How Shakespeare escapes history

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

A new kind of history “year book” has become somewhat popular over the past twenty years or so. We have fairly popular books dedicated to and named for 1066, 1688, and 1857. Books published last year covered 1776 and 1599, the latter being James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, the subject of this review. I wonder if anyone has calculated what year we will have a history book about each year of recorded history at this slow but accelerating rate.

What accounts for the popularity of this recent genre of history book? It certainly interests us to see a significant historical phenomenon or issue played out in the context of a public’s daily life. Reading Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857, for instance, allows us to observe the buildup to the Civil War through something like a year’s worth of newspaper stories. America in 1857 demonstrates that slavery and Kansas’s Lecompton constitution shared headlines with that year’s financial crisis and the Mormon’s rebellion. Slavery, therefore, did not exist in a political vacuum. As Jesus suggested they might in another context, people were marrying and giving in marriage right up to Fort Sumter and beyond. These year books help, then, to make an issue or a phenomenon less theoretical by providing the context of a selected year.

If the study of any concept or person needs the benefit of the historical grounding these year books tend to offer, it is the study of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays usually are taught with only the barest of historical context in high schools and colleges. This context is given often as part of an introduction to a Shakespearean play. Once the play itself is presented in earnest, of course, the English professor or teacher settles in, and history is history. Also, Shakespeare is often presented outside of a literary and historical context if only because his rivals are usually relegated to other units or courses in all but college English literature surveys. Therefore, and befitting immortal words, Shakespeare’s lines seem to drop out of heaven like Melchizedek himself, having no father or mother, no beginning of days or end of days. Except for the puzzling diction (my ninth graders assume it is Old English) and the subject matter of his histories, Shakespeare departs from most classrooms no more connected with Queen Elizabeth’s England than Charles Dickens or T. S. Eliot.

The classroom is not all to blame, since there are problems with understanding Shakespeare in an historical context, at least in the way that we are used to. We do know his beginning of days and his end of days, but we don’t know a lot about Shakespeare in between. Part of the lack of information stems from the limited records of the era, and part of this lack (as Shapiro surmises) may stem from Shakespeare’s care not to play out too much of his life in public. We know less about Shakespeare than we do about fellow Elizabethan playwrights Ben Jonson and Thomas Kyd, for instance.

Shakespeare’s relative historical silence may have more to do with his subtlety and brilliance than with his need to control the historical record, according to Shapiro. Elizabeth’s very active censors never gave Shakespeare any trouble as far as we know. In contrast, what we do know about Jonson and Kyd includes imprisonment and torture, respectively, for their roles in writing plays Elizabeth’s censors found objectionable. Shapiro gives examples of how Shakespeare may have gone to school on other writer’s official troubles when writing his own plays. In Julius Caesar, for instance, Shakespeare appears to write with the knowledge of how John Hayward’s history of Henry IV was censored in 1599. Shakespeare may have been influenced by this event in the care he took to undermine Brutus’s treasonous republican arguments elsewhere in the play. Shakespeare’s developing style also helped him with the censors. By the time he wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, “the various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on writing, began to infuse each other,” according to Shapiro. Shapiro quotes some of Brutus’s lines to demonstrate how they could be read as a justification of tyrannicide as well as “a portrait of a brooding intelligence struggling to understand itself.” Shapiro concludes that Shakespeare’s wonderfully compressed style and his ability to develop both sides of an intellectual argument without seeming to endorse either were due in part to the subtlety demanded by the relative lack of freedom of expression in Elizabeth’s England. Shakespeare, then, learned to play the fool to Elizabeth’s nuncle.

Because of the scant nature of the historical record, however, Shapiro’s focus on a single year seemed audacious to me as I began to read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Yet Shapiro works well with what he has, admits to conjecture when he spends pages based on mere suppositions (e.g., if Shakespeare had indeed heard Lancelot Andrewes’s sermon, if Shakespeare had returned home to Stratford-upon-Avon that fall), and exhibits no taste for novelty against the strong circumstantial evidence that has led most historians to orthodox conclusions about issues such as the authorship of the Shakespearean canon or the nature of Shakespeare’s business acumen or marriage.

Of course, Shapiro reads the four plays Shakespeare was writing or introducing at the end of 1588 or in 1599 with a fine-tooth comb for the influence of current events and larger trends. He reads Henry V in part as a wistful end to an era of chivalry, also marked in 1599 by the death of poet Edmund Spenser. He believes that Julius Caesar was influenced by the very real fears of assassination that Elizabeth faced that year. He finds As You Like It to be a response in part to the advance notices of rival playwright Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. Hamlet was influenced, Shapiro asserts, by the rise of both secularism and the genre of the essay.

Shapiro brings off the year 1599 in England with a lucid writing style and a good sense of drama. Like some of Shakespeare’s plays, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare opens with attention-getting conflict. In the dead of night after a blizzard, armed men risk a battle with Shakespeare’s landlords and begin to dismantle a theatre in order for Shakespeare’s company to rebuild it elsewhere the following spring as the famous Globe Theatre. Shapiro’s book examines a number of fascinating subplots (e.g., the threat of a fourth Spanish armada, the rivalry among Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare’s search for a comic actor to replace Will Kemp), but returns at appropriate times to the great unfolding plot of 1599: the Irish rebellion and the related rise and fall of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. In the process, Shapiro alternates chapters focused on national events, Shakespeare’s life, and Shakespeare’s plays with something of the seamlessness of Shakespeare’s transitions among soliloquy, dialog, and action.

Shapiro also mixes literary criticism and history to great effect, especially in his discussion of Hamlet in the book’s final three chapters, and he makes great use of this new year book genre by shuttling among biographic material, national events, and literary and historic trends. Shapiro’s Shakespeare is alive in his own time as an intellectual, a patriot, a playwright, an actor, and a businessman.