A Furtive Night’s Work

Michael Dobson

  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
    Faber, 429 pp, £16.99, June 2005, ISBN 0 571 21480 0

One of Shakespeare’s defining knacks, so it’s said, is his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art. So although it seemed uncontroversial when Paul Salzman recently related a rich and miscellaneous clutch of Jacobean publications (Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Donne’s elegies, Wroth’s Urania and Middleton’s Women Beware Women among them) to the political and cultural circumstances of 1621,[1] since nowadays these texts are read only as period pieces anyway, it might appear shockingly polemical for James Shapiro to locate everything William Shakespeare wrote in 1599 in a topical context. Salzman’s aim was simply ‘to solve some of the problems raised by the theoretically informed return to history in Renaissance/early modern studies over the last fifteen years’. By contrast, Shapiro claims that his use of similar methods and assumptions in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare represents a decisive break from most previous critical writing, and he offers his book as one fruit of a long overdue ‘return to history’. Ever since Heminge and Condell failed to organise the contents of the First Folio by date of composition, Shapiro argues, lazy critics – such as Coleridge – have found it easy to ‘lift Shakespeare out of time and place’, and ‘only recently has the tide begun to turn against a view of Shakespeare as a poet who transcends his age.’ In 1599, Shapiro reads Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet as texts written solely to ‘show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’. He cites this remark of Prince Hamlet’s as evidence that ‘Shakespeare certainly thought of his art in this way’ (though only a couple of pages afterwards he criticises earlier commentators for naively or disingenuously trawling the utterances of Shakespeare’s characters for sentiments they wished to attribute to the writer himself).

1599 sells itself primarily as biography rather than criticism, a fresh attempt on the undergraduate-and-general-reader market tapped with such undeserved commercial success by Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.[2] As such it undeniably knocks Greenblatt’s effort, not to mention Peter Ackroyd’s generalising and overlong Shakespeare: The Biography,[3] into a cocked jester’s cap. The ploy of concentrating on the events of a single exciting year neatly leaves out much of what can make the average cradle-to-grave life of Shakespeare seem turgid and off the point – all that stuff about infant mortality rates in Warwickshire and the ecclesiastical rules governing marriage licences; all those guessing games about how, when and where young William got out of the glove-making and wool-dealing business and into the theatre – and allows Shapiro to get straight to the much more interesting question, often skimped in such books, of what Shakespeare’s working life, the bit that made him matter, actually consisted of from one week and month to the next. Shapiro describes how he thinks the playwright spent 1599 with a commendable and unashamed novelistic vividness, starting with an account of the dismantling and placing into store of the timbers of the Theatre on 28 December 1598, for reassembly south of the river as the Globe. As narrative, this set-piece bears comparison with the best bits of Walter Scott and, as scholarship, persuasively demolishes the often retold fantasy version of the event, according to which the older playhouse is miraculously disassembled, carried to Southwark across London Bridge (or even, more romantically, on sleds across the frozen Thames) and then rebuilt on Bankside in a single furtive night’s work.

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[1] Literary Culture in Jacobean England: Reading 1621 by Paul Salzman (Palgrave, 288 pp., £50, September 2002, 1 4039 0073 6).

[2] Reviewed by Colin Burrow in the LRB of 20 January.

[3] Chatto, 560 pp., £25, September, 1 85619 726 3.