Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
James Shapiro
History, literature, biography

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a very good book with a great introduction. In fact, the intro is so good it's worth quoting at length. Like this;
The commonplace that dramatists are best understood in relation to their time would go unquestioned if the writer in question were Euripides, Ibsen, or Beckett. But only recently has the tide begun to turn against a view of Shakespeare as a poet who transcends his age, who write, as Samuel Coleridge put it, "exactly as if of another planet."
And this:
Those committed to discovering the adult Shakespeare's personality in his formative experiences end up hunting for hints in the plays that they then read back into what little can be surmised . . . But the plays are not two-way mirrors: while Shakespeare perfectly renders what it feels like to be in love, betrayed, or crushingly disappointed, it doesn't necessarily follow . . . that he "must have loved unhappily like Romeo, and like Hamlet not have known for a time what to get on with next."
And a disclaimer which all such writers should engrave on their hearts:
 And as grounded as my claims are in what scholars have uncovered, a good deal of what I make of that information remains speculative. When writing about an age that predates newspapers and photographic evidence, plausibility, not certitude, is as close as one can come to what happened. Rather than awkwardly littering the pages that follow with one hedge after another--"perhaps," "maybe," "it's most likely," probably," or the most desperate of them all, "surely"--I'd like to offer one global qualification here. This is necessarily my reconstruction of what happened to Shakespeare in the course of this year, and when i do qualify a claim, it signals that the evidence is inconclusive or the argument highly speculative.

In the end James Shapiro can't--quite--live up to his promises. Multiplying weasel words creep past his guard--yes, even the despicable "surely". He indulges in the two-way-mirror fallacy: "Only someone who had seen the effects of crop failure could write so poignantly . . .", and "Only a writer who had partly believed in the possibility of heroism could have turned so sharply against it . . ." He sometimes bends facts to suit his purposes: the claim that by 1599 "only on Accession Day did knights still dress in otherwise rusting armor" would have startled the armored men who fought the English Civil War in the 1640s.

But AYitLoWS is still a really good book. Where it shines is in its mission statement: explaining to modern readers what Shakespeare would have had on his mind when he was writing plays, and what his audiences would have had on theirs while watching them. Some of these insights are small but telling: a reference in Henry V to "a beard of the General's cut" would have been understood as a reference to the distinctive square-cut beard of the Earl of Essex.
Others are large-scale and reflect on the plays' themes and meanings. I had had no idea, for example, that in the summer of 1599 England underwent an invasion scare due to (unfounded) rumors of a second Spanish Armada. Even the better-known facts are effectively marshaled: it is . . . ahem . . . surely true that an Englishman seeing Julius Caesar would have been reminded of the uncertainty concerning the succession to the aged, childless Queen Elizabeth (an uncertainty wherein the aforementioned Earl of Essex played a large part).

This is great stuff. A Year etc. is full of it. There's far more than I can summarize here, and it's genuinely enlightening. So James Shapiro gets a full pardon from me for falling off the wagon relative to his introduction. I'm sure he'll be relieved.


  1. I remember my college Shakespeare professor saying that he thought one of the underlying purposes of the history cycle was to say to the English, "Hey, remember the last time we had a disputed succession? Remember what happened then? How about we think ahead a little this time so not so many people die this time?"

    1. Yes, I think James Shapiro would agree with you. In the context of Julius Caesar, for example, he points out that Queen Elizabeth had staged an all-out imitation of a Roman triumph not ten years earlier--one of those things that we don't know, but that would have been living memory for the audience. The play's ambiguous treatment of heroism and villainy, and the gory conclusion, can very easily be read as a warning against the evils of populist anarchy (on the one hand) and aristocratic ambition (on the other.

  2. Only tangentially related, but: I also remember when we read The Tempest, and he pointed out the scene where one of the shipwrecked sailors sighs "I smell like horse-piss," and he did a little imitation of his own Shakespeare professor saying, "This, ah, is one of the places, ah, where, um, one might wish, ah, that Shakespeare's great range of imagery, um, had been a trifle, ah, narrower."
    I thought that was funny and repeated it to my dad and he immediately said that the professor my professor was imitating was unquestionably Alfred Harbage, whose delivery was very recognizable.