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October 19, 2005

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

Posted by David Womersley

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
by James Shapiro
Pp. xxiv + 430. London: Faber and Faber, 2005
Hardback, 16.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and finds the book to be something very unusual - an excellent biographical work on Shakespeare.

Shakespearean biography is one of the most attempted forms of academic literary writing, yet it is hard to see its attractions, at least as it is commonly tackled. What are the motives of the Shakespearean biographer? There seem to be two broad camps. On the one hand, we have the deranged peddlers of the latest key to unlocking a true understanding of Shakespeare's life and works. On the other, we find the decaying giants of the scholarly world, who have been induced by publishers to crank out yet another account of Shakespeare's life, and to trim or stretch their literary critical insights to the procrustean bed of biography. If one were to paint an allegory of Shakespearean biography, it would have to be called The Triumph of Madness and Greed over Judgement.

Madness and greed must be powerful motives, because Shakespearean biography seems to hold few intrinsic attractions as a project of research and writing, and contains several potentially catastrophic pitfalls. If we could know something useful about Shakespeare's life, then it would of course be invaluable, and might open up new avenues of understanding for the works. It is sometimes said that, in comparison with other early modern authors, we know an unusual amount about Shakespeare. But the problem is that what we know is not what we want to know. The biographical materials which have survived are meagre, and of the wrong kind: just a handful of legal documents. No letters, diaries, or working drafts have come down to us, with the possible exception of the section of the manuscript of the "Boke of Sir Thomas Moore" which may be in Shakespeare's hand.

Furthermore, the plays and even the poems are peculiarly resistant to biographical exegesis, to the point where this has come to seem part of their peculiar literary excellence. In Keats's formulation, it is a biographical characteristic of Shakespeare's which takes the paradoxical form of the suppression of personality:

. . . at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason
If Shakespeare's distinctive virtue as a writer was his ability to extinguish to negate or deny his own beliefs when he wrote, where does this leave the would-be Shakespearean biographer?

This barren prospect does not discourage our mad theory-peddlers who, like Don Quixote, can see the matter of romance everywhere. The others, sane enough to be daunted but prodded vigorously onwards by their publishers, are driven to the expedient of considering Shakespeare's writings as biographical evidence, and therefore of reading them for psychological clues. The problem here is that Shakespeare's writings are so unconfessional. Drama is the most impersonal of literary genres, and even poetry (such as the Sonnets) which seems to be written out of personal experience cannot simply be read off for its apparent biographical content.

Moreover, we know that Shakespeare imagined and dramatised in his works episodes which have no counterpart in his own life, characters whom he had never encountered in early-modern England, and places he had never visited. And this looseness between the life and work might be supposed to obtain also in the opposite direction: namely, that there was much in the life which found no way into the works. The Shakespearean biographical project looks increasingly like an attempt to connect an enigma to a wraith with a rope of sand.

In 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare James Shapiro's approach is much more intelligent, and far more fruitful. He wisely disdains a full-frontal assault on a biographical redoubt which the paucity of evidence has rendered impregnable, and favours instead a more oblique approach. By taking a single year in Shakespeare's life and telling the story of that, he secures the great advantage that he is not obliged to fill in with desperate surmise those periods of Shakespeare's life concerning which we know virtually nothing (for instance, the so-called "Lost Years" before 1592, when Shakespeare is supposed to have been in Lancashire and moving in recusant circles this is proving to be a particularly fruitful area for the tendentious Don Quixotes of Shakespearean biography). The problem latent in Shapiro's approach is that the dating, and hence the sequencing, of many of Shakespeare's plays is still not completely certain.

The success or failure of Shapiro's shrewd and imaginative approach thus hinges completely on the choice of year. Besides 1599 there are a number of tempting rival possibilities: 1595 (King John, Richard II and Merchant of Venice)? 1603 (Measure, Othello, "A Lover's Complaint")? But the advantages of 1599 are clear. It plausibly includes a large number of plays of high quality in various dramatic genres: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and the prize Hamlet (at least in draft form).

1599 also seems to mark a point of significant development in Shakespeare's abilities as a dramatist, Henry V and As You Like It showing him concluding his engagement with history and comedy, while Julius Caesar and Hamlet show him re-engaging with tragedy, but at the same time to re-shaping that dramatic genre as he had already re-shaped comedy and the history play. Furthermore, 1599 includes a good number of the non-literary facts we happen to know about Shakespeare's life, and it was in itself a momentous year in both foreign and domestic politics.

The particular success of Shapiro's book derives from a number of sources. He is very adroit at weaving into the Shakespearean story other elements the possible relation between Shakespeare and Spenser, a court sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes, the ill-starred Essex campaign in Ireland, perhaps most arrestingly the foundation of the East India Company, which occurred in 1599 in London.

Even when he is citing material which has in the past been brought to bear on Shakespeare's work, Shapiro contrives to do so in an interesting and fresh manner. For instance, scholars have often linked Sir John Hayward's History of Henry IV with Shakespeare, but the link they have commonly pursued has been, obviously enough, with the English history plays. Shapiro chooses instead to juxtapose it with Julius Caesar, and the choice pays off handsomely in both directions. In addition, the pitch and angle of Shapiro's writing is excellent. His prose is utterly free of academic jargon, but nothing is simplified. He has brought off the difficult feat of writing for a general readership without thereby sacrificing the attention of an academic readership. There is an implicit reproof in this book, therefore, for the obscurantism of much of what passes for academic prose.

What emerges then from Shapiro's study? Most obviously, we are given an impressive series of provocative but also substantial insights into how a selection of Shakespeare's plays may reasonably be said to be "of their time" by means of the careful and unreductive teasing out of how they resonate with the circumstances of their composition. Yet at the same time, Shapiro makes no claim to have plucked out the heart of Shakespeare's mystery. His truly excellent book is also an eloquent and at times impassioned tribute to the curious alchemy of Shakespeare's works, and to how they evade being tied down, as did their author.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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