Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"1599" by James Shapiro

This is a thoughtful book about an important year in Shakespeare's life, and Shapiro clearly gets it right about many things: for example, the ways in which the Irish rebellion, Essex's fate, and the threat of a second Armada from Spain influenced Shakespeare's art that year. According to Shapiro, the demise of the concept of chivalry is strongly present as a central idea in "Hamlet" where the protagonist's indecision seems to have its origin in the existential vacuum left by the death of a chivalric moral code. Shapiro interestingly links this with Essex's forbidden return to England from Ireland and his unscheduled meeting with the Queen which, according to the earlier code, should have resulted in chivalric success but, in the new moral climate of the time, was merely a prelude to Essex's trial for treason and eventual execution. Shapiro is also good on pointing out the way in which the Elizabethan populace was still not used to the reduction of holidays after the Reformation, when the Catholic saint days were cut from the religious calendar (connecting this with the first scene of "Julius Caesar"). Furthermore, the two tribunes who remonstrate with the crowd at the beginning of the play ("Hence home you idle creatures, hence you home...")are seen as the embodiment of the new puritanism which frowned on frivolous entertainment and idle amusement in Elizabeth's protestant England. On the other hand, as Shapiro points out, the Elizabethan theatre itself had gained in popularity since the demise of the ostentatious show associated with Catholicism. It had become, so to speak, a substitute for religious entertainments which were no longer permitted.

I found the weakest part of Shapiro's book to be the chapters dealing with "As You Like It". His central thesis seems to be that in earlier romantic comedies, including Shakespeare's, true love had always been blocked by some outward source: an irate parent, cruel fate, or whatever. However (says Shapiro) in AYLI Shakespeare went beyond this rather mechanical structure and placed the impediment in Orlando's own mind: he must learn how to love before he can truly be worthy of Rosalind. His early bad versifying is seen as an example of his ineptitude and those scenes where Rosalind (playing the part of Ganymede)instructs him in the ways of love are regarded as his essential education. Now this might be a good interpretation or not, but it appears strangely conventional compared to the rest of Shapiro's insights. AYLI as a play in which one of the protagonists must learn "how to love" seems to belong to a long line of rather dated Shakespearean criticism based on some kind of analysis or psychoanalysis of the central characters.

Perhaps Shapiro's most incisive point is his insight that through the reading of the essays of Montaigne and others, Shakespeare developed his mastery of the internal dialogue or soliloquy and, through this, a profound method for the writing of tragedy. As Shapiro points out, "Hamlet" was probably Shakespeare's least original play being largely based on an earlier drama of the same name. However, the addition of Hamlet's self-questioning soliloquies made all the difference, producing what is still generally considered to be Shakespeare's best play.

In conclusion, Shapiro's book is thought-provoking and useful in reconstructing the social mileau from which Shakespeare's plays were produced. However, Shakespeare himself still, somehow, remains mostly absent in a way that might be considered surprising. After all, he was at the centre of the group that built the Globe, performed regularly before the Queen at Whitehall and Richmond, and was frequently spoken of by contemporaries. Perhaps the truth is that Shakespeare as a man was just not very memorable compared to larger-than-life characters such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Only his internal life was exceptional, and it is Shapiro's achievement in this very readable book to throw at least a few shafts of light upon that darkness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I take the point about the conventional AYLI criticism.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful book!

5:03 AM  
Anonymous Tiffany Lowe said...

Wonderful book!

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful book!

5:54 AM  

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