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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: 1599

THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT...
By Drew Pisarra


There’s an audacious, even ingenious idea at work in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Rather than drain the same few drops of scant biographical evidence for every single possible meaning (yet again), James Shapiro has decided to forgo a conventional dot-to-dot chronology for an Elizabethan slice-of-life which details a significant time in the Bard’s career. He’s chosen 1599 because that was the year of the Globe’s construction, which marked Shakespeare’s evolution from leading dramatist to the first producer-playwright of his age.

Shapiro’s underlying theory is that the pressing need of financial returns drove Shakespeare to a new level of productivity, while the autonomy of self-employment liberated him to experiment and to explore more personal themes. (Shapiro’s third objective-to situate the playwright solidly in the era-eventually gives way to a landslide of information about the Earl of Essex’s tumultuous relationship with Queen Elizabeth I.)

When you consider that Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It are all generally attributed to the Globe’s inaugural season, it’s easy to concede that the close of the 16th century was a particularly fertile period for the Bard. Shapiro asserts that these three plays-plus Hamlet, which he postulates feebly was drafted then too-are telling mid-career efforts which refine previous dramaturgical techniques, comment on current events, and anticipate his late masterpieces. All the while, he’s keeping his eye on the box office in a paranoid larger culture where book burnings, religious persecution, political assassinations and an insidious military draft are each a part of daily life.

And so, while Henry V signals the end of a certain type of clowning with Falstaff’s offstage death acting as curt acknowledgment of actor Will Kemp’s defection, it’s also a rally cry endorsing the Queen’s escalating Irish Wars. As You Like It isn’t just a musical showcase for Kemp-replacement Robert Armin, it’s also an inspired homage to two gifted boy actors who went on to play Ophelia and Gertrude, then Viola and Olivia, thereafter. As for Julius Caesar, Shapiro posits that this script marked the birth of the metaphysical soliloquy, Richard II notwithstanding. Actually, most of that particular development gets dumped on Hamlet. But the problem is that in actuality most scholars assign that tragedy to 1600 if not later. By shoe-horning the Dane into 1599, Shapiro forces facts to serve his scholarly conceit instead of vice versa.

With its relentless exploration of Elizabeth’s reign-her vanities and her vagaries-in the end A Year in the Life reads like an academic treatise in which flashes of insight are eventually eclipsed by the laborious documentation of courtly machinations. You almost wish that Shapiro had allowed himself to consider the heart and not just the purse and the politics. Think of 1595 with Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost and Romeo and Juliet. If the actual muse is anyone’s guess, Shakespearean scholarship’s constant slip into fiction anyway argues that sometimes we’re better off with literary portraits that don’t pretend to be anything but works of the imagination.

(Faber and Faber, 429 pp., £16.99)

 


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