The bard as a man of his time

Literary History


A year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

James Shapiro

HarperCollins / 416 pages

Shakespeare scholars often fall into two camps: those who read Shakespeare's work as inspired poetry that speaks to and of all ages, and those who see his extraordinary talent as a product of his time.

The former group includes the scholarly giant Harold Bloom, who credits Shakespeare with expanding the range of human emotion, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who quipped that Shakespeare wrote as if from another planet.

The latter, well, they've been less popular. Until recently.

Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography signal a growing interest in how Shakespeare's life and society shaped his work. Now James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University, has set out to puncture the myth of Shakespeare as genius toiling in isolation.

Shapiro proves himself a painstaking historian as well as a deft critic, locating Shakespeare's plays in Elizabethan culture, slang and byzantine politics with new depths of analysis and detail.

Part of the book's appeal lies in its myopic scope: Shapiro examines a single year, using the events of 1599 to reconstruct Shakespeare's society, the literary and theatrical conventions of his day and the political fault lines that often drive the dramatic tension in his plays.

It was a tumultuous year for England: The country sent its army to suppress an Irish rebellion, fought off the Spanish armada and awaited a succession crisis as the childless Queen Elizabeth neared death.

Shapiro argues that these events profoundly influenced Shakespeare's plays during one of his most prolific and creative years. In 1599 Shakespeare finished Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and completed his first draft of Hamlet, a play that towered over his previous works in length (a whopping 4,000 lines in the first draft) and psychological complexity.

It was also a time of intense competition among Elizabethan playwrights. To aggravate matters, most of them were skilled fencers. The playwright Ben Jonson was almost killed in a duel with the rising star Gabriel Spencer, who was killed, and another of Shakespeare's contemporaries, playwright John Day, drew his rapier and killed rival dramatist Henry Porter, according to Shapiro's colorful retelling.

Shakespeare distinguished himself from his contemporaries not through swordplay or even through his plots, which were mostly lifted from Plutarch, Ovid and European history and myths, but through his linguistic innovations: Hamlet, for example, included 600 words that Shakespeare had never used before. (King Lear, with 350 new words, is the only other play that even approaches Hamlet, Shapiro notes.)

The play sounded different than anything Elizabethan audiences had heard. Shapiro's discussion of how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet stands out as the most fascinating chapter. Shakespeare revised Hamlet obsessively. His changes (which are preserved in the two surviving drafts, the Second Quarto of 1604-1605 and the folio from 1623) offer evidence of how Shakespeare toyed with his prose. But editors have conflated the two texts since the 18th century, and in Shapiro's view the resulting hybrid is an incoherent Hamlet that Shakespeare neither wrote nor imagined.

Shapiro notes that the Oxford Shakespeare is the only major edition to buck the trend and present an unconflated text, though it prints only the revised folio. According to Shapiro, Shakespeare's revisions sacrificed the complexities of Hamlet's character for symmetry and plot - proof, perhaps, that his desire to please audiences trumped his artistic ego.

"Only an extraordinary writer of the first order could have produced that first draft; and only a greater writer than that could have sacrificed part of that creation to better show `the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,'" Shapiro writes, quoting Hamlet.

Likewise, only an extraordinary scholar could illuminate Shakespeare's singular genius by demonstrating how much his work owes to Elizabethan culture and society.

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