- A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599
Perhaps the greatest biographer of Shakespeare has observed that the public nature of the facts known about the poet "afford no insight into the interior life of the artist, wherein resides the chief fascination of literary biography." It is ironic that these words of Samuel Schoenbaum (1971, 1) find their echo in the last sentence of Shapiro's sterling book, clearly the most important work on Shakespeare's life among many since Schoenbaum's A Documentary Life (1975). Though able to open "the hearts and minds of others," Shapiro concludes, Shakespeare "kept a lock on what he revealed about himself" (333). Still, Shapiro's deft ability to zoom in and out on Shakespeare's life in English society in 1599 does seem to make the bard take on flesh and blood especially in the silences that Shapiro allows us to hear in the form of what Shakespeare did not—or dare not—write. Despite the beautifully written thick description that Shapiro offers of one year in Shakespeare's life unfolding season to season, we still do not know how he felt about the basic public issues that faced English culture that year. To oversimplify these, we still can ask, was he Catholic or Protestant, Monarchist or Republican or Monarchical Republican? His personal life seems even more remote, paradoxically, in the face of this most diligent, lucid book, a must-read for all who study Shakespeare. How did he feel about his marriage or his family, who probably never saw a single play by their most eminent member (240)? Such mysteries of history and life deepen, not recede, as Shapiro makes us peer across the centuries dividing the post-modern from the early modern and beyond, to a chivalric world recognized in Hamlet to be "dead but not yet buried" (276).
Herein lies the great value of Shapiro's work. It shows us how, through the dark glass of history, we can vividly make out the form and pressure of the times on the four plays Shakespeare worked on in the year 1599, Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Against and within the massive forces that made "the death of chivalry" coincide with "the birth of empire" (274), Shakespeare the English man both disappears and emerges. Zooming out on the grave problems of enclosure and vagabondage "particularly acute [End Page 204] in Arden" (233), Shapiro shows the immortal poet as just one more rich man among an uneasy multitude, having already stuffed his barns in 1597 with 80 bushels of malt, not "ignorant of the consequences upon the poor of Warwickshire" (241). Through Shapiro's other lens, we see Shakespeare the Protean pleaser—and reader—of great crowds, with "over a third of London's adult population" likely to attend a play each month (9). On the stage at least, Shakespeare was able to make them think he had heard and seen their very voice and image, showing true sympathy for those hurt by "the personal and social cost of enclosure," for example, in the figure of the indigent shepherd Corin in As You Like It (243). In so hurtling and maintaining the obstacles of social class, Shakespeare emerges in Shapiro's richly detailed portrait of late Elizabethan culture like the character of Henry V, "a man who mingles easily with princes and paupers but who deep down is fundamentally private and inscrutable" (92).
Indeed, Shapiro tellingly demonstrates how the fact that "Shakespeare played vastly different roles in London and in Stratford" (240) fully situates his life and career in the growing divide of city and country, center and margin, lords and commoners in early modern British culture overall. For example, he convincingly detects in the nationalist rhetoric of Henry V the futility and desperation of the English crown's attempt to colonize Ireland in view of the 1598 massacre of English troops at Blackwater by the Earl of Tyrone. By presenting "the fantasy of English and Irish fighting side by side" so...