Glimpsed in the Glare

Michael Neill

  • 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro
    Faber, 423 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 23578 0

Perhaps the first ever ‘lifestyle magazine’, Country Life was founded in 1897 to cater for the leisured interests of the upper class, and was devoted to articles on golf and racing, leavened with discreet advertisements for manorial estates. Now a subsidiary of Time Inc., it has become a lavishly ornamented real estate window for the 1 per cent, and for those who dream of joining that porcine elite, its readers thrilling at what a mere £18 million might buy them in Surrey, Tuscany, Florida or the Côte d’Azur. But Country Life also likes to flatter its patrons with a notion of their better selves, as connoisseurs, collectors, lovers of theatre and occasional readers of books. Thus on 20 May this year it offered them a Special Historic Edition, whose gilded cover proclaimed ‘The greatest discovery in 400 years’ – nothing less than ‘Shakespeare: His true likeness revealed at last’. The detective who had ‘cracked the Tudor code’ was the botanist, horticulturalist and historian of gardening Mark Griffiths: his elaborately illustrated essay, ‘Face to Face with Shakespeare’, focused on John Gerard’s well-known Elizabethan manual of botany, The Herball or, General Historie of Plantes, and purported to demonstrate that one of the four seemingly allegoric figures on its ornamental title-page – a figure clad in a Roman costume and crowned with triumphal laurels – was in fact the ‘only … demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare drawn from life.’[*] Depending less on Griffiths’s ingenious tessellation of botanical and historical detail than on his decrypting of a printer’s mark as a cunning cipher for the dramatist’s name, the article maintained that the figure’s costume could be explained as a tribute to Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, while the cob of maize in its left hand was a witty reference to a political metaphor from the play’s final scene: ‘O let me teach you how to knit again/This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.’

Of course ‘scattered corn’ is far more likely to suggest the grain of Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire than the rare exotic his contemporaries called ‘Indian corn’ and while Griffiths’s identification of the other three figures as John Gerard, his patron Lord Burghley and his collaborator the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens seems plausible enough, a tissue of improbable conjecture is required to place a mere playwright and actor alongside Elizabeth’s lord treasurer on the frontispiece of an encyclopedic work of natural history. Griffiths convinces himself that Burghley must also have been Shakespeare’s patron, and that the poet’s known familiarity with the Herbal betokens a more personal intimacy: ‘working closely’ with Gerard, he may even have acted as a kind of editor who ‘sprinkled magic dust over Gerard’s prefatory matter’.

Griffiths’s conviction that he has at last discovered ‘what Shakespeare looked like, drawn from life’ is symptomatic of a more widespread desperation. The yearning to uncover a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare has a history involving dozens of paintings, stretching back to the early 18th century, when George Vertue identified the so-called Chandos portrait as an image of Shakespeare painted by a friend and fellow actor, John Taylor. Donated to the National Portrait Gallery in 1856, the Chandos is the only candidate to have been granted much credence, but new ones continue to surface, most recently the Cobbe Portrait, which formed the centrepiece of the evocatively titled Shakespeare Found exhibition organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2009. Two unquestionably authentic images do exist – the famous engraving that faces the title-page of the First Folio, and the bust that adorns Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon – but both are likely to be posthumous and neither properly satisfies the itch to know the man behind the plays: the bust’s unromantically plump and expressionless features, like the bland formality of the Droeshout portrait in the First Folio, seem calculated only to repel the imagination.[†] ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ Duncan declares in Macbeth; but we seem to believe that a ‘true likeness’ might somehow give us an insight into genius that we otherwise lack; and the longing to know what Shakespeare ‘really’ looked like shows no sign of abating.

As with the face, so with the life. The scantiness of the documentary record only serves to excite the curiosity of admirers, and to challenge the ingenuity of biographers, whose best efforts far outsell editions of the plays, let alone even the most influential works of criticism. As the founding father of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt made his professional reputation with Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980); but it was Will in the World (2004), his biographical account of ‘How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare’ that won him a huge advance. The established facts of Shakespeare’s life are either disappointingly pedestrian (records of births, deaths, marriage and the purchase of property) or worryingly unattractive (a shotgun wedding, a marriage marked by extended separation from his family, a seemingly ungenerous will, glimpses of financial sharp practice and social-climbing ambition); but on these unpromising foundations surprisingly elaborate constructions are erected, whether shaped by the genial indulgence of what Simon Russell-Beale called Greenblatt’s ‘love letter’ to Shakespeare, or by the hard-nosed iconoclasm of Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Ungentle Shakespeare (2001), whose determination ‘to bring Shakespeare down from the lofty isolation to which he has customarily been elevated’ exposes the Bard as a penny-pinching, bisexual misogynist who succumbed to syphilis. Considered as a genre, conventional literary biography, even at its best, is never far from gossip, and sometimes almost equally unreliable; in the case of Shakespeare it easily becomes little more than well-informed fiction, whose scattering of documentary bricks is cemented by a great deal of speculative mortar: ‘Shakespeare possibly/may have/might have/could have/probably’ – the verbs of qualified conjecture slide easily into the conniving imperative of Greenblatt’s opening sentence: ‘Let us imagine that Shakespeare … ’

James Shapiro has no truck with such surmise. Though he too is plagued by the biographer’s hankering to enter the playwright’s mind – ‘to know … what his political views were, whom he loved, how good a father, husband and friend he was, what he did with his time’ – he insists that such matters are so far beyond recovery that those who persist in attempting to reconstruct them ‘inevitably end up revealing more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare’. Instead of searching for Shakespeare in the mirror of biographical desire, we should be looking at the ways in which his work is in dialogue with its own times, since ‘however much Shakespeare may have preferred to remain in the shadows, he can be glimpsed in the glare of what was going on around him.’

In 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Shapiro observed the paradox that while Shakespeare ‘more so, perhaps, than any writer before or since … held the keys that opened the hearts and minds of others’, he ‘kept a lock on what he revealed about himself’. It is as if the monitory inscription on his tombstone, forbidding interference with his physical remains, extended to the inward secrets of his life; and from Shapiro’s acceptance of that embargo emerged his approach to Shakespearean biography, a scrupulously historicist mode of ‘thick description’ in which richness of contextual detail takes the place of the speculatively personal. If 1599 – when Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, as well as beginning Hamlet – was ‘the most decisive year of his career, one in which he redefined himself and his theatre’, that transformation could be understood only in relation to the year’s turbulent politics: the complex web of events involving the queen’s uncertain succession, the ambition that inspired the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated expedition to Ireland, and the public disgrace that ensued.

But Shapiro’s historicist curiosity was not confined to the drama of state politics, or even to the world of high culture: he was just as concerned to recover the casual events and textures of ordinary existence. It was as useful to know about William Greenaway – Shakespeare’s neighbour and Stratford’s main carrier, the man from whom he would have hired horses and heard news from home – as it was to remember the queen’s imitation of a Roman triumph, or to reflect on the Elizabethan rediscovery of Tacitus. The four and a half yards of red livery cloth issued to Shakespeare as a token of his new status as one of the King’s Majesty’s Servants might be as significant as the company’s move to a new playhouse; and for Shapiro it was almost as important to understand the structural underpinnings of that theatre as to explore the material foundations of Shakespeare’s career. Early in 1599 he describes with meticulous care the efforts of the craftsmen hired to erect the new building on the Bankside:

Raising the Globe’s frame could only take place after the foundation work was completed. The late cold spell brought frost, and frost was the bane of labourers who had to break through the foot or so of frozen ground to excavate the foundation and prevent frost heave before sinking elm piles and filling the shallow trenches with limestone and pebbles for drainage. It was also the enemy of the bricklayers who then took over, constructing out of bricks and mortar the foundation plinth, a short, squat wall rising a foot above the ground level of each of the two roughly concentric rings of the multi-sided structure. The plinth was needed to keep the groundsills or bottom-most layer of timber from rotting. Because frost compromised the bond holding bricks and mortar together, it would have been foolhardy – and unsound Tudor building practice – to begin laying the brick foundation until the risk of freezing weather was safely past.

How many literary historians have even heard of ‘groundsills’, let alone ‘frost heave’? But Shapiro knows about this sort of work from first-hand experience: for many years he had a house in Vermont where he taught himself to build dry-stone walls. There’s a sense in which his approach to cultural history resembles the careful methods of a craft in which so much depends on the builder’s eye for shape, size and weight, and on the fine sense of contour which ensures that each undressed boulder will lock into those below and beside it without the need for mortar. In his new book, Shapiro caps his account of the superstitious fear that engulfed England as Shakespeare was writing Macbeth with another wonderful deployed detail: recent archaeological work on the King’s Tower at Knole has revealed that the workmen who refurbished the building in 1606, seeking to protect its occupants from ‘devils, witches and other malevolent spirits’, carved magical symbols on a tie-beam supporting its principal chamber. What makes Shapiro’s books so fascinating is not the revelation of any startlingly novel facts about Shakespeare the man, but his ability to piece together an extraordinary range of historical information that, combined with an acute critical intelligence, allows him to build a coherent and persuasive narrative that casts fresh light on the plays themselves.

Following the structure as well as the method of its predecessor, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear sets out to reanimate Shakespeare’s world, ‘and by extension his works’, through a patient reconstruction of the single year to which three of his most important plays belong. Like 1599, 1606 was a year of crisis for the kingdom, but one of outstanding achievement for the playwright. Although his company had risen to exceptional prominence following James’s accession, with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men becoming the King’s Majesty’s Servants, Shakespeare himself had been through a relatively fallow period as both actor and writer since completing Hamlet at the turn of the century: his name ceases to appear on cast lists after 1603, and where once he had supplied his colleagues with three or four plays a year, now they were lucky to receive one. Perhaps he felt under less pressure to produce: now in his early forties and a senior shareholder in the King’s Men, he was a prosperous man with business interests back in Stratford as well as in London. But he could hardly be oblivious of his company’s obligations to its new patron, or of the city audience’s constant demand for new plays, and the urgency of events in 1605-6 seems to have provided the imaginative impetus he needed. In little more than twelve months Shakespeare completed a sequence of magnificent tragedies that would cement his reputation as the country’s greatest dramatist: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra – a group that Shapiro invites us to see as ‘a trilogy of sorts’, united by the ways in which they ‘collectively reflect their fraught cultural moment’.

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King Lear was performed at court on 26 December 1606 and was probably first staged early that same year at the Globe; though a certain licence is involved in the book’s subtitle, ‘the Year of Lear’, for the evidence suggests that the play was substantially completed before the end of 1605. For much of that year King James had been preoccupied with his protracted campaign to achieve a union between the crowns of England and Scotland; as Shapiro demonstrates, King Lear, though it cannily avoids partisan simplifications, was perfectly calculated to speak to the king’s constitutional obsession. It is no accident that this was the first play in which Shakespeare referred to his island as ‘Britain’ rather than ‘England’: setting it against Anthony Munday’s nakedly propagandist pageant, The Triumphs of Reunited Britannia (29 October 1605), and Ben Jonson’s masque Hymenaei (5 January 1606), in which a courtier’s nuptials become a figure for political union, Shapiro beautifully demonstrates how this ‘play about the fracturing of a unified Britain’ refracts these works’ engagement with the politics of union. As if to foreground such concerns, the action of King Lear’s opening scene centres on a map whose image of a united island anticipates the cartographic nationalism of John Speed’s great atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1610), with its conspicuous appeal to James’s idea of himself as a second Augustus, whose abortive ‘Instrument of Union’ was meant to establish him as ‘Emperor of Great Britain’. Watching Lear’s ill-fated dissection of his own body politic as he marks its division on the map, James could imagine himself as the man destined to rejoin the kingdom’s broken limbs. In the metaphor he had used to Parliament in 1604, the king was the husband and the whole island his lawful wife: ‘What God hath conjoined,’ he warned, ‘let no man separate.’

All this makes King Lear seem a play tuned to the constitutional struggle of 1605, belonging to the months before James’s plans for constitutional reform were disrupted by the Gunpowder Plot, with its threat of rebellion and civil war. By contrast with Macbeth, indeed, King Lear seems conspicuously unaware of the Guy Fawkes conspiracy. Shapiro, however, believes that Shakespeare is unlikely to have finished the tragedy earlier that January 1606, and that it was partly shaped by the shocks and alarms of November and December 1605. He goes so far as to draw a parallel between the forged letter that Edmund uses to discredit Edgar and the mysterious missive, warning of ‘a terrible blow’ against Parliament, that the recusant Lord Monteagle handed over to James’s secretary of state, Robert Cecil, just before the plot was exposed. But Shakespeare had used a similar plot device in Twelfth Night (the comedy that is remembered in the Fool’s song at the end of Act III, scene ii), and even Shapiro admits that the writing of the episode in King Lear probably predates the conspiracy. He might have noticed that the denunciation of ‘the traitor Gloucester’ as ‘ingrateful fox’ seems to pun on Fawkes’s name, much as Jonson’s satiric comedy Volpone, with its ‘mortifying of a fox’, would do a few months later; but this barb could easily have been inserted before King Lear was published in 1608. Shapiro is right nevertheless to stress the ways in which the tragedy’s political preoccupations connect it to a conspiracy intended, as one of the plotters would confess, ‘to prevent the union’.

Macbeth, the drama of regicide and witchcraft that Shakespeare wrote in the wake of the gunpowder treason, was equally well calculated to address the concerns of his royal patron. It is true that James might have worried about the use of a piece of history that his loathed tutor, George Buchanan, had used to argue the virtues of elective monarchy; but Holinshed’s account of Macbeth’s reign, with its sinisterly prophetic ‘weird sisters’, had already provided the seed for an entertainment offered the king at Oxford in August 1605, while the play’s horrified focus on the murder of an anointed monarch must have resonated with James’s deepest terrors. Haunted from his youth by the assassination of his father and the subsequent judicial murder of his mother, James himself had only narrowly survived the Gowrie conspiracy in 1600. As a result he lived in permanent dread of regicide, wearing a padded doublet to protect him from the assassin’s knife; and this understandable paranoia was accompanied by a superstitious fear of witchcraft – rooted in the supposed attempt of a Berwick coven to drown him and his bride on their return from Denmark in 1590 – to which he gave expression in his treatise on Daemonologie (1597). In adapting Holinshed’s material, Shakespeare chose to make its supernatural fantasy and regicidal nightmares even more shockingly immediate by punctuating the play’s action with echoes of the Gunpowder Plot. Most conspicuous are its unsettling allusions to the trial of the Jesuit Henry Garnet, whose insistence on his moral right to ‘equivocation’ informs the Porter’s drunken rambling (‘Here’s an equivocator … who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven’) and is reflected in the pervasive fascination with treacherous double-meanings and sinister doublings that is highlighted by the witches’ famous chant (‘Double, double/Toil and trouble’).

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Much of what Shapiro has to tell about the contexts that shaped Macbeth and its reception is now well known, but the strength of his narrative lies in the way that he once again embeds his account of large public events in a mass of carefully assembled detail that serves (among other things) to establish Shakespeare’s unnerving closeness to the plotters, a number of whom came from his native Warwickshire. Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham, along with Robert and Thomas Winter, were members of the extended Arden family with whom Shakespeare had claimed kinship when trying to establish his right to a coat of arms, and he had a further connection to the Winters through Thomas Quiney, husband of his daughter Judith; George Badger, arrested for possession of a cloak-bag full of Catholic paraphernalia apparently belonging to the conspirators, was his next-door neighbour in Stratford. What’s more, Shakespeare had recently leased land adjacent to Clopton House near Stratford which became what Shapiro calls ‘a nerve centre of the Gunpowder Plot’. ‘It would be hard,’ Shapiro concludes, ‘to find many individuals in Jacobean England more intricately linked than he was to those whose lives were touched by the Gunpowder Plot.’ Shakespeare’s own religious sympathies have been widely and inconclusively debated, but Shapiro reminds us that his father, elder daughter and the godparents of his twins all, at various times, revealed their recusant sympathies by refusing communion. At the least, theological belief must have remained for Shakespeare – as for many of his contemporaries – a profoundly equivocal business; the richness of his writing has much to do with a mastery of ambiguity that reflects his divided sensibilities. Equivocation, moreover, as Shapiro suggests, lay at the heart of his craft: ‘What did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another?’

Another kind of equivocation is exemplified in the final play of Shapiro’s trilogy, Antony and Cleopatra: its ruling figures, as Janet Adelman long ago demonstrated, are paradox and hyperbole, instruments of extravagant equivocation and self-contradiction. Because of its contradictory nature, George Puttenham dubbed paradox ‘the wonderer’, while hyperbole he called ‘a great dissimulation’ because in it ‘I meane nothing lesse than what I speake’ even though ‘I speak that which neither I myself thinke to be true, nor would have any other body beleeve.’ Avoiding soliloquy, the device by which Shakespeare had learned to reveal the inward truth of his characters, this play, centring on two consummately histrionic protagonists, offers shimmering surfaces that dissolve and re-form depending on the perspective from which they are viewed. Antony’s actions prove ‘the common liar’ true, while the ‘divers-coloured fans’ on Cleopatra’s barge undo what they do. Caesar’s triumphant promise of a ‘time of universal peace’ seems designed to flatter James’s sense of himself as rex pacificus, a second Augustus; yet the splendour of Cleopatra’s last performance might seem to expose this calculating victor as an ‘ass/Unpolicied’. The pervasive nostalgia that colours Shakespeare’s presentation of his lovers resonates with the Jacobean yearning for the supposed magnificence of Elizabeth’s reign, with Enobarbus’ vision of Cleopatra at Cydnus recalling the idealised images of Gloriana on the Thames; but the same character’s account of Antony’s Egyptian debauches uncomfortably echoes the ‘wild riot [and] excess’ that, according to Sir John Harington, attended James’s welcome to his father-in-law, Christian of Denmark, in July 1606.

Shapiro’s last chapter is devoted to an evocation of the plague that swept through London that same summer. Its victims included both the companies of boy actors whose impertinent rivalry Shakespeare had mocked in Hamlet: the prolonged closure of the city’s theatres seems to have brought immediate ruin to the Paul’s Boys, while the Children of the Queen’s Revels never fully recovered, preparing the way for the King’s Men to take over their more exclusive indoor playhouse in 1608 – a move that would have significant implications for the company’s style of performance as well as for Shakespeare’s own writing. In his grisly account of the plague-ridden year of James’s accession, Thomas Dekker dubbed it, with bitter irony, The Wonderfull Yeare. The renewed outbreak of 1606 threatened to rival the horrors of 1603, but for Shakespeare and his company it turned out to be a genuine annus mirabilis, and Shapiro superbly chronicles its wonders. His book is not a flawless achievement, of course: one may cavil, for example, at its dogmatic insistence that the Folio’s revision of Lear’s death scene flinches away from a conclusion that had ‘proved to be too dark, too unbearable’ – for how can we possibly know, when the old man cries ‘Look there, look there!’ that he ‘dies believing … that Cordelia’s lips move, that she yet breathes’? Since there is nothing to tell us what Lear sees, it may just as well be a last terrible ‘nothing’ that he recognises on the lips that first pronounced that shocking nullity. More serious is the blunder that mars Shapiro’s account of the emotional climax in Act IV when he writes that Shakespeare gives us ‘not one but two powerful recognition scenes, the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester.’ Reversing the order of such a crucial sequence seems almost unaccountable; but the brain has a way of reading what ought to be written, rather than what is actually there. Faber’s copy-editors ought to have spotted the dislodgement; but the beauty of a good stone wall is that it will continue to stand proud even when a boulder or two comes loose, and 1606 remains a remarkably handsome edifice.

[*] The next issue of the magazine contained a second (equally fanciful) piece by Griffiths, using the connection he claimed to have demonstrated between the playwright and Gerard’s patron, Lord Burghley, to assert Shakespeare’s authorship of A Country Controversy, the entertainment commissioned by the Lord Treasurer for the queen’s visit to his country estate in 1591 – a wordy little dialogue between a Gardener and a Molecatcher which Griffiths describes as ‘possibly [Shakespeare’s] shortest, by no means his best, but undoubtedly one of the most important [works] of his career’.

[†] The not uncommon practice of commissioning funeral monuments before one’s death makes it possible that the bust was done from life, and not from a death mask, as is usually supposed; but in any case the conventions of funeral portraiture did not invite vivid characterisation.