Thursday, November 10, 2011

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

I like this kind of history. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare puts Shakespeare in context, describing the political issues that most concerned the English in 1599, which Shapiro believes to be the most consequential of Shakespeare's writing career.

I like putting things in context. I've never warmed to the school of literary criticism that states that you should focus solely on the text itself, and all else is irrelevant. I like to know why an author wrote something the way he did, particularly if the reason is something he expected his readers to know because it was common knowledge at the time. I love annotated editions of classics, even when they end up diminishing the work somewhat. (I'm thinking of the heavily annotated collection of Sherlock Holmes stories I read, where the annotation dutifully pointed out every instance where an obscure fact at Holmes' disposal turned out to be something Conan Doyle just made up.)

I should point out that I'm not a Shakespearean scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I've read three of his plays in their entirety (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Othello), in each case because it was assigned for school. As for the rest, I've picked up bits and pieces of cultural knowledge through the years.

So anyway, what sorts of issues were the English talking and fretting about in 1599?

- Queen Elizabeth was getting old and there was no official heir. It was widely expected that when the Queen died, James, King of Scots, would come down and take over in London. This is indeed what eventually happened. But while we, in retrospect, know that the transition of power was accomplished smoothly and without bloodshed, nervous English of the latter part of Elizabeth's reign were not so sure. It didn't help matters much that the Palace and its network of spies were not happy when people openly discussed Elizabeth's anticipated death.

- There was a rebellion in Ireland. Catholic rebels had bested all English attempts to rule Ireland with an iron fist. In the early part of 1599, Robert Devereux, the mighty and powerful Earl of Essex, went to Ireland with a huge army to crush the rebellion once and for all. It was widely expected that he would return to England a conquering hero and reap the benefits of fame and fortune. He would be the greatest man in England, a symbol of English national might. As the Queen was old and there was no official heir to the throne, the implications of this are obvious.

- But what actually happened was that the Earl's forces got bogged down and were unable to secure a decisive victory. Scores of English soliders died on the battlefield and nothing much was gained. The Earl of Essex returned to England, against the Queen's wishes, his reputation in tatters. Two years later, he would attempt a coup d'etat, fail, and become the last man ever beheaded in the Tower of London.

- Meanwhile, all of England braced for a massive Spanish invasion. The best English intelligence said that Philip III had assembled a mighty armada, to try to succeed where his father had failed in 1588. London spent a panicked summer waiting for an invasion fleet that never materialized.

What Shapiro does is examine the four plays he believes Shakespeare wrote in 1599 (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet) in light of contemporary events, Elizabethan culture, and Shakespeare's own life and career.

There's a lot of conjecture in Shapiro's book. Exact details on aspects of Shakespeare's life and career are notoriously hard to come by. (If Wikipedia is accurate, there's no good reason to think Shakespeare wrote As You Like It in 1599 -- scholars have been unable to ascertain in what year it was first performed, much less written. But there's no reason he couldn't have written it in 1599.) That's fine. As I made clear in a recent post, I don't want to read a list of proven facts about history. I want to read a narrative.

Henry V has an interesting context. Elizabethans had far different expectations for their historical dramas than we do. They expected Henry V to be full of clowning around and merry-making and romantic comedy with Henry romancing the French queen. They wanted, in other words, a sequel to the two Henry IV plays.

Shakespeare didn't give that to them. He wanted to write something grittier. This may or may not have caused a rift among his theatre company.

As most Shakespeare fans know, Shakespeare wrote most of his famous roles with specific actors in mind. Throughout the 1590s, Shakespeare worked with a famous comedian named Will Kemp. Kemp was probably a far bigger celebrity in his day than Shakespeare was. He specialized in a sort of rustic, bawdy, countryside clowning-about, and if you saw a Shakespeare play in the 1590s it probably would have ended with a Kemp comedy performance which may or may not have been related to the plot of the play.

Shakespeare wrote comic characters such as Dogberry and Bottom and Falstaff specifically for Kemp. Around the beginning of 1599, Kemp and Shakespeare's company had a falling-out and Kemp left to do his own thing. Shakespeare's next play was Henry V, in which Falstaff fails to appear; instead, a character reports that he died off-stage.

It's easy to read a causal connection there, although scholars will probably never determine what occurred first, Kemp's departure or Falstaff's 'death'.

Henry V is the story of an English king making war in France. When it premiered in London, the powerful and kingly Earl of Essex had just departed to make war in Ireland. Contemporary politics and references are easy to find in Henry V. Shakespeare didn't have the liberty of full freedom of speech (his plays would have been vetted by censors), and modern scholars have never been able to determine his own political views, but his plays are certainly better understood in the context of the issues of the day.

Given the political situation of the time, I'm somewhat surprised that Shakespeare dared have his next play be about the assassination of a successful general who (it was feared) wanted to make himself king. Julius Caesar is also analyzed in Shapiro's book terms of the political situation, as well as in light of fascinating aspects of Elizabethan culture.

Shakespeare's next play (if we believe Shapiro's chronology) was, by contrast, remarkably apolitical. As You Like It is a romantic comedy in which nothing much happens, if we go by old-timey traditional standards for what constitutes plot developments, such as murders, kidnappings, betrayals, etc. What action there is, is only there to set up the play's premise. This is pure character-based plotting, and Shapiro represents it as something new in the world of 1599.

Finally, there's Hamlet. What I didn't realize before is that there are two full-length versions of Hamlet out there, both of them far too long to be performed: the version published in 1604, nowadays called Q2 (for 2nd Quarto; Q1 was a far shorter version published in 1603 either as a stage-friendly version or a knockoff assembled from an actor's recollections), and the version in the First Folio of 1623, called F1. Shapiro believes Q2 was Shakespeare's first complete version, and F1 was the result of heavy editing and re-writing in subsequent years. Many latter-day published versions of Hamlet blend the two together, which Shapiro is opposed to; he thinks that muddles the development of Hamlet's motivations. The two plays are fairly different, and opinions vary among Shakespeare scholars which is preferred.

And that's all that I'll say about that, because I'm out of my depth, never having read the original Hamlet in any form. I keep meaning to, and I probably will at some point, but for now I'm just smiling and nodding my head.

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