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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 Paperback – June 13, 2006
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1599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England. During that year, Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.
James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare’s staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.
“Very distinguished...captivating...Shapiro succeeds where others have fallen short.” — William E. Cain, Boston Globe
“Only an extraordinary scholar could illuminate Shakespeare’s singular genius by demonstrating how much his work owes to Elizabethan cultureandsociety.” — Alexandra Alter, Chicago Tribune
“James Shapiro throws an unusually searching light across Shakespeare’s creative genius and makes him come truly alive.” — The Economist
“Superb―the product of marathon scholarship, inspired insight, narrative flair, astute surmise and searching intelligence.” — Peter Kemp, Sunday Times (London)
“an unforgettable illumination of a crucial moment in the life of our greatest writer.” — Robert McCrum, The Observer
“[This] is one of the few genuinely original biographies of Shakespeare.” — Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph
“a brilliantly readable and revealing narrative.” — Nicholas Hytner, The Guardian
“For Irish readers...by far the best account yet written of the relationship between this island and Shakespeare’s work.” — Fintan O'Toole, Irish Times
“If Will in the World is essentially an extremely good historical novel, [YLOWS] is history itself” — Jeremy Treglown, Financial Times
“Excellent book....superbly illuminating....Shapiro deserves whoops of applause.” — Sam Leith, The Spectator
“Shapiro gives us a Shakespeare who chronicles his age, in a biographical form that speaks clearly to our own.” — Francis Wilson, Saturday Telegraph
“Quite brilliant….It gives a whole large picture of his life, times, and achievement. Wonderful.” — Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate (England)
“As a yarn, this is up there with The Da Vinci Code but in 1599 it’s all true!” — Sir Ian McKellen
“Mr. Shapiro has given us by his encyclopedic scholarship and lucid narrative a hitherto unknown Shakespeare.” — Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn to Decadence
“[P]assionately written study, the product of deep scholarship and acute critical thought... fascinating.” — Stanley Wells, Editor of The Oxford Shakespeare
“a stunning exhibition of scholarly intelligence by an academic deeply committed to arriving at the truth.” — Christopher Rush, Sunday Herald, Halifax
“deliciously vivid....Shapiro weaves a tantalising narrative.” — David Lister, The Independent
“Shapiro’s scrupulous scholarship has given us a Shakespeare both for his time and our own.” — David Scott Kastan, General Editor, The Arden Shakespeare
“An intriguing addition to Shakespeare studies...open-minded readers will be stimulated and enriched by Shapiro’s contextual approach.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This book is a masterpiece, simply a masterpiece.” — Booklist (starred review)
From the Inside Flap
1599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England
Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.
James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare's staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.--William E. Cain, Boston Globe
- Publisher : Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (June 13, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 432 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0060088745
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060088743
- Item Weight : 11.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.97 x 5.31 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #362,617 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Queen Elizabeth was dealing with an insurrection in Ireland but was loathe to make too much effort to put it down. Her "Irish policies were characterized by incoherence and neglect. The queen was too miserly to pay the huge price to subdue Ireland and too distracted by other concerns to acknowledge the weaknesses of her colonial policies." [Loc 1026] The public was growing tired of being taxed for the foreign war and tired of having their men drafted into service. Shakespeare caught that tension in Henry V. In the past, stories of Henry V who conquered the French was seen as a heroic struggle for England. But while the play does have stirring speeches about war it ultimately "succeeds and frustrates because it consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism - past and present. ... It wasn't a pro-war play or and anti-war play but a going-to-war play" [Locs 1661, 1669]
This was also the time of the Reformation; Protestantism was the official religion, pushing out Catholicism. As a result the many holy days [holidays] were done away with leaving a void in the lives of the people. Into that void came "Elizabeth's Accession Day [which] was probably the first political holiday in modern Europe, and initiated the string of nationalist holidays that are now a staple of the Anglo-American calendar." [Loc 2894]. Catholics were incensed that Elizabeth seemed to be placing herself equal to the Saints by giving herself a special day on the calendar. Some Anglican religious officials that got too close to the line in criticizing Elizabeth ended up in the Tower of London.
Shakespeare is there to make some sense of this tension. As the play opens there is a discussion about whether the day is a holiday (Lupercal). "...Such was the force of the argument that Elizabeth's accession ushered in a new historical age that it produced a romanticized view of her reign that persists to this day. And one of the greatest ironies of Julius Caesar is that epoch-making political holiday that Caesar failed to create for himself on the Lupercal nonetheless led to anew calendrical moment - known to this day as the ides of March - that marked the end of the republic and the triumph of Caesarism. By locating within Julius Caesar a remarkably similar collision between political holiday and religious triumph, Shakespeare effectively translated a Roman issue into an Elizabethan one." [Loc 2958]
My favorite section was that on As You Like It. Shapiro compares Shakespeare's Sonnet 138 ("When my love sears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies") with the play where Rosalind lies by disguising herself to Orlando - though he finds out. While Shapiro details ways in which the play reflects the economic hardships of workers I was especially drawn to the detailing of various revisions to the Sonnet where we are shown that changing a word here and a phrase there the poem gains clarity and strength.
Finally Shapiro shows how Shakespeare reworked a well known revenge play, Hamlet, to expose "the culture at large of a sea change, o fa world that is dead but not yet buried. The ghost of Hamlet's father, who returns from purgatory [a purely Catholic concept], not only evokes a lost Catholic past, then, but is also a ghostly relic of the chivalric age." [Loc 4695]. This then is Hamlet's dilemma - caught in the middle of epochal change.
Hamlet shows what a great writer Shakespeare was. "The Ghost, the play within a play, the feigned madness, and the hero's death - familiar features of the revenge drama of the late 1580s - are all likely to have been introduced by the anonymous author of the lost Elizabethan Hamlet. Of all the characters, only Fortinbras, who threatens invasion at the outset and succeeds to the throne at the end, probably Shakespeare's invention." [Loc 4853] ... "There are many ways of being original. Inventing a plot from scratch is only one of them and never held much appeal for Shakespeare. Aside from the soliloquies, much of Shakespeare's creativity went into the play's verbal texture." [Loc 4856]
"By wrenching this increasingly outdated revenge play into the present, Shakespeare forced his contemporaries to experience what he felt and what his play registers so profoundly: the world had changed. Old certainties were gone, even if new ones had not yet taken hold. ... Audiences at the Globe soon found themselves, like Hamlet, straddling worlds and struggling to reconcile past and present." [Loc 4891]
Summing up the year Shapiro says "In Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare had broken with the model of his dramatic sources - as well as his own earlier histories - by making the alternation of the Chorus and the action rather than the rivalry of King Henry and the French Dauphin the main source of conflict. And in As You Like It he had refused to resort to comedy's traditional blocking figures, locating the obstacle to the love of Orlando and Rosalind not in parent or rival love, but in Orlando's need to lear what love is. With Hamlet, a play poised midway between a religious past and a secular future, Shakespeare finally found a dramatically compelling way to internalize contesting forces: the essaylike soliloquy proved to be the perfect vehicle for Hamlet's efforts to confront issues that, like Brutus's, defied easy resolution." [Loc 5125]
I enjoyed Shapiro's later book "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606" more. I think he did a better job of paralleling the year with the plays. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good stuff here. I enjoyed the detailed history, including the Earl of Essex conflict with Queen Elizabeth as much if not more than the Shakespeare material. I also really enjoyed Shapiro's deep dive into the revisions of Sonnet 138 and Hamlet which show that Shakespeare was a tireless worker to improve his material.
Be aware that there is some controversy about Shapiro's view of Shakespeare. You won't have to look far (and soon probably even a comment on my blog post) to see the particulars). I'm not an acadeemic and much of this seems too much of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" argument. There are various interpretations of Shakespeare's work.
Finally a note on the e-book (Kindle) format I read. There are no chapters and no page numbers making it difficult to keep track of where I was in the book. I realize that page numbers are an anachronism in e-books (I like them anyway because they provide a common ground for referencing parts) but at least give me chapters that I can search!
In this book, we get much more than just a year in Shakespeare's life. We get a better understanding of how his style changed as he matured; we see how he abandons traditional Elizabethan theatre which relied strongly on the clown (or what we think of as comedian), who often improvised and even joked with the audience at the end of scenes. However, "No less gnawing a problem for Shakespeare was the clown's afterpiece, the jig. It may be hard for us to conceive of the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet—with the image of the dead lovers fresh in our minds—immediately followed by a bawdy song and dance, but Elizabethan audiences demanded it." The company's star, Will Kemp was wildly popular with audiences, but his ego combined with Shakespeare's determination to make it a "playwright's and not an actor's theater" precipitated a rupture that sent London's favorite star packing. Shakespeare weaned his audience away from the expected jigs by replacing the worn-out tradition with something altogether new: a more "naturalistic drama" and characters filled with depth that would challenge his audience to think.
I love the specifics in this book, and it will require more than one reading to absorb everything. What I did take away showed me just how much I still have to learn about Shakespeare. For instance, I knew he used Holinshed as a source for Macbeth and other histories; what I didn't know was that he lifted every play from something else (although his sonnets were all original). "There are many ways of being original. Inventing a plot from scratch is only one of them and never held much appeal for Shakespeare." Whether it was old favorites or complete histories, Shakespeare had no problem taking an existing story and revising it with his especial brand of genius. Even Hamlet was lifted "from a now lost revenge tragedy of the 1580s, also called Hamlet, which by the end of that decade was already feeling shopworn." Apparently everybody did it.
Shakespeare wrote four plays in 1599: Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet (which wasn't finished until the following year). We learn how the angst of the time was reflected in his work. For instance, in a year rife with assassination attempts against the queen, Shakespeare had Brutus agonizing about his own role in Julius Caesar. The play manages to tread a thin line between making a statement and getting himself into trouble: "Even as Shakespeare offers compelling arguments for tyrannicide in the opening acts of the play, he shows in the closing ones the savage bloodletting and political breakdown that...were sure to follow." Often and again Shapiro showed us how Shakespeare cleverly deflects potential pitfalls, even though his contemporaries often weren't so lucky: "Of all the major playwrights of the 1590s, he alone had managed to avoid a major confrontation with those in power."
Shapiro spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Essex's ill-fated Irish campaign and the pall it spread over the country. I thought he gave a little to much emphasis to these events, as though he forgot he was writing about Shakespeare in his enthusiasm to tell the Essex story. Nonetheless, I was shocked at the number of men who were conscripted into service: "Government figures at the time indicate that 2,800 were forced to serve in 1594 and 1,806 in 1595...The number drafted in the first six months of 1599 alone was 7,300...Local authorities didn't hesitate during Elizabeth's reign to raid fairs, ale houses, inns, and other popular meeting places. The authorities could count on a good haul at the playhouses, too." In 1602, "All the playhouses were beset in one day and very many pressed from thence, so that in all there are pressed 4000." As Shapiro suggests, this would especially have resonated with the audience in "The Second Part of Henry the Fourth" when this issue was dealt with.
I've only scratched the surface here, and as you will see, Shapiro covers a lot of ground...too much, I dare say, for one volume. At times he can hard to follow and he is not an easy read. But the wealth of information is invaluable, and I'm glad I found the book.
Top reviews from other countries
James Shapiro has done an over the top brilliant job linking four of Shakespeare’s plays of 1599—Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like it, and Hamlet, to the impending send-off of an English army to put down Tyrone and Irish rebellion, in the midst of fears of a Spanish invasion, and tottering profits of the East India Company. All this with rising fear over who would replace an ageing Elizabeth, herself something akin to a monarch of supreme artistic talent, not averse to penning insightful letters and government documents keeping pretenders to the throne at distance. The Elizabethan theater had replaced some of the lost fabric of Catholic life, the liturgical underpinnings of communal life prior to the Reformation, and the Queen followed a leery course of not arousing one side or the other—Catholic or Protestant—which Shakespeare played up to in one play after another, always inscrutable, not advocating for one side or the other. Assassination plots were in the air, the word itself introduced to the English language in Macbeth, made the Court nervous, the populace apprehensive, and the censor (master of the revels) always wary. Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights filled the vacuum between Catholics and Reformists (even Puritans who despised them), more or less as Shapiro explains, providing a means of quasi cultural stability. But Shakespeare, in 1599, was beset with construction of the Globe playhouse, lawsuits over the materials and ownership of the new theater, terrible weather in spring curtailing construction, book banning and burnings on order from the Crown; and, when time afforded, the finishing touches to Henry V, and new insights into writing Julius Caesar. Amidst all this, John Hayward’s history of Henry IV seems to have shaken Shakespeare, along with a new translation of Tacitus and his modulation of on-and-off-again republican philosophy, which could lead to censorship problems if he were to build such thinking into Julius Caesar, due to be up first at the Globe in late summer. Never mind ‘Shakespeare in Love’, think ‘Shakespeare with words’ flowing at breakneck speed, as according to Shapiro the new playhouse was under construction with rival play companies maneuvering to put out alternate productions elsewhere. Political constraints, international threats (think another Spanish armada), growing militarism at home, angst over the Earl of Essex vs Irish rebels, ageing Queen becoming more cantankerous with time, coupled with the popularity of Hayward’s treatise which aroused strong feelings against the monarchy. Airy thoughts put to paper produced headless writers. Shapiro goes into Shakespeare’s new uncharted territory as to just how far he might assuage the populace with vibrant new thoughts regarding their position relative to rich courtiers and other patrons of the court. How to handle Brutus and Caesar? Was Brutus brutal in the extreme or a hero to rid the country of a tyrant? He struggled to put words in the mouths of actors, and to discover ways to present thoughts without speech, and to present ideas implicit in Tacitus, Hayward, and others. That he kept the Chamberlain’s Men on edge with page after page of new and revised text, his Julius Caesar would escape the wrath of the Queen and end up by itself in print as other texts were banned and burned. It was the most tumultuous of times and Shapiro has produced an extraordinary work bringing Shakespeare to life in one of the most important years of his life. Bravo is all one can say about this work.
W.C. Mahaney, author of: ‘Ice on the Equator – Quaternary Geology of Mount Kenya, East Africa’, ‘Atlas of Sand Grain Surface Textures and Applications’, and 'Hannibal's Odyssey: The Environmental Background to the Alpine Invasion of Italia".
He also shows how important plays were for the social life of the time and writes about the cold hard business of being a playwrite and operating a playhouse and theatre company. He tries to speculate on Shakespeare as a person which is admittedly hard to do since little is known about him.
My only critique is that this book is geared for an audience who really knows their Shakespeare and Elizabethean history. This is a similar critique I had of The Year of Lear (which I read before A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, but at least I was prepared this time around). I haven't read these plays since school and so it would have very helpful for Shapiro to have provided a basic plot outline of these plays before diving down into a detailed analysis of them. So it is challenging if you are not very familiar with these plays. Similarly he presumes we know all about the Irish Rebellion and I think a few pages providing background context to this conflict would have been helpful.
Nevertheless if you're a fan of Shakespeare, Elizabethean history or the history of English theatre, you will love this book.