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.

This overture concluded, Shapiro’s account of a year in which Shakespeare is thought to have produced four major plays divides neatly into four movements. In the winter Shakespeare’s company performs Henry IV Part 2 at court, complete with a new prose epilogue (destined to be misprinted as the second half of the epilogue it replaced) that for Shapiro constitutes an artistic manifesto by the playwright; Edmund Spenser gets buried in Westminster Abbey; the Earl of Essex gets sent to Ireland to counter Tyrone’s rebellion; and Shakespeare writes Henry V. In the spring the Theatre gets rebuilt as the Globe; the authorities crack down on satire, burning various allegedly seditious books; and Shakespeare writes Julius Caesar. In the summer there is a Spanish invasion scare, derided in retrospect as the affair of the ‘Invisible Armada’; some of the Sonnets and several poems by others including Marlowe get published under Shakespeare’s name in an unauthorised volume called The Passionate Pilgrim; and Shakespeare makes his annual journey home to Stratford after writing As You Like It. In the autumn Essex rushes precipitately back from Ireland and into disgrace; Shakespeare reads Montaigne and writes Hamlet.

An epilogue ties up the year’s main narrative threads by looking ahead to Essex’s rebellion in 1601 (surprisingly for such a well-researched and scrupulous book, Shapiro repeats the familiar story that Essex’s supporters commissioned a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II just before the abortive coup, without addressing Blair Worden’s arguments in the LRB of 10 July 2003 that the play in question was not Shakespeare’s at all). Shapiro then glances at the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, and considers, finally, Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical immortality. This phenomenon, we are again assured, is emphatically not the result of any desire or ability to transcend his own times: ‘He understood his age perfectly, and the depth and profundity of that understanding which continued to draw contemporaries to his plays has ensured that we still read him and see these plays performed today in “states unborn and accents yet unknown”, as he prophetically put it in Julius Caesar.’

However suspiciously convenient this structure may sound, and however paradoxical and question-begging Shapiro’s conclusion, it makes for a terrific read – there are few other biographical studies of Shakespeare as easily consumed at a single sitting – and 1599 displays a range of reading and inquiry which make it as good an introduction as one could hope for to all sorts of unexpected aspects and details of Shakespeare’s life and world. Shapiro is particularly good on the wayward transmission of news and rumour around 16th-century London, on the forms of non-literary culture on which Shakespeare’s writings could draw: not just sermons and pamphlets and unpublished plays, but also the artworks and curiosities on display at Whitehall Palace. He is good on the practicalities of the Elizabethan printing industry, and on the state of the countryside through which Shakespeare passed on his slow commute to and from Warwickshire. He is sensible, too, about matters which have betrayed other recent biographers into melodramatic speculation, such as the question of the playwright’s religion. To Shapiro, for instance, the painting-over of the medieval Last Judgment on the walls of the Guild Chapel in Stratford on May Day 1571 provides an image not of traumatic, psyche-wrenching change but of palimpsestic assimilation:

To argue that the Shakespeares were secretly Catholic or, alternatively, mainstream Protestants, misses the point that except for a small minority at one doctrinal extreme or another, those labels failed to capture the layered nature of what Elizabethans, from the queen down, actually believed. The whitewashed chapel walls, on which perhaps an image or two were still faintly visible, are as good an emblem of Shakespeare’s faith as we are likely to find.

The Shakespeare of 1599 is a less tormented or dashing figure than the apostate recusant of Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare (2003) or Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare (2004), and in Shapiro’s cautious and sober account of his contributions to The Passionate Pilgrim and their revised reappearance in the 1609 Sonnets he isn’t the honey-tongued lover, bisexual or otherwise, of some contemporary rumour either. Of all the various and contradictory scraps of early biographical hearsay about the playwright which survive, Shapiro is most attracted to John Aubrey’s report that Shakespeare ‘was not a company keeper’ but habitually excused himself from wild nights out on the grounds of ill-health. Shapiro’s hero, though assiduous at keeping up with the news, would rather stay at home at his writing desk with a good book by Plutarch or Holinshed open in front of him and a pen in his hand. Studious, likeable, observant, fluent and very much of his time, this latest version of Shakespeare bears, as ever, more than a passing resemblance to his latest biographer.

It is when one comes to the essays on Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet – embedded as the climaxes of 1599’s successive seasons – that one starts to have misgivings about Shapiro’s project, not least because these assured sections of the book are likely to become, in paraphrased form, undergraduate lectures at universities throughout the anglophone world. For one thing, Shapiro’s sense that his book is in direct competition with Greenblatt’s biography seems to have inclined him throughout towards treating 1599 not just as a conveniently well-documented 12-month sample of the playwright’s life but as a specially formative year, ‘perhaps the decisive one, in Shakespeare’s development as a writer’. Hence his book, like Greenblatt’s, seeks to explain, as Shapiro puts it in a direct quotation of Greenblatt’s subtitle, ‘how Shakespeare became Shakespeare’. This tends to skew Shapiro’s judgment of the relative significance and artistic achievement of different plays: every work the book discusses in detail is heralded as a major breakthrough, and those already written by the end of 1598 are pervasively undervalued. (The author of Venus and Adonis, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, King John, The Merchant of Venice and the Falstaff plays would surely occupy a pretty distinguished place in world literature even if he had been run over by a carrier’s wagon that New Year’s Eve.)

Shapiro is so committed to his Big Bang theory of artistic progress, and so eager to show ‘how in the course of little over a year Shakespeare went from writing The Merry Wives of Windsor to writing a play as inspired as Hamlet’, that he professes disappointment that the next comedy composed by Shakespeare after As You Like It was merely Twelfth Night: a play which, having failed to be written during Shapiro’s designated annus mirabilis, is dismissed as ‘a time-tested and accomplished if somewhat formulaic throwback to earlier Shakespearean comedy’, ‘safer and less inspired’ than Much Ado about Nothing or As You Like It. Just as bizarrely, As You Like It is further boosted when it is credited with having anticipated The Beggar’s Opera by inventing the musical, a form whose emergence in fact owed far more to the late 17th-century semi-operas adapted from Macbeth, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The evidence Shapiro adduces in support of this claim – that the play’s 18th and early 19th-century promptbooks attracted extra songs transplanted from other plays – shows how comparatively uninformed he is about the ways in which these plays have been treated and understood outside the modern academy, since this feature is common to acting texts from that period of all Shakespeare’s comedies.

Shapiro certainly places too much weight on the events and circumstances of 1599 as a source of explanations for both the plays’ contents and their lasting power. Although he has some intelligent things to say about Shakespeare’s artistry, notably about the ways in which Shakespeare was experimenting with dramatic structure (he relates the internal dynamics of Henry V, with its central tension between the Chorus’s enthusiastic account of the French wars and the more ambiguous events shown on stage, to the subsequent relocation of the dramatic tension in Hamlet within the soliloquies of the protagonist himself), Shapiro’s main angle on the plays is that they are best understood as searching responses to their historical moment, and that they remain of interest to the extent that the concerns of that moment are still ours.

There is a worrying circularity about the critical procedure this mandates: non-Shakespearean texts circulated in 1599 are read in search of context for what Shakespeare wrote that year, and then each text Shakespeare wrote that year is read in search of what Shapiro has already identified as its context. Shapiro gives the impression that he studies Elizabethan history only so as to understand Shakespeare and then studies Shakespeare only for his insights into Elizabethan history, and that he wants to confine the meanings of these plays within a museum of what we currently think matters about 1599. It’s an approach to the plays that risks reducing them to journalism and their interpreters to antiquarians: it seems fundamentally to misapprehend how they have gone on working for generations of readers and audiences with precious little interest in the fortunes of Essex or the progress of enclosure.

Furthermore, the view briefly set out in Shapiro’s preface – that until recently accounts of the relationship between Shakespeare and history were dominated by facile assertions of timelessness, that there was, in effect, no historicism before New Historicism – simply won’t stand scrutiny. Shakespeare was already usefully and provokingly out of date by the time he ‘became Shakespeare’, which was some time after his death: however topical some details of these four plays may have looked at their premieres, the vast majority of their admirers have experienced them not as symptoms or relics of a particular historical moment, or as works outside history altogether, but as texts productively suspended between then and now and engaged with both, as contending voices from a lost and outlived past which can nonetheless vividly and disconcertingly animate and interpret the present.

Ben Jonson’s elegy in the First Folio of 1623 is already historicist criticism of a sort, remembering this seven-years-dead man of the theatre as the ‘Soul of the age’, a writer whose plays ‘so did take Eliza, and our James’. But the poem also revises this account of the plays’ relationship to their point of origin, recognising that they exceed it to such an extent that they can now be bequeathed both to Jonson’s present and to an indefinite future: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ (This is not at all the same thing as saying that he was so deeply of an age that he was also for all time, which is how Shapiro prefers to construe it.) By 1623 it is unlikely that many readers and spectators even knew that As You Like It had been written at the time of the Bishops’ Ban or would have regarded Jaques’s disquisition on satire in Act II as a response to it, and by the time the play achieved wide popularity, around 1740, the concerns which Shapiro identifies as central to its meaning seemed so peripheral that the whole speech was often cut. Commentators have been interested, since long before Shapiro, in footnoting and explaining the moments at which the burningly topical dwindles into the inconveniently fossilised, but their work too has been part of a dialogue between Shakespeare’s works as historical documents to be annotated in relation to the past, and as living entities to be read and performed in the present.

The limitations of Shapiro’s approach become obvious when one tries to imagine what would happen if a present-day director, convinced that Julius Caesar owed its significance and impact entirely to the historical circumstances of its composition, tried to stage the play so as to restrict the production’s meanings to those that might have been available in 1599. I am reminded of a well-intentioned RSC revival of All’s Well that Ends Well in the late 1980s, whose director, in a fit of Shapiro-like historicism, decided that the play must originally have reflected something of the change of mood between the last days of Elizabeth I and the new court of James I, and who accordingly hung a big portrait of Elizabeth behind his cast during the first half and an equally big one of James in the same position during the second. It didn’t help.

I am inclined to suspect that, however different 1599 might have been had As You Like It not been produced in that year, the play itself, give or take a few incidentals, could have remained much the same had Shakespeare written it in any year after the publication of Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde and the death of Marlowe. It isn’t just that I don’t accept Shapiro’s implicit view that all the texts published or premiered in a given year must be exclusively about that year, but because this text, like any other, belongs to literary at least as much as to political history. In any case, profound aspects of Shakespeare’s personality and priorities as a dramatist actually changed little over the course of his career. One of those aspects, which Shapiro’s emphasis on topicality fatally elides, is his sheer oddity, the impression his plays manage to give of being at once in excess of any scheme or context which one might use to analyse or fix them and at a peculiar tangent to it. The overwhelming impression I get from looking at contemporary non-Shakespearean texts and then at these four plays – with their profusion of miscellaneous dramatic energies, their cascading, protean metaphors, which won’t even stay still long enough to be paraphrased, and their overriding commitment to being at once with us in the present tense of the theatre and somewhere profoundly elsewhere – is that they probably looked as excitingly anachronistic and as teasingly obscure around the edges in 1599 as they do now, although some of what looked obscure then looks vitally present now, and vice versa.

[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.