Shakespeare's works show he was a man of his time
By James Shapiro
Fifteen years ago, I began working on a book about one year in Shakespeare's life. The year was 1599, when he was 35 — a breakthrough year in which he finished "Henry V," wrote "Julius Caesar" and "As You Like It" in quick succession, and then, in the closing months of the year, drafted "Hamlet."
I focused on a single year in part because I was frustrated with cradle-to-grave biographers who invented dubious back stories — a rotten marriage or a crypto-Catholic past, for instance — to gloss over how little was known of Shakespeare's formative years.
But I also wanted to put Shakespeare back in his own rightful time and place. I had lost patience with Bardolaters who insisted that Shakespeare "transcended" his era — that he wrote, as Samuel Coleridge put it, "as if of another planet." This seemed to me to ignore Shakespeare's own words — that the purpose of theater was to show the "form and pressure" of the times.
The notion of a timeless and almost inhuman Shakespeare who stared blankly back at me from the cover of the collected works was one that I had been force-fed in high school, and it had nearly turned me off to his plays for good. The authors I cared about then were those, such as Dickens, Faulkner or Kerouac, whose work was steeped in, and had come to embody, their age.
In 1599, Shakespeare, who had been acting and writing in London for the previous decade, had only within the year begun to see his name appear on the title pages of his plays. At this midway point in his career, Shakespeare had written roughly 20 plays and nearly exhausted the rich vein of romantic comedy and English history. He was restless, seemingly incapable of sticking to a safe and successful formula.
His long hours would put a modern-day workaholic to shame: For nearly a quarter of a century, he spent his mornings rehearsing and his afternoons performing a different play every day. The only time left for reading and writing would have been at night — without the benefit of coffee, which hadn't yet been introduced to England.
Though we were never taught this in high school, Shakespeare was a writer for whom money mattered. It bought him both social status and the security to continue writing the plays he wanted to write. And 1599 turned out to be when his fortune was made.
At a time when popular entertainment was limited to bear-baiting, sermons, public executions and theater, Shakespeare knew that his audiences depended on him to help make sense of a fraught world. His challenge was to capture the fears and aspirations of the moment.
These were heady times, in part because nobody knew who was to succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth. In 1599, Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans lived through a terrifying threat from a Spanish armada, learned of assassination attempts against their queen, saw books banned and burned by order of the bishop of London and witnessed the creation of the East India Co.
Hanging like a dark cloud over this entire year was an ill-conceived expedition to suppress an Irish insurgency. It was a disastrous campaign led by Robert Devereaux, the charismatic and unbalanced earl of Essex, and the 16,000 men hauled out of England's taverns and churches and shipped off to fight were beaten by the rebels at every turn.
The war in Ireland was on everyone's mind, including Shakespeare's; so much so that it punctures the surface of "Henry V." In the midst of describing King Henry's triumphant return from France after his victory at Agincourt, Shakespeare's Chorus drops the illusion that the play is simply about England's heroic past and addresses the audience directly, wondering aloud how enthusiastically they would greet the earl of Essex — "the general of our gracious empress" — were he similarly to return from Ireland "bringing rebellion broached on his arm." It proved to be a futile wish, and the speech was cut when the play was published a year later.
"Hamlet," suffused with concerns about invasion and succession and conceived at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of empire, was no less influenced by the tumultuous era in which he lived.
The movie "Shakespeare in Love," which caught the grittiness and unpredictability of Shakespeare's world, got it right, even if it played fast and loose with the facts. Surely it's a slice of life that we care about, defining moments of inspiration, not the writer in diapers or dotage.
Such portraits of Shakespeare stand a better chance of making us care about the man and his plays, while also helping us to see that he matters in our time because he mattered so much in his own.
Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, is the author of “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” published last month by HarperCollins. This article was written for the Los Angeles Times.