A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare: 1599, by James Shapiro
This book almost reads like a novel. Whether or not that is a good thing will depend on the extent that you are willing and able to enjoy a mixture of contextual understanding as well as speculation on Shakespeare’s writings as well as his times. It is well known, if lamentable, that Shakespeare’s life is not as easy to understand as we might hope. Quite often the author is left to suppose that Shakespeare heard such and such a message or was not present in a particular play because he was working on another or that he heard a particular sermon because it happened to match what he was saying in a play that was apparently released at the time. The author also has a lot to say about the way that it is hard to tell the difference between a genuine Shakespeare poem on a bad day and that of a good imitator of Shakespeare on a good day as he discusses the question of which writings were Shakespeare’s in “The Passionate Pilgrim,” much of which will be of interest to someone who likes Shakespeare and is willing to read about the context of Elizabethan era times in which he wrote.
This book is more than 300 pages long and is divided into fifteen chapters. After a list of illustrations, preface, and prologue that discuss the author’s interest and how he came to be aware of what was going on around Shakespeare in 1599 as well as an incident in late 1598 where Shakespeare’s fellow sharers dismantled a theater for reuse, the book takes a mostly chronological as well as topical look at 1599. The author begins in winter (I) with a discussion of the labor trouble within the Chamberlain’s men that led to the loss of Will Kempe (1). After that the author discusses the failures of England’s efforts in Ireland (2), the burial of the poet Spenser in Westminster (3), a nationalistic sermon that sounded like Henry V in Richmond (4), and then looks at Henry V (5). In looking at the spring (II), the author discusses the building of the Globe Theater (6), the burning of books that bothered the authorities relating to English history (7), and the question of Julius Caesar and the matter of censorship (8), with the assumption it was written around this time. After that the author discusses the summer (III) of 1599 with a look at the threat of Spanish invasion (9), the publishing of the Passionate Pilgrim (10), a look at As You Like It (11), and a discussion of Shakespeare’s relationship to the Forest of Arden (12). Finally, the book ends with a look at autumn (IV) and a discussion of Essex’ failures in Ireland (13), the writing of Hamlet and how it relates to the thinking of obscure Englishmen (14), and Shakespeare’s editing of Hamlet (15) before its release, after which there is an epilogue, bibliographical essay, acknowledgements, and an index.
This book is somewhere on the boundary between textual analysis, cultural history, and historical fiction, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The author gives a plausible account of 1599 being an important year in Shakespeare’s development as a writer in that it provided him with the important raw material that was necessary to push him beyond a comfortable place where he had been to create the masterful works that would follow in the next few years. Whether or not Shakespeare wrote the plays that the author assumes he did in 1599 or whether this year marked the leap that the author thinks, the book is interesting because it reveals the professional and social context i which Shakespeare wrote. It discusses the effect of the loss of Will Kemp, Shakespeare’s own efforts at social climbing and helping out with his business interests, the troubles in Ireland that were taking place at the time and the threat of Spanish invasion. And if it is true that Henry V and Hamlet were both written in 1599 it suggests that Shakespeare was moving on from writing English history plays and moving into more psychologically rich material while simultaneously avoiding the jailtime and scrutiny that faced many of his less adroit competitors. At the very least it makes for a worthwhile story.