Sunday, January 28, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
James Shapiro
Harper Perennial, 2005
394 pgs.

In this book Shapiro proposes to show us that while Shakespeare’s plays have endured for centuries, Shakespeare was addressing issues which would have been as present in the Victorian mind as terrorism and Iraq are to the modern American. Shapiro chose to examine the year 1599 because it marked a crucial year in Shakespeare’s development. Besides the fact that this was the year during which the Globe, the theater which we learn to associate Shakespeare with in school, is founded, it was also an exceptionally productive year for Shakespeare in which he wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Hamlet and Julius Caesar are perhaps two of his most widely read plays, by virtue of being required reading on curricula across America, all four of the plays demonstrate a shift in Shakespeare’s writing.

Shapiro structures the book around the four seasons, winter, spring, summer, and autumn, tying each play to the season in which it was written or first performed. This puts Henry the Fifth in the Winter, during which Shakespeare had a conflict with the other, perhaps more prominent Will, in the Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kemp, the troupe’s clown. Before this point it had been the practice for the clown to perform a jig or two at the end of the play. These jigs were often bawdy and Will Kemp is reputed to be one of the past masters of the jig, but more importantly the jig gave the clown the last word rather than the playwright, something which, I imagine, stuck in more than one writer’s craw. In the larger world the English were facing a crisis in Ireland which was so much on the public mind that it seeps into the play in the most unexpected ways. In one of the early versions of the play when the French Queen greets Henry, whom she has not met, she says, “So happy to be the issue, brother Ireland, / Of this good day and of this gracious meeting” (5.2.12-13). However it is believed this is not a slip of the Queen, but rather of Shakespeare’s pen. An error which most modern editors quietly correct.

These are just a couple of the examples, as poorly related as they may be by yours truly, which Shapiro uses to show the reader how topical Shakespeare’s work was for the audiences of his day. If you have any interest in Shakespeare then this is a book you should definitely find time to read.

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