Friday, January 12, 2007

Shakespeare in History

To continue my Shakespeare project, this week I read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. I am delighted by the approach of this book. The author explains how little actual information is available on the person Shakespeare. We have no diaries, personal papers, or memoirs of Shakespeare -- and no such intimate documents for any of his contemporaries. Recording of personal thoughts seems not yet to have happened in that time. Many previous scholars have sought a retrofitted portrait of Shakespeare in his works. The speculative nature and dangers of this approach were already obvious to my Shakespeare teachers years ago.

Shapiro tries something different: to look at the social and political scene, as recorded in the materials of chroniclers, social history, and annalists. He holds up the details of the year 1599 (fascinating in and of themselves) to the plays that Shakespeare wrote. The work of the censors and licensers, and the records of publications and so on make it possible to date 4 of Shakespeare's plays to 1599: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. He connects each one to the fascinating events of that year.

Also in 1599 an unscrupulous publisher obtained several sonnets by Shakespeare. Some were poems that Shakespeare had circulated in confidence and wished to remain unpublished, others lifted from plays. The publisher produced a pirate edition of these and others not by Shakespeare as The Passionate Pilgrim.

Here in brief are some of those events. First, a perceived threat to England by a second Spanish Armada, which caused a somewhat panicky organization of a defense of the country. Next, military action in Ireland led by Essex whose relationship with Queen Elizabeth was in very bad shape. Essex was engaged in a power trip that also led to his attempt to create a number of new Knights whose titles would bind the holders to him. These events led to the fall of Essex, but from the Shakespeare angle -- they generated interest in the questions of how monarchs hold power, which are explored in the plays. In contrast to this last gasp of feudal relations, 1599 was also the date of the founding of the East India Company, with plans to equip ships for long commercial voyages and so to change the orientation of English greatness. Shakespeare also pursued the award of a coat of arms to his family, and a lawsuit to restore property from his mother's family to which his father had formerly lost the title.

These are bare-bones examples. The book makes all the connections fascinating.

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