters that I can search!

[EDIT: June 15, 2016]
You would think that with all those words I would have covered everything I wanted to. But as I slept on it I came to the realization of why Shakespeare is so hard to understand. Of course the language difference caused by a 500+ year gap provides challenges. Their usage of common words had different meanings. On top of that Shakespeare invented words as he needed them. But, Shakespeare was an author of his time. He wrote for specific actors in speciic roles and adjusted the roles for his actors’ strengths. He also included phrases that were a direct comment on current events. The casual reader today faced with that language gap and the inability to understand and appreciate the culture in which the plays were written build an almost insurmountable barrier. No wonder high school kids have such difficulty. I think the answer is to read an annotated copy or, at the very least, read an historical summary before tackling the play.

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