A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.
James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 [British title: 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare] is not a scholarly study and should not be confused with one. Unfortunately, this volume is basically a house of cards. From a distance, the edifice is interesting and even pleasing. But a push here and there collapses the structure. Incorrect facts and unsupportable suppositions do not provide firm bases for supporting Shapiro's contentions. He gets off to a bad start in the "Preface" where he reveals to the naive and unlearned but hopefully awed and duly impressed readers that: "In search of answers I was fortunate to have access to the archives where the literary treasures of Elizabethan England have been preserved--especially the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the British Library (at both its old and new London addresses)" (xxii). How is this supposed to set Shapiro off from the sea of readers who also have used these magnificent collections? Any qualified scholar can "have access" to these libraries and thousands upon thousands have. Particularly amusing is Shapiro's need to tell the masses that he has used The British Library "at both its old and new addresses." Is this wonderful and so distinctive and unusual revelation supposed to make what he says more trustworthy? Will it overwhelm any doubts that might surface?
Albeit written by an English professor at a leading research university, this book is basically just another entry in the seemingly endless parade of "biographies" of Shakespeare chasing after the seemingly endless flow of cash spent for such volumes and clearly aimed at that nebulous, much-sought-after although much-abused creature: the general reader. Even the title itself follows a recently popular pattern: an eye-catching date followed by the rest of the title that explains the subject matter of the book. Andrew Bridgeford's 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeaux Tapestry, Gavin Menzies's 1421: The Year China Discovered America, and Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus are similarly titled works, brought out by trade houses, that also pursue the perhaps not so elusive general reader. Choosing a title, of course, is a problem: how to attract the maximum number of buyers while appearing to be "scholarly" but without seeming to court the hoi polloi. Thus a title more closely conforming to the subject matter of the book, such as "The Intellectual and Artistic Development of William Shakespeare in His Social and Political Contexts with Special Reference to the Year 1599" would seem to gather dust even as it is read. Similarly, something along the line of "Shakespeare Confronts the Perils of '99" would slide much too far the other way.
There is, however, one glaring difference between this group of "date-titled" studies and 1599; unfortunately in sharp contrast to these others, Shapiro's volume contains neither footnotes nor endnotes. If this decision was the publisher's, it is both financially and intellectually indefensible. If this decision was the author's, it is unprofessional and reprehensible. The reader, yes, even that shaggy beast of a general reader, deserves to know exactly where an author is getting his/her quotations and other information. How an author can defend his choices is paramount in any historical study. If 1599 were a novel, such standards need not be invoked. Shapiro attempts to evade the problem by issuing a "global qualification" about his use of sources: "[r]ather than awkwardly littering the pages ... with words such as 'perhaps' ... [or] ... 'probably,'" he passes off as assurance that "Readers interested in the historical sources on which I rely will find them in the bibliographical essay at the end of the book" (xxiii). But such an "explanation" is not a license to play fast and loose with "facts" and to introduce unfettered imaginings. Thus instead of specific, traceable notes, Shapiro appends this "Bibliographical Essay"; although for one who spends some time discussing Montaigne, he surely must realize that this is no essay. Both for the book in general and for each chapter, Shapiro lists a series of books and articles, occasionally accompanied by comments, that he claims to have used and which are intended "as a guide for those interested in consulting my sources directly" (375). But this arrangement is entirely unsatisfactory for anyone attempting to use it. For scholars checking any particular topic, it is woefully inadequate. For the general reader, such a listing is overwhelming, confusing, and certainly not geared to help. For everyone, only works are given, never the specific place in the work. For this reader, such actions are obscurantism and simple chicanery.
This entire "Bibliographical Essay" is basically a thirty-nine-page blurb, a kind of heraldic blazon meant to display the author's scholarly heritage, thus saying to the unsuspecting reader: "Look at all I have read!" and thus: "Trust me, I know." The problem is that most readers, even reviewers in the popular press, do not know; and they do not possess the tools with which to explore and to judge what the writer claims. Shapiro prints many "facts" which are patently not true and accepts as true many things which cannot be proved; he makes numerous declarations which are merely surmises; thus without specific references, the ordinary reader cannot know when the author can document his statements and defend his assertions and when he cannot, or perhaps more directly: when Shapiro can be trusted and when he cannot. In 1934, the distinguished Elizabethan historian, J. E. Neale, published what many still consider to be the best biography of Queen Elizabeth although it is surprisingly absent from Shapiro's "Bibliographical Essay." Neale, for whatever reasons, also published his study without notes, for which, and for many years, he endured rejections by his peers ranging from highly arched eyebrows to vitriolic comments.
A more than cursory glance at the "Bibliographical Essay" reveals both its very uneven nature and the many places where Shapiro's knowledge is not equal to the task. Everything a writer finds does not deserve inclusion in a bibliography. One cannot just pile up previous works on a topic; they must be sorted out and evaluated. And this means that the evaluator must have the knowledge to do so, a situation by no means always evident here. A few examples will do. On page 380, Shapiro pretentiously declares that "Any discussion of Shakespeare in print begins with A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, eds., Short-Title Catalogue of Books. . . ." This work is undeniably of great importance (and Peter Blayney's new edition is eagerly awaited), but one is tempted to ask exactly how many academic investigators of "Shakespeare in print" ever touched finger to page. Why is the general reader sent here? What would he/she make of it? Shapiro's assertion leads one to be wary of his understanding of printing practices (of which, more later). On page 388, Shapiro announces that "The standard authorities on Elizabethan censorship are Richard Dutton's ... Mastering the Revels ... and Janet Clare, 'Art made tongue-tied by authority' ... "; however, the nonspecialist reader is not told that Dutton's work both opposes and demolishes Clare's. Thus, one might ask: why list the latter? How is the reader helped? Or perhaps more to the unpleasant point: has Shapiro read either? On the design of the Globe, the hapless reader is initially referred to John Cranford Adams's The Globe Playhouse ... (1942), a work destroyed by Richard Hosley in 1957. Why is Adams listed at all? And where are poor Hosley's articles?
On page 395, the reader (seemingly soberly) is instructed: "On textual issues and censorship, see Annabel Patterson 'Back by Popular Demand: The Two Versions of Henry V . . ." even though this article was blown out of the water by Paul Werstine shortly after its publication. On pages 396-97, the reader is sent to a book on building practices published in 1663, assured that this is "a richly informative account of early modern building practices." But this publication is sixty-four years--two generations--after the building of the First Globe. Exactly how relevant is it to 1599? If Shapiro had not hidden behind that meaningless and deliberately vague and obfuscating term "early modern," he might not have hobbled himself. No scholar can be expected to know everything; but then, no one should pretend to. In spite of its seemingly limited scope, "1599: A Year ... " this book actually encompasses a very large number of topics that developed over many years; and therein lie a number of the problems with this volume which are revealed in so humble a place as the end of the book.
Enough of wandering in the Antipodes; the narrative itself demands attention. It seems that the purpose of this book (other than making money) is to advance the thesis that 1599 is not only a very important year in the history of England and of the history of the theater in England, but also (and most importantly) that 1599 was Shakespeare's annus mirabilis, a time of great artistic achievement and an important turning point in his career. There is nothing wrong with such a thesis; but establishing proof for any of the three legs of it can be difficult, making the whole structure wobbly.
Essentially, Shapiro sketches out major historical problems of the year and attempts to show how Shakespeare fitted into them and to demonstrate how he, in his work, responded to them. This means that Shapiro delivers 373 pages of mostly history enlivened by the interacting presence of William Shakespeare. The book 1599 is not a biography, but rather bits of biography and supposed biography and artistic development fitted into an historical context. Again, there is nothing wrong with such a plan; the success or failure lies in how it is accomplished. Thus the reader, general or otherwise, must decide the validity of Shapiro's assumptions and claims.
Like most years, 1599 visited many problems on England, none of them new. There was another serious threat of a new Spanish Armada, but these occurred with agonizing regularity. Queen Elizabeth grew ever older causing concomitantly rising anxiety about succession in courtier and commoner alike. She was not to die until 1603 at the (for that time) quite advanced age of seventy, although, of course, no one could know that in 1599. She could have died at any moment. (Shakespeare himself died at fifty-two, but no one at that time seems to have thought that he died untimely early [although Shapiro does, presumably working from early twenty-first-century actuarial tables, asserting that Shakespeare "died prematurely" (373)]; two generations earlier, Erasmus at fifty had complained that nearly all of his contemporaries were dead.) The Irish problems had been festering for years and continue to do so. Although quite serious, the problems of Armada and succession and Ireland were neither new nor unique to 1599; this year, however, did mark the addition of the addle-pated Earl of Essex as a major mixer in this volatile brew. But discussions of these three acutely worrisome issues could be constructed for any year in the 1590s.
Nonetheless, Shapiro shapes 1599 around these problems, presumably because that also was the year of the building of the First Globe and that no other year fit so well his notion of Shakespeare's artistic maturation. Appropriately enough for a book about a year, the book is divided into four sections: "Winter," "Spring," "Summer," and "Autumn" and attempts to deal with problems as they occurred chronologically, not always so easy when a number of crucial dates pertaining to Shakespeare are unknown. And fitting Shakespeare into all this history, into all that existed in his time, presents numerous difficulties. It necessarily asks: "Did Shakespeare know about this, see that, hear about something else? How did he react to all these things?" But what if he did not know about them, or did not care, or did not choose to work them into his plays? One could be tempted to fasten upon an historical happening and then search through Shakespeare's texts to see how one might wrench an "influence" or a "reference." If due caution is not administered, such a nebulous situation as placing a figure in history can tempt an author to place his "hero" (a quite vague word that Shapiro uses with some regularity but consistently refuses to define) into unlikely situations and making decisions and responses that he, in fact, never may have made. Asserting that Shakespeare had been born "too late" (271), Shapiro pictures Shakespeare's political preferences much involved with nostalgia for past times including at least facets of Catholicism, he old nobility, and the passing of feudalism.
"The reformist effort to do away with the distracting rituals of Catholic worship resulted in a kind of sensory deprivation, for the rush to reform had overlooked the extent to which people craved the sights and sounds of the old communal celebration" (170-71). No doubt some did, but percentages are hard to establish. Here and elsewhere Shapiro and his Shakespeare long at least for elements of "the good old days" without Shapiro's acknowledging that many, many people in Britain were enthusiastic supporters of varying degrees of ecclesiastical reform. Shapiro then proceeds to unite Essex with "chivalry" and to claim that Shakespeare's supposed nostalgia also extended to the "passing" of chivalry. Armed with this whole series of assumptions, Shapiro finds no difficulty in asserting that "Shakespeare would have found Essex's Apology fascinating both as a character study and as a daring political tract" (54). Shapiro's romanticism, his nostalgia for "chivalry," and his failure to see the danger to life, limb, and the stability of the state threatened by allowing loose cannons like Essex to do as they pleased, produces statements such as "Essex had done his best to embody this chivalric code" (55) and "During this anxious time, when England badly needed his leadership, Essex withdrew from the court in a sulk" (56). Although Shapiro does not say so because it would not fit into his view of Essex and Shakespeare, the obvious parallel with Essex at this point is the withdrawal of Achilles.
In studying the life of anyone living in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries who was not a major governmental figure or at least a wealthy holder of estates from which detailed records survive, there is precious little material with which to construct a life. Even though more is known about the life of William Shakespeare than that of any other Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright except Ben Jonson, documented records are few and far between. Consequently anyone attempting to reconstruct any portion of Shakespeare's life is forced to construct a narrative using whatever is available. The problem is to use events that happened and to create situations that very well could have happened and to label everything carefully. In a work professing to be historically accurate, an author cannot just invent what fits into his general pattern for the book or his notion of the character he/she is studying.
Readers, general or otherwise, most likely will be pleased to find that Shapiro is not an anti-Stratfordian and that his Shakespeare, in contrast to the figure presented in several recent over-publicized and grotesquely overrated "biographies" of Shakespeare, is not a Roman Catholic (secret or otherwise) although he does seem (as noted) to possess some nostalgia for older forms of celebration and rituals, and is neither a Marxist nor an unwavering monarchist; but Shapiro's Shakespeare does turn out to have desires to be at court, to influence courtiers, and to be valued and appreciated by them. "Shakespeare knew that his plays were valued differently at court, where he was recognized as a dramatist alert to the factional world of contemporary politics" (19). Shapiro's Shakespeare is a man ". . . who mingles easily with princes and paupers . . ." (105). "Shakespeare had had unparalleled success in pleasing both courtly and popular audiences over the past few years--but these admirers weren't [sic] necessarily drawn to the same things in his plays" (16).
The book 1599 is filled with statements that either are patently not true or might be true but are very unlikely to be so, given many other facts that are known about this historical time. Sometimes "Shapiro-facts" are dropped on the unsuspecting reader in "throwaway" portions of sentences with rather the air of "I in my great knowledge am reminding you ignorant readers of something all us scholars know." Thus Shapiro assures his nonspecialist readers that "Shakespeare kept close at hand a sheaf of forty or more folded sheets, each sheet with four writing sides, covered with sonnets in various stages of composition (it wasn't [sic] until the early seventeenth century that writers began using single sheets of paper)" (223). Neither Shapiro nor anyone else knows how Shakespeare composed or stored his sonnets; this half of his sentence is novelistic froth. The second half is far worse; whatever is Shapiro talking about with his "single sheets of paper"? There were many different sizes of paper available in Shakespeare's England, and large ones could be (and were) cut into smaller pieces if occasion demanded; and even a popular size, for instance, the one approximately 16 by 24 inches, folded once becomes a folio, twice a quarto, thrice an octavo, but all of them began and remain a single sheet of paper. What was the point of throwing in that meaningless parenthetical sentence? What is the poor general reader expected to do with such a combination of imagination and misinformation and confusion?
A few further instances of mangled facts and suppositions are worth noting here. Shapiro pointedly asserts that "The Globe was the first London theater built by actors for actors . . ." (131). This wildly erroneous statement drastically reduces the number of known purpose-built theaters. Certainly the Globe was built with a large portion of the funds advanced by players, but even general readers may wonder for whom the Red Lion, the Theatre, the Curtain, the Rose, and the Swan were built previous to the Globe. Sheep, perhaps. On page 123, readers are told unequivocally that the Globe had a diameter of seventy-two feet, a dimension known to no one but James Shapiro. And unless he has been doing some illegal archeological tunneling and secreting his findings from the public, he does not know it either. Henslowe's 1587 Rose did have such a diameter, an ascertainable and documented fact: the Rose foundation has been excavated, measured, photographed, and published. But except for a very small portion, the Globe foundation is not yet available for exploration; thus the diameter and nearly every other specific dimension are unknown. What is the point of claiming that it is known? When Sam Wanamaker's reproduction of a generic Elizabethan theater (also named The Globe) was being planned, the diameter of the building was the focus of a crucial debate. Those favoring a hundred-foot diameter won, and the theater was so constructed. This dimension matters very much if one is considering the size of the stage, the proximity of the players to various members of the audience, sight lines, acoustics, and to deciding how many persons the theater could hold. It is well to note that an entire seventy-two-foot theater could be placed within the inner ring (that is, the pit and the stage) of a hundred-foot one.
Setting the scene--the historical context--is important in both novels and biographies; but again, the author has an obligation in a nonfiction work to place the figure discussed into situations that were likely or probable, and perhaps occasionally, possible. One cannot assume that merely because a place or situation existed contemporaneously, that his featured figure participated in it. But Shakespeare, neither a menial servant cleaning up after his masters nor a courtier nor an honored guest, is imagined to have been allowed to roam unsupervised through state and private rooms in Whitehall Palace (29-31). Such an imaginary peregrination allows Shapiro to describe the rooms, but does not add veracity to his vision of Shakespeare's place in this world or his knowledge of it. As a member of the King's Men (but not yet so in 1599, of course), he would have been styled a "Gentleman," but this is very far down in the courtly pecking order, hardly a place from which to get cozy with the great and powerful, nor is it a place from which they necessarily would value his craft, let alone his political observations. By contrast, Philip Henslowe was for many years a "Groom of the Chamber" then moving up to being a "Sewer of the Chamber," both positions worlds away from Shakespeare's. In stark contrast to Shakespeare's few visits to court, Henslowe spent the vast majority of his days there. But Shapiro's description is part and parcel of his notion of Shakespeare (and his creation Hamlet) as "straddling worlds and struggling to reconcile past and present" (322). How noble! How romantic! (Shapiro would label it the ever-undefined "heroic.") Such a conception merely romanticizes both Shakespeare's importance to the court as well as the intellectual level of the court and its entertainments.
In attempting to sketch the intellectual milieu of the writing of Julius Caesar, Shapiro notes the burning of the satires and feels compelled to list a series of them (153). Would any of his general readers have heard of (or care about) Virgidemiarum, Skialetheia, or Caltha Poetarum, let alone the more well-known The Scourge of Villainy? How does this listing help these readers to understand what was going on and why? Here as elsewhere, such as giving the later stage-history of As You Like It (251-52) and the sources of Hamlet (319-20), there is a sense of his feeling that he had to stuff in every scrap of information found in doing research--a situation of "No note card left unused." Shapiro further declares without a shred of evidence that plays chosen to be performed at court were judged by the Master of the Revels to be the year's best (363); at another point, it was Shakespeare's "most recent work" that was wanted at court (36). And readers are told that ". . . Spenser was probably eager to see the best plays of the previous year staged at Whitehall ..." (71). The criteria for choosing plays for court performance are unknown and most likely varied from year to year and with the personalities involved, but plays certainly were not chosen for court performance as an award for "quality." Behind such statements are Shapiro's assumptions both that the court is intellectually interested in drama and that Shakespeare wanted to be (even a minor) force there. This is not proved on either side; both suppositions seem to this reader to be highly unlikely.
But such presumed proximity of Shakespeare with the great (admittedly he occasionally was in the same large, crowded room with a number of them) unfortunately releases a romantic streak in Shapiro which merely compounds the problem by placing the man of the theater in a social position which he could not inhabit: "A monarch [Elizabeth] who wrote every day must have been an especially discriminating critic and perhaps better disposed than most to a playwright who did the same" (31). This is getting very sloppy. All writers are not discriminating critics, then or now. Was Elizabeth similarly disposed to other playwrights who presumably also spent most of their days writing? "By 1598 Shakespeare's relationship with the court had become increasingly reciprocal" (20). Shapiro regularly posits Shakespeare as straddling two worlds, those of the court and the theater: "... his play-writing was constrained by the needs of his fellow players as well as the expectations of audiences both at the public playhouse and at court--demands that often pulled him in opposite directions" (8).
If only those naughty players and their uncouth [paying] audiences would have left him alone, Shakespeare could have spent all his time writing poetry and political philosophy for the "court"! Only a romantic infiation of Shakespeare's position in and importance to the court could sustain Shapiro's notion of Shakespeare's place in his world. And, of course, Shakespeare's adventures in the palace must have provided grist for his artistic rnill: one of the objects to be seen at Whitehall was "a portrait of Julius Caesar (which surely caught Shakespeare's attention)" (32) Speaking of Shakespeare's work on impresa, Shapiro assures his readers that "No doubt when Shakespeare entered the shield gallery his eye was drawn to his own anonymous contributions" (34). Supposition or even possibility is neither fact nor accomplishment. The line simply has disappeared between what might possibly have happened and what most likely occurred (not to mention what actually did or did not happen). In a nonfiction work, this is irresponsibility. Shapiro wants his Shakespeare to have had access to all the facilities that existed and knowledge of all manner of events that happened in his time and place; but just because something existed does not at all mean that Shakespeare necessarily knew about it, much less experienced it or even cared about it.
Early on the nonspecialist reader is pummeled by both inaccuracy and ill-founded supposition. On the very first page, before even beginning the "Prologue," the reader is presented a small, rather dark portion of Wenceslaus Hollar's "Long View of London" (not identified by Shapiro), published in 1647 but drawn some years before the Second Globe was pulled down in 1644, purporting to display "the Globe Theatre"; Shapiro is correct in warning the readers that the labels on the engraving for "The Globe" and "Beere bayting" are incorrectly exchanged. However, he fails to inform his readers that he is supplying them with a picture of the wrong theater; the picture on page 1 of 1599 is that of the Second Globe built in 1614, not that of the First built in 1599 which constitutes one of the legs upon which Shapiro builds his thesis. Or does Shapiro think that they looked the same? But then, none of the pictures at the chapter openings are fully identified; only "The Globe," however, is totally wrong. The captions to the color plates also are erratic and incomplete. When he gets to the writing of plays, Shapiro does not seem to understand that crafting plays was a well-paying way for clever young men to earn quite a rewarding living. This is why even those with university educations were attracted to the theater. Shapiro denigrates playwrights by noting that "... a freelance dramatist earned just [pounds sterling]6 a play and a day-laborer earned [pounds sterling]10 a year" (4). Even if Shapiro's statistics are correct and a laborer managed to earn ten pounds, a single play paid three-fifths of that, did not require over three hundred dawn-to-dusk days of hard physical work, and more than one play could be written in a year. Collaboration, of course, facilitated chunks of even faster cash. And some playwrights were paid more, occasionally to [pounds sterling]10.
In trying to trim performance-time to the much-tongued and much-contested "two hours traffic" (he seems not to know of the many references to playing time as being three hours), Shapiro asserts that the sun had set in London by 6:00 P.M. in September (260); at another point the reader is told that the sun sets "in late winter and early autumn around five clock'' (339); this sunset schedule was no more true in 1599 than it is today. But when he gets to the Globe's chief carpenter, Peter Street, Shapiro shifts his imagination into high gear.
The wagons [containing the timbers from the dismantled Theatre] headed through Bishopsgate and south-west to Peter Street's waterfront warehouse near Bridewell Stairs, where the timber was unloaded and safely stored. The popular story of the dismantled frame being drawn across or over the Thames (which was "nigh frozen over") to the future building site is a fantasy; it would have been too risky sledding the heavy load across thin ice and the steep tolls on London Bridge for wheelage and poundage would have been prohibitive; and had the timber been left exposed to the elements through the winter months at the marshy site on the Globe, it could have been warped beyond repair (if not subject to a counter-raid by Giles Allen's friends). (7)
I have quoted at length because this is a particularly egregious example of arrogant ignorance and baseless supposition masking as theater history. There is no evidence that Peter Street ever had a warehouse near Bridewell Stairs nor anywhere else; why would he? Warehouses were not common in Elizabethan London, and one large enough to hold these particular timbers would have had to have been fairly spacious. Why would even a master carpenter possess such an expensive and highly atypical and generally useless building? Shapiro simply has invented this building and this scenario to fit into his notions about when and how the new theater was built. So much for the handling of facts.
It is not known for certain how the timbers were taken across the Thames. No responsible scholar ever has suggested that they were carted over London Bridge. Why does Shapiro make an issue of it? Theater historians who have spent their scholarly lives studying the archeology and genealogy of Elizabethan-Jacobean-Caroline London theaters believe that it is most probable that the timbers either were dragged on sledges over the ice or floated on barges. The problem is: how strong was the ice as well as when and for how long was the river frozen? Certainly the players would have wanted to start building as soon as possible. The land on the south bank was indeed marshy, but it was not unusable; and surely it was not frozen all winter to prevent the digging and laying of footers for the walls. If the players were worried about stacking the timbers on the ground, a temporary raised platform of stones or of disposable wood could have been laid up quickly, easily, and inexpensively. The notion of these timbers being ''warped beyond repair" by being "exposed to the elements" is ludicrous. This was not green wood. These timbers already had been "exposed to the elements" since 1576 and, once reassembled, would continue to be "exposed" until 1613. The notion that Allen would try to retrieve the timber--to which he had no legal right--is highly unlikely. Shapiro was unwise to have attacked previous (although of course unnamed) work as "fantasy." A little knowledge of scholarship reveals where the real fantasy lies.
Interpretation of evidence often has more to do with the attitude of the interpreter than with the facts themselves. Because Shapiro proposes (he hardly could know since none of the Globe timbers survive) that different numbers and patterns of slashes marked the proper joinings of timbers in buildings of the time, he concludes that the carpenters were illiterate (130). This is not a valid conclusion because there is no evidence presented. Did he expect that literate carpenters would have written notes? Or perhaps a "'Timberological' Essay"? Whether or not the carpenters were illiterate, matching markings to indicate proper insertions was simply the way things were done and has nothing to do with the ability to read. Such markings were quickly made, could endure abuse in handling and moving, and were infallible guides. Carpenters who most assuredly were literate were still making similarly purposed markings at least to the end of the twentieth century. And what is the point about whether or not the carpenters were illiterate? Since when did craftsmanship necessarily rely on literacy?
Inventions or at least the repeating of others' defenseless suppositions about the functioning of the theaters pepper the text. "The titles of the plays to be performed that afternoon by the Chamberlain's and Lord Admiral's Men--'Printed in play-bills, upon every post'--had already been widely advertised [sic] through out the city. Musicians were dispatched to literally drum up business ..." (97). Such statements make for a colorful picture, but they have no backing in documented fact; in spite of certain recent claims by others, there is no surviving proof either of the printing and distribution of playbills or of roving musicians. Who was to pay for such advertising extravagances? The shareholders for the Chamberlain's and Henslowe for the Admiral's? Printing was expensive, so would have been the distribution, so were musicians. Were the players themselves to save money by taking time and energy from their valuable rehearsal hours to run all over London posting bills? Shapiro's claims have no bases in documented facts, are basically senseless, and do not constitute theater history; they are imaginary scene-painting.
Shapiro also bends the presentation of facts to support his fantasies of Shakespeare's contemporary value and his place in historical England. "It's [sic] no surprise that the few references at this time to popular plays performed in aristocrats' homes are limited to Shakespeare's work, typically his histories" (21). Not only does Shapiro not reveal his sources here, but also he does not tell his deliberately misled readers that most references to private productions do not mention even the title of the play, much less the name of the playwright. At best, his "statistic" is basically worthless. But Shapiro relentlessly pushes his favorite author into community with the great. "By 1598 Shakespeare's relationship with the court had become increasingly reciprocal. He was not only a regular presence at court but also shaped how England's leading families in turn gave voice to their political experiences and his words entered court vocabulary as a shorthand for the complicated maneuvering and gossip that defined court life" (20). Such claims are so ludicrously overblown that they probably just should be ignored. Suffice to say that a player appearing before the court even several times a year cannot be labeled as being "at court" in the sense that a nobleman or a valued daily senior attendant such as Philip Henslowe could, and a player hardly was likely to be valued as Shapiro imagines. Someone quoting a line or making an analogy to characters he has seen is by no means necessarily valuing the playwright as a political commentator or philosopher. Such a commenter well might not know the name of the playwright.
When Shapiro turns to the plays themselves, not surprisingly the same problems emerge. Part of the difficulty results from Shapiro's wanting to see the new theater as a kind of at least semi-elite gathering place: at the Globe "Shakespeare could offer plays there that set a new standard and attracted a regular, charmed clientele" (127). Exactly how this audience was or became "charmed" is not elucidated. Facts get changed, ignored, or misinterpreted to fit Shapiro's shapings of his thesis. Shapiro believes that many things, political, personal, and artistic came together in 1599 to change forever Shakespeare, his art, his theater, and even his world. This is a tall order to prove, whatever indications and partial support may exist. Shapiro is convinced that in 1599 Shakespeare completed Henry V, entirely wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and did much work on Hamlet (xv). This is an astounding output even for Shakespeare, not impossible but not particularly likely either. But this thesis must be driven because that is what justifies the rest of the book. Shapiro offers no defense for his crowding these plays into this time period or for excluding others, except for the implied one that this arrangement fits his thesis and other chronologies do not.
E. K. Chambers attuned his chronicling of Shakespeare's creations to the law terms which began their years in the autumn, a schedule to which the theatrical companies attached their new seasons (and still do). Shapiro, for whatever reasons, strictly adheres to the January-through-December chronology for his tale. Thus Chambers assigns Much Ado and Henry V to the theatrical season of 1598-99, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night to the 1599-1600 season, and Hamlet and Merry Wives to 1600-1601. Chambers was not infallible; but to disagree with him, one needs either to produce new evidence or at least to reevaluate existing evidence to show how Chambers erred. Shapiro offers nothing; he simply declares that Shakespeare wrote certain plays at certain times because that is what fits his proffered arc of Shakespeare's artistic maturity. In so doing, Shapiro tosses aside Twelfth Night, "a formulaic throwback" (369); needless to say, he does not wish to pair the inspiration and creativity of Hamlet ("Shakespeare's greatest play" ) with Merry Wives which he says Shakespeare interrupted 2 Henry IV to write (20). Shapiro's thesis necessarily must have Hamlet written in 1599. Chambers had assigned 1 and 2 Henry IV to 1597-98. Shapiro gives no date for Merry Wives, but it obviously must precede the magic Hamlet: "in the course of a little over a year he went from writing The Merry Wives of Windsor to writing a play as inspired as Hamlet" (xxii). "When Shakespeare was at his most creative, he wrote plays in bunches ..." (366). Shapiro offers no proof: "Trust me; I know."
Chambers most often had assigned two plays to each regular, theatrical season, a major exception was 1599--1600 with the three short plays. To stitch Hamlet onto the fabric of his version of history, Shapiro envisions "... Hamlet, a play poised midway between a religious past and a secular future" (337). Inhabitants of Shakespeare's religiously contentious England well might have been surprised (or appalled) to be told that they were about to step into "a secular future." Such sweeping, undefined, unqualified outbursts do not strengthen Shapiro's credentials as one competent to deal with history.
Shapiro wants to see Shakespeare use the pair of talented boy players who at least played Portia and Nerissa, Beatrice and Hero, Rosalind and Celia, and Viola and Olivia also as playing Ophelia and Gertrude, Katherine of France and Alice, as well as Portia and Calphurnia--the last pair he describes as "another pair of sterling roles" (127). Shapiro, not unexpectedly, does not bother to define what he means by "sterling," perhaps he just means "short" which also would apply to Katherine and Alice; at least such a meaning would not be risible. Katherine has 59 lines, Alice, 26. Portia has 94 lines including one twenty-line speech; Calphurnia, 27. (All line counts are those of T. J. King.) Any player of middling ability and experience could turn in credible performances of these quite short parts. "Sterling" indeed. Shapiro wants to see these roles as preludes to Rosalind and Celia, but he has nothing to support his contention. Shapiro tells his readers that Shakespeare gave Rosalind "over a quarter of the play's lines [true enough]. Not even Cleopatra would speak so much" (235). King awards the laurels to Cleopatra: 693 lines to 686, but seven lines is not much to quibble about in such exceptionally large female roles. More importantly, Shapiro does not give the source of his information or what edition he used if he did the counting himself. Text does make a difference: King, quite uncontestably, used the First Folio for these plays. That Rosalind is a huge role and of course vitally important to the play is obvious and cannot be disputed, but Shapiro cannot stop there. Here as elsewhere he allows himself to become involved emotionally, and this slops him into sentimentality. Thus Rosalind is the most beloved of Shakespeare's heroines [a very vague term, not defined by Shapiro] and for good reason. It's [sic] not just her intelligence and wit that account for this. Rosalind's emotions are close to the surface, and we see--and are able to experience through her--an extraordinary range of feelings, from the exhilaration and pain of love to terror and embarrassment. Like Shakespeare's other great [another very vague term, also never defined] creations--Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago and Cleopatra--Rosalind loves to plot, to banter, to direct and play out scenes; and, like these other unforgettable characters, she begins to take on a life of her own, and in doing so comes close to wresting the play away from her creator.(241-42)
This is not literary criticism; this is drivel. Shapiro has abandoned his critical and analytical tools to wallow in emotion and vagueness. Later he falls into that classic romantic trap of treating characters in plays as if they were "real" human beings; thus he cannot understand how the player portraying Rosalind also can play the Epilogue.
In the final scene of the play, Shakespeare pulls out all the stops.
... He had taken naturalism [undefined] unusually far in this artificial [also undefined] pastoral. ... Once the dance is over and the other characters exit, the young actor who played Rosalind steps forward to interact with the audience directly, in an epilogue. The audience would have been shocked by this ... (253, 255)
Shapiro is the one who is shocked by this because he has forgotten that the play and its characters are not real; they are an authorial creation, an artifact, a dream. Puck had told him that several plays earlier; but Shapiro, befogged by his romanticism and sentimentality, has forgotten, or never understood.
Because he wants to show Shakespeare influenced by the history that envelops him, Shapiro also wants to portray Shakespeare as sensitive to larger issues, to great historical perspectives. Thus "Hamlet, born at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of globalization, is marked by these forces, but, unlike the caustic Troilus and Cressida, not deformed by them" (309). It is perhaps not surprising to find bad history and bad criticism cheek-by-jowl in the same sentence. It also is not surprising that the romantic Shapiro dislikes the very unromantic Troilus, later dismissed as "too unmoored and too bitter" (370).
Because Shapiro seems averse to water travel--the most popular way of getting around in Elizabethan London and its environs, many of his "historical" re-creations ring false. The "Chamberlain's Men made their way through London's dark and chilly streets to Whitehall Palace" (27). When the Chamberlain's Men travel to Richmond, Shapiro declares "it is likely that they traveled overland rather than by boat up the Thames" (84). Streets were narrow, dark, muddy, filthy, and dangerous; they were to be avoided if at all possible. Shapiro does not even bother to say why his proffered mode of transportation would be used rather than the usual one. Readers are drawn another highly improbable picture: "Henslowe, who had to pass the Globe every day on his walk to his ageing Rose . . ." (130); Henslowe, of course, did not go to the Rose every day, walking or otherwise. He spent the vast majority of his days at court; and when he went to the Rose, he most likely took a boat from whichever palace the court was using at the moment. The usual, certainly the most expeditious, way of travel was to get to the river as quickly and as shortly as possible and then to take a boat. That is why royal palaces, the London residences of bishops and great noblemen, The Tower, the Bankside theaters, and much else were on the river.
As the year 1599 moves on, Shapiro decides that it is time to take Shakespeare to Stratford-upon-Avon since he must have traveled there at least occasionally. Readers are told that Shakespeare most likely would have hired a horse which would cost five shillings each way (261). While this means of travel is a possibility, it seems highly unlikely that a man so concerned with investing his spare cash in income-producing properties would be so flagrantly extravagant as to spend the equivalent of at least five hundred 2007 American dollars on such a trip. The usual way for ordinary people to travel anywhere overland was to walk. All manner of persons were traveling Elizabethan roads; it would seem far more likely that Shakespeare walked, and if he tired he could have shared portions of the trip with carters or others at a small fraction of hiring a horse. This is not, admittedly, a very romantic picture of Shapiro's increasingly politically important Shakespeare, but it is far more likely than his hiring a horse.
Once Shapiro gets Shakespeare to Stratford, he claims that the chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross "had stood at the heart of Stratford's civic and religious life since the thirteenth century" (164). Shapiro would seem to be saying that this chapel opposite the side of New Place was the parish church which it was not then and is not now. Holy Trinity Church was and remains the parish church; it is where Shakespeare was baptized and buried and can be reached by a pleasant stroll of a few minutes from the chapel. Until the religious guilds were dissolved during the Reformation, this chapel held the religious services of the Guild; after the Reformation, it became and remains the chapel of the King Edward VI School which it adjoins. As a student in the school, Shakespeare indeed would have attended services there. But at no time in its existence was the chapel ever the "heart" of religious and civic activity in Stratford.
Hugh Clopton, the builder and original owner of Shakespeare's New Place, would have obtained a crick in his neck trying to see "the beautiful stained-glass windows" (164) of the chapel from his garden. New Place was a fairly large residence extending many yards back from its front on Church [then Chapel] Street, effectively blocking any good view of the windows from any point in the gardens. One also wonders what Shapiro fantasizes that anyone would have seen by looking from any angle at any stained-glass window from the outside. In natural light, from the outside a stained-glass window is just so many gray and black pieces of glass held in place by stone tracery or lead. The beauty can be realized only by seeing the glass from the inside through the illumination of the Sun (theological implications intended).
When discussing the Henry IV plays and later with As You Like It and Hamlet, Shapiro pushes his undocumented contentions about Will Kemp. That the nature of Shakespeare's clowns changes when Kemp leaves the company and is replaced by Robert Armin is easily demonstrable, but that is about all that is. Shapiro wastes an entire chapter, "A Battle of Wills," concocting an unsubstantiated, and unless new archival material is found, unprovable, tale of an artistic dispute between Kemp and Shakespeare. The narrative produced fits Shapiro's purpose for his book; but his story is an invention, just more of his shaped fantasy. Unfortunately it is presented as if it actually were theatrical and artistic history. It is not.
No one knows why Kemp left the Chamberlain's Men to dance to Norfolk and then over the Alps. Shapiro concocts an intellectual and artistic debate/feud between Shakespeare and Kemp about the role of clowns and dance in plays. The reader is invited to think that Shapiro is reading from the corporate records of the Lord Chamberlain's Men documenting artistic debates. Alas, no such records survive, if they ever existed. No one knows that Shakespeare was dissatisfied with Kemp and wanted him out of the company. No one knows that Kemp did not want to leave. Shapiro defends his notions by quoting Hamlet's quips and instructions about acting without seeming to realize that Hamlet is a very fallible character commenting in very particular situations in a particular play and not the playwright discussing his craft in an essay. Taking the play out of the context of its peers, Shapiro has problems with what he calls "Hamlet's, unusual length" (340), but it is not even the longest Shakespearian play. Q2 Hamlet is 3680 lines (Fl, 3593); Folio Richard III is longer at 3731 (Quarto, 3419); others are very close: Coriolanus is 3583; Folio Othello is 3572, Antony and Cleopatra, 3484.
Shapiro has more than a little trouble in distinguishing between Shakespeare and his characters when a character says something that Shapiro wishes Shakespeare had said in a tract about dramaturgy. Thus after dutifully dowsing his readers with all the eighteenth-century hearsay about Shakespeare in the theater, Shapiro supposes, no, he actually tells his beleaguered readers that Shakespeare himself played the Chorus in Henry V and personally gave the epilogue at court for 2 Henry IV. What Shapiro would like to believe--what fits his notion of Shakespeare's artistic development--and what can be proved or even conjectured as probable need to be carefully distinguished.
While not the only writer to assume without warrant that Kemp played Falstaff, Shapiro has no more proof than anyone else. The "logic" seems to be: Kemp played clowns, Falstaff was a clown, therefore Kemp played Falstaff. While Falstaff has some funny lines, he is very far from being a clown; he is a liar, a trickster, a thief, a coward, a glutton, a misleader of youth, a person who endangers the well-being of the state in many ways; he is the residue of the medieval devil who must be rejected. And if Shakespeare were trying to limit Kemp, why would he be allowed to play Falstaff who has the largest role in all three plays in which he appears? Will Kemp was the most famous dancer in England. Audiences paid to see Kemp dance. Then would his fatsuited Falstaff have danced? How could he have avoided it? What did dancing Kemp do in roles where proof exists that he did play: Peter in Romeo and Juliet and Dogberry?
Shapiro's grasp of the functioning of theater companies and of dramatic history also is less than secure. He seems to think that there was no stage machinery at The Theatre, thus nothing or no one from above or below, and therefore that such "spectacular" things (flying, traps) were new at The Globe (254). There is no documented proof that there was a sign at The Globe, although there well may have been one. Many have conjectured about a figure on it; but on page 257, Shapiro also dreams up an inscription: "Totus mundus agit histrionem," which he translates for his often-deluded readers as "We are all players"! And this occurs at the end of a chapter where he has spent some time talking about Jaques who had translated this proverb correctly. Shapiro still thinks that John Marston wrote Histriomastix (72, 209). He states (of course without evidence) that Shakespeare turned in his completed manuscript plays to the Master of the Revels for approval (132); this was a function of the company bookkeeper, not the playwright; licensing was a situation of legal ownership and playing permission--a company matter, not a personal one.
When Shapiro talks about playwrights' manuscripts and what happens in printing houses, he is clearly out of his depth and thirty-five years behind scholarship. Thus what he has to say about these topics concerning Henry V and Hamlet, the placing of Troilus and Cressida in the First Folio, the printing of epilogues, or the troubled "editor" of the Second Folio is just silly and need not take up space here. Needless to say, the poor general reader cannot rely upon what he or she is told.
When Shapiro settles down to his main purpose, talking about plays--especially As You Like It and Hamlet, he falls into romanticism and sentimentality which greatly compromises his ability to examine Shakespeare's craft with anything approaching objectivity and even hampers his ability to render intelligent criticism. "... Shakespeare found himself moving steadily at this time towards a more naturalistic [undefined] drama in which characters like Rosalind and Hamlet feel real [also undefined] ..." (46). "As Gravedigger, he [Robert Armin] never competes with Hamlet for our affection" (324). "... Shakespeare didn't [sic] invent a new sensibility in Hamlet; rather, he gave voice to what he and others saw and felt around them--which is why Hamlet resonated so powerfully with audiences from the moment it was first staged" (331); Hamlet ". . . is so often taken as the ultimate expression of its age" (337). These are extreme statements which have little to support them (and nothing is offered). Shapiro well may feel that they are true, but that is quite another matter. One of the chief problems is that performance records for the Lord Chamberlain's / King's Men do not exist; determining popularity is little more than a matter of counting the chance survival of casual references and quarto printings; that is slim support indeed for his comments about Hamlet as well as for his claim that "Henry the Fifth ... [had] one of the shortest first runs of any of Shakespeare's plays" (103). Such statements are irresponsible because they can be supported by nothing but supposition.
Some things need to be said about the writing. All readers should be grateful that Shapiro does not hide behind theory, spew cant and jargon, or pen tangled prose. This reader, however, is disturbed by some writing quirks. Unless he simply is adapting his style ("dumbing down" in the current idiom) to a mode supposedly more friendly to his abused "general reader," Shapiro is inordinately fond of contractions which to this reviewer have no place in a formal study, even one geared to general readers. There are more than 250 contractions defacing his pages like so many ugly splotches. In addition, there are over two dozen mis-punctuated compound or complex-compound sentences, a large handful of split verb-phrases, about half as many indefinite antecedents, even more inanimate possessives, a sprinkling of adjectives used instead of adverbs, several indicative verbs which should have been in the subjunctive, and at least two misspelled words. Also, people are or might be "hung" rather than "hanged" (76, 162). A good copyeditor would have eliminated all of these.
The book also could have been strengthened by the removal of a number of colloquialisms, particularly "a lot" used with some frequency (purportedly describing quantity); other offenders include "a great deal," "hit his stride," "nice touch," "upmarket," "scared," "the long and short of it," "two-faced," "end up," "pretty clearly," and "kind of stuff." These items do the book, the author, and his arguments no service. Dumbing down indeed. Shapiro also is prone to falling into using first- and second- person pronouns, perhaps in a misguided attempt to draw in his abused and probably confused readers: "... everywhere you turned in London, you could hear ..." (47); "If you accepted Rome's verdict ... you could, in good conscience, support the assassination of Elizabeth as a tyrant" (157); "You can see why Shakespeare cuts him off ... " (350); "... we don't know which version he preferred" (356); "We're left with a Hamlet who is confused ... " (356-57). Such usages do not demonstrate a writer in control.
Seemingly, this review could go on forever; but I shall close with a sentence worthy of James Shapiro: "You get the picture; there's a lot wrong with this book." Shapiro's 1599, ultimately, seems to this reader to be a botched opportunity. An interesting, perhaps even an exciting, study could have been written about Shakespeare's artistic development in or about 1599; but to do so would have necessitated leaving out the froth and the suppositions, expunging the romanticism and the sentimentality, and concentrating on a more detailed and far more sophisticated examination of the plays, a path Shapiro, for whatever reasons, chose not to follow.
Reviewer: WILLIAM B. LONG
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|Author:||Long, William B.|
|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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