William Shakespeare interview, continued

Shakespeare's First Folio, 1623

By David Walsh in the USA:

Four hundred years since William Shakespeare’s death–Part 2

And a conversation with James Shapiro of Columbia University

20 December 2016

Yesterday we posted the first part of an article on 400 years since playwright William Shakespeare’s death, including an interview with James Shapiro, the author of numerous books on Shakespeare and English Renaissance theater. This is the second and concluding part of the article.

* * * * *

David Walsh: Let’s speak about the “historical sense,” and the general lack of it in much of contemporary criticism. You take exception, also in the book on 1599, to the assumption “that what makes people who they are now, made people who they were then.”

James Shapiro: There is a fundamental myth that we are like the Elizabethans. In some ways we are, of course—we’re born, we breathe, we live, we sleep, we die. Those constants are true, but there are fundamental differences between their culture and ours. So we have to be very clear about the ways in which Shakespeare and the others were our contemporaries and the ways in which they were not our contemporaries.

For example, if you’re writing a biography of Shakespeare then you’re probably going to bring a set of modern assumptions about when or how we come of age. Do we come of age at nine when—as children often were in Elizabethan England—we’re shipped out of our family’s home and work in somebody else’s household for eight years? Or do we come of age in our late adolescence when we experiment with different sexual, religious and other kinds of identities? Shakespeare’s works to my mind have been misread by thinking of his own life, and his own struggles as an adolescent or someone in his early 20s, as directly mirrored in his works.

I have a habit of walking into classrooms—whether it’s one full of fourth graders or, like last week, international executives at the business school, to whom I also teach Shakespeare—and asking the same question: how old on average were people in Shakespeare’s day when they got married?

Whatever group it is, foreign or domestic, whatever educational level, the answer is something along these lines: ‘Girls were 13.’ Then I always ask, does anyone want to go lower? And I usually stop them when they get to eight or nine, because it’s getting uncomfortable. Boys, they say, were slightly older. You get an average of 14 to 17.

Then I tell them that the Elizabethans were 24 or 25 on average when they got married. We know that for a fact, and we know that by and large they did not engage in premarital sex. So, how does that change your understanding of the culture? How does that mark a difference from our culture? What did people do between 15 and 25? And then the answers get quite interesting. People begin to understand that the differences between our culture and Shakespeare’s has an impact on how they understand the plays.

DW: Yes, but the historical sense also suggests something about the impermanence of people and things. People change, societies are not always the same, they rise and fall.

JS: I’m looking at a relatively narrow historical period, let’s say 1564 to 1623. I’m aware of certain things that change, attitudes toward royal authority, attitudes toward capital, attitudes towards those who were born in different lands, or worship different gods. But there are many constants in this period.

DW: But you write about “an England poised between worlds.”

JS: Yes, but it is difficult to register changes as you actually live through those moments. Shakespeare is writing Hamlet, remarkably enough, at a moment when a group of merchants are begging Queen Elizabeth for permission to create an East India Company, which is going to change the world. Is he aware of that? No, he’s not and he couldn’t have been. Shakespeare is tremendously good at identifying past changes. He was a good historian. And he was good at registering the disruptions of his time, but he wasn’t really interested in being predictive at all.

DW: No, absolutely not, but you write that “From the start of his career as a dramatist and poet, Shakespeare was compulsively drawn to epochal moments, to what it meant to live through the transformation of what was familiar.” A wonderful, suggestive sentence, in my view. Obviously, this was not an entirely conscious process. There is a great deal of intuition. How do you explain that? How is someone drawn to “epochal moments” in that fashion?

JS: That’s a great question. First, you can track it, you can look over his shoulder as he reads Holinshed’s Chronicles [Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in two editions, 1577 and 1587], Plutarch’s Lives [Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, published in 1579] and so forth. And you can just feel his attention intensify when he comes upon certain lives, certain moments that he understands have enormous explanatory, generalizing power. That’s what got his attention.

DW: More than anyone else’s.

JS: Yes, after all, everyone is reading the same books. They’re just not landing at those places and saying to themselves, “My God, this is exactly what’s at stake, but people read this and don’t get it!” So that’s where the true genius and inventiveness in Shakespeare can be found. I just read once again five pages of Holinshed’s Chronicles about the end of the reign of Richard the Second and the beginning of the reign of the man who deposed him [Henry of Bolingbroke, subsequently Henry IV], who had a keener sense of the fragility of political authority, a keener sense of how tired people were with the way things were, and overthrew the old order and established a new one.

Now you look through these five pages, double-columned, fairly tedious pages and there’s just no story there. An Elizabethan reader would have just kept going. Shakespeare looked at those five pages and said “This is what’s missing, that’s what’s missing, I can add this, this and this. This didn’t happen that way, but I’ll change it.” All of a sudden, he captures that moment, which you can term either the deposing of a tyrant or the grab for power by an upstart Machiavellian. It can be read or staged either way. But Shakespeare sees it in those pages and nobody else does, and that’s the kind of effort that makes his work meaningful 400 years later.

DW: Does that suggest that, aside from or as part of his own genius, he was feeling powerful impulses that came from outside?

JS: He certainly did, because a few years after he wrote that play, a man [the Earl of Essex] attempting a political coup against a queen [Elizabeth I] who identified herself as Richard the Second paid Shakespeare to put on that play, and they were lucky they weren’t all thrown in jail. He knew exactly what he was doing.

DW: This is bound up with the other issues, including the legendary Shakespearean objectivity. You explain, of course, that Shakespeare had to be cautious about expressing his own views because of censorship and so forth. But I don’t think that explains everything. You comment in regard to Henry the Fifth that it “consistently refuses to adopt a single voice or point of view about military adventurism,” and that could be applied to almost every important feature of political life Shakespeare treats: monarchy, republicanism, power, authority, revolution, popular discontent. It’s fascinating, incidentally, that the first public use of the word assassination apparently occurs in Macbeth.

You speak about the competing critical voices and argue that those who see no story in Henry the Fifth are missing the point, that “the debate about the war is the real story.” And you make the same general point about Julius Caesar, that the play juxtaposes competing political arguments and it is impossible to tell which argument tips the scales. Obviously, every reader or viewer is so struck by this issue—Shakespeare’s ability, first of all, to put himself in almost anyone’s shoes and work out the logic of what it would be like to be that person. Where does that objectivity come from?

JS: It comes in part from looking out at 2,500 people who have paid a penny to watch your play. They come from the highest to the lowest social class. Unless he knows what is in their hearts and on their minds, they’re going to go across the street to the Admiral’s Men [a rival theater company] and listen to a Christopher Marlowe play at the Rose. So Shakespeare has to get it right. He has to understand what deeply preoccupies them, what they fear, what they’re thinking about when they put their heads on the pillow. He was good at that.

DW: As you say, he’s not someone concerned with making blueprints for the future, but you do get the sense that the historical moment was something like a hinge, from which you were able to see both into the past and at least have some sense of the future, or at least that something is coming. You were able see in both directions.

JS: Something is happening, changing, that’s the hardest thing to see and feel. What is actually happening at the moment that we are speaking. Someday, someone will write about November 11 [the day of the interview] and say, that day such and such happened. Something was new, something broke free. If he were alive, Shakespeare would be my go-to guy on that question.

DW: I think that’s an absolutely fundamental issue. Balzac has an excellent phrase about how it’s a rare merit to be able to take the measure of one’s own epoch.

JS: Exactly.

DW: Is Shakespeare the greatest figure in history at doing that?

JS: He may be the best writer at doing that. The really difficult thing is to be able to keep doing it for a quarter of a century.

That Shakespeare could do it from 1588 to 1613, toward the end with the help of some younger playwrights, is impressive. And he’s asking the most complicated questions about his time, ranging from marriage and sex to politics and history—all across the board.

DW: In your book Rival Playwrights, you write about the 1590s: “These years were marked by dearth, bad harvests, inflation, high taxation, threats of invasion almost every year, plague, urban tensions, a crisis of empire, the death of most of Elizabeth’s advisors in the Privy Council, and of course the problem of succession. Anxiety about war was prevalent, not just in England, but in much of Europe as well.”

The question I have, because your books are saturated with this anxiety and restlessness: is it that the new bourgeois world coming into existence was a more publicly, obviously and actively tense one, as opposed to the more static rural society it was replacing … ?

JS: Absolutely, no question.

DW: … Or is it—of course, objectively bound up with that—that we have for the first time since the ancient world a group of playwrights who were able to take the barometric reading of a society as a whole?

JS: You know, on the most elementary issues, on the things that are easy for anyone to understand: holiday, the calendar, time … to pass from the late 15th to the early 16th century was to watch time accelerate, to watch “holiday” disappear, to watch a kind of early alienation from the natural world, which Shakespeare’s comedies are filled with. This was profound change and if that doesn’t make you anxious in a way you probably can’t explain, I don’t know what does. That mattered to Shakespeare.

Growing up as a child, his uncles and neighbors would say, “Oh, it’s April 23, it’s your birthday, we always used to celebrate St. George’s pageants on this day, and we no longer do.” And all of a sudden, he is thinking: what has changed, what have I lost, what have I missed? So from an early age I suspect Shakespeare was really conscious of worlds that had been lost and being thrust into a vortex—one that he was also able to take economic advantage of. It’s nostalgia, but also opportunity for him.

Yes, it is the most vivid picture since the ancient world. And I’ll bet as King Charles I was going to the scaffold he was thinking, “This wouldn’t be happening to me if those bastards hadn’t been writing and staging those plays about the killing of a king for all those years.”

DW: That was my next point! You explain the plays are not manifestos, and they are certainly not sympathetic to revolution and the overthrow of monarchies in general. Nonetheless, the accurate depiction of the lives of rulers and changes in regimes, the practical, ungodlike and sometimes positively rotten motives brought out … all this (not only in Shakespeare) had to have a delegitimizing effect, a destabilizing effect. You mention, for example, that the historical plays of Shakespeare and others “taught them [the people], among other things, to be skeptical of the motives of rulers.” A few decades later, a king’s head would fall.

JS: The plays do have that destabilizing effect, and the authorities knew that all along. They were wrong in assuming that they could control it. What do I mean by that? Monday morning I’m going to go into class and talk about a handout I’ll give them. I’ll tell my students, take a look at this and tell me the difference between this sheet and your edition of Richard the Second.

Missing are 172 lines, on the deposing of Richard the Second, that the governmental authorities decided could not be printed during Queen Elizabeth’s lifetime. You could do it onstage, but it could not be circulated further. To show a king giving up his crown? You couldn’t put that on paper. I wanted my students to see what it looks like to airbrush history. That’s what this is, like the Stalin-era photos, where somebody’s shoulders are still visible, but there’s no head.

It was always a game of cat-and-mouse between the playwrights and government officials, who assumed that if they made sure that local, immediate politics didn’t enter in, then the more global political sensibility would not be transformed. But over 40 years of putting on these plays proved them seriously, fatally wrong. Art makes you think, which is why people want to cut arts education in this country.

DW: You do wonder, and there’s no way of answering this, to what extent the playwrights were conscious of this.

JS: The ones sitting and cooling their heels in jail, like Ben Jonson, were aware of it. He had a lot of time to think about it. He had impulse control issues.

DW: What about Christopher Marlowe?

JS: Marlowe thought he was smarter than the authorities until he was stabbed and killed. Was he bumped off by the government? Let’s just say, nobody in that room was clean.

Drama in and of itself, by airing competing ideas, is allowing people to entertain those troublesome views in a society where alternative views did not get much circulation.

DW: But they allowed the murder of Julius Caesar to take place on stage. Was that all right because it was a different epoch, a different country?

JS: It had happened, and everyone knew what had happened. Everyone wrote about it, it just depended how you wrote about it. You could write about it like Dante, who places Brutus in the bowels of hell, or like Milton, who celebrates Brutus as a republican hero.

Of course, typically, Shakespeare doesn’t come down on one side or the other. He creates a play that allows people over time to read Brutus as either hero or goat. I’ve been teaching that play for 30 years. When I started teaching at Columbia you still felt the pull of 1968 and the radical feeling in the room. So about half the students felt Brutus did right, and identified with him. Now he’s just a clown to the students. No one stands up for Brutus. It’s so sad. I keep waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way.

That’s the real fun of teaching over decades. You get to see the slight but steady shift in how a collective group thinks and feels. They’re always the same crowd, they’re always 20-year-old undergraduates of Shakespeare at Columbia—how do they think? You watch it change over time.

DW: They don’t think Brutus should have stuck his neck out?

JS: You’d think that they’re young and going to side with someone who stands on his principles and is going to challenge authority. They don’t today. When a third of the kids go to work for Goldman Sachs—of course I’m exaggerating—it’s no shock. Mind you, the tuition costs and pressures are obscene today. I don’t blame them for trying to make money.

DW: How would you say things have changed among your students, if it’s possible to generalize?

JS: There are probably far more continuities. This place admits one out of 20 who apply. They’re all smart, eager, devoted. I never have to worry about whether they’re going to come prepared. But it’s harder these days to get them to reveal their political views. They keep those cards close. I don’t blame them. My job is to be in their face and I am. They’re more passive than they used to be. They’re respectful in ways that I don’t admire. I tell them that. Have you ever played tennis with someone who hits the ball back softly? Yes. Is it fun? No.

DW: This is one of my favorite lines in the 1599 book. It’s in the prologue. You argue “that Shakespeare’s way out of the dilemma of writing plays as pleasing at court as they were to the public was counterintuitive. Rather than searching for the lowest common denominator, he decided instead to write increasingly complicated plays that made playgoers work harder than ever.” First, how did you reach that conclusion? If you can remember…

JS: I don’t know how, but it suddenly struck me that he thoroughly repudiated the model of “Oh, that worked, so let’s do it again.” He wanted to do something difficult. Unless the audience is getting it and snapping it back, he can’t hit the ball as hard as he wants to. Once you get an audience that has seen 30 or 50 plays, even if they’re illiterate, you can start getting truly complicated in the things that you do. And he did.

But he has to train an audience to do that. We speak about Shakespeare creating plays, but he also created an audience that could understand him. And then he forced that audience to raise its game, again and again. There are moments of visible impatience such as in the prologue to Henry the Fifth: “Use your imagination.” Or, again, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Use your imagination. This is a collaboration, we have a contract, I’ll do my job, you do yours.”

DW: That approach, of responding to a dilemma or impasse by increasing the complexity of one’s work, is a definition of genius in almost any field, in art, in science, in politics.

JS: In any field. Once you simply are in it for the profit motive, you’re done. Shakespeare, above all, is about a ruthless honesty.

I’m sure he had very strong opinions about society, about politics. If he had wanted to be a preacher, he might’ve made a very good one. But that’s not what drama is about. We were all taught in high school about the Aristotelian poetic model: the fall of the great man due to some private or individual fault for which he’s punished. We watch him suffer and we feel catharsis. Shakespeare must have thought that was useless.

Hegel in his Aesthetics rooted his theory in plays like Sophocles’ Antigone. The higher gods and lower gods, or Antigone and Creon, are pitted against each other, and you have this collision of imperatives. These ethical, political and social imperatives are equal and powerful and destructive. This is much closer to what Shakespeare figured out—theoretically, although he wouldn’t have used that term—about how successful drama works.

DW: You obviously do an enormous amount of research. Did you figure out that need on your own, were there people who were examples, models?

JS: There were “models” of people who went down to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC on a Friday, stayed overnight at the Capitol Hill Suite, found two good bits, came back, gave a talk at the Shakespeare Association meeting the following month and published an article in Shakespeare Quarterly that brought them job offers and acclaim.

It was the most anecdotal and thin scholarship. I thought, I need to read everything. I don’t have time to read everything written over a 50-year period, so I’ll pick a year and read everything that survives that was written during that year, not knowing it would take me over a decade to read everything and then be able to start writing it up. It took me 15 years for 1599. I got it down to 10 for The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. I spent a quarter century on two years and two books, but it was time well spent. I have no regrets.

DW: So for those 10 or 15 years you were driven to find answers to certain questions?

JS: Once you’re tenured, you have a certain freedom. But if you want to climb in the academic ranks, and get outside offers and higher salary, and a reduced teaching load, then you put out a book every two or three years. Those books don’t endure for the most part. So I was keener on writing something of greater “constancy,” but it just takes time.

Shakespeare’s model of 12- to 14-hour days for 25 years has always been a good guideline. He was not a “company keeper.” He was a worker. You get up, you rehearse that day’s play, you have lunch, you stage that play, and when everyone else goes off to have a good time, you read and write by candlelight late into the night. And you do that for a quarter century and you look back at your body of work and you feel, that’s pretty good, and you decide to go home to Stratford.

DW: Why do you think he went home to Stratford? Do you think he felt that he had said everything he had to say?

JS: Not everything he had to say, but he had said his piece.

DW: You conclude the 1606 book by writing that Shakespeare “has a better claim to be celebrated as the true ‘mirror of Great Britain,’ his multifaceted plays brilliantly reflecting the fears and aspirations of his time.” This is a highly unfashionable view in the academic world. Don’t you know that, according to postmodernism, to speak about art reflecting the world is illicit, almost illegal?

JS: Well, I missed that class.

DW: But how did you manage to miss it?

JS: It didn’t speak to me, It didn’t work for me. I have a very pedestrian, in every sense of that word, view of the world. So I enter the theater as a member of the crowd pushing up against the stage, rather than looking down at it from some privileged purchase. So I missed that class for that reason. In other words, I could read those theoretical arguments and hang out with the people who were cooler than I was in graduate school and understand them. But if you were interested in answering the questions I was interested in, they weren’t as helpful as you thought.

DW: I strongly agree, I’m only saying it’s rare.

JS: It’s rare just because I’m stubborn and limited in creatively useful ways. Also, knowing the history and material is crucial, because if you speak with a Brooklyn accent and you’re not theoretically sophisticated, you have to be able to crush people with evidence.

You don’t have to dig very deeply into my books to figure out that the combativeness of my work has to do with the ills of my society, even as the combativeness of Shakespeare’s works had to do with the cultural and social divisions and fault lines within his world.

DW: If you were given an audience, let’s say a working class audience, of people who were bright and interesting but had no history of Shakespeare, what would you say to interest them in his plays?

JS: I would be situational. I would try to make them understand that what they can’t understand about their own lives that’s crucial to them can only be accessed through reading or seeing something of Shakespeare’s and understanding it. Once there is self-interest involved, people begin to pay attention.

DW: It’s a sweeping question, but I’ll ask it anyway: what in the most general sense do human beings gain from reading, studying and seeing Shakespeare?

JS: In the most general sense, an understanding of their situation that they lacked an hour or two earlier. I was on the roof of a federal prison in downtown Manhattan in August. It must have been about 100 degrees on that hot roof. There were 19 inmates and eight actors, and Oskar Eustis, who runs the Public Theater. If you ask him, he will take out his mother’s Communist Party card from the 1930s.

We asked beforehand how many had ever seen Shakespeare. Two hands went up. How many had seen a play before? Half the hands went up. They were watching a brilliant 90-minute production of Hamlet. The alertness, the aliveness during the “To be or not to be” speech was palpable. Is it better to fight, or to shoot up and dream?

Shakespeare matters, and he matters even to those who don’t generally have access to him. And those prisoners got it in ways that smug, well-to-do Upper West and East Side audiences, mouthing the words of the soliloquy they know so well, do not get. Let’s end with that.


William Shakespeare died 400 years ago

Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1605 edition

By David Walsh in the USA:

Four hundred years since William Shakespeare’s death–Part 1

And a conversation with James Shapiro of Columbia University

19 December 2016

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the author of 38 or so plays, more than 150 sonnets and two long narrative poems. Shakespeare is one of the greatest figures in world literature. His plays, translated into every major language, continue to be more widely performed than those of any other dramatist.

Shakespeare contributed significantly to how human beings see and understand each other and the world. Of course, there are obsolete ideas and relationships in his plays—no one jumps entirely out of his or her historical skin—but there is also a living fountain of human behavior, noble, wicked, lustful, idealistic, vengeful, greedy, restless and tender. His drama is an education.

He wrote magnificent history plays, tragedies, comedies and, in the latter part of his career, what are now referred to as romances, some of those in collaboration with younger playwrights.

The dramatist introduced hundreds of new phrases and more than a thousand words into the English language, which contemporary English speakers, unaware of their origin, make use of on a daily basis. Each time we “refuse to budge an inch,” “break the ice,” “wait with bated breath,” “come full circle” or “eat someone out of house and home,” we pay mundane tribute to the indispensable character of Shakespeare’s efforts. He described features of life and of the human personality in a fresh, indelible, objectively true manner.

In his work, to place things on a more theoretical plane, “new complexes of feelings and thoughts”—in Trotsky’s phrase—decisively broke through “the shell which divides them from the sphere of poetic consciousness” under the influence of a powerful impulse—above all, the decline of the old feudal social order, which had lasted for centuries, and the dizzying, troubling emergence of a new, bourgeois one. The beauty and lyricism of Shakespeare’s language, almost painful at times, and the life-and-death intensity of the emotions he represents are a measure of the force of that historical impulse. So too are the arrival on the scene of two other great dramatists, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, and a host of immensely talented ones.

Shakespeare’s leading characters are towering figures, because their theme and life purpose, personal emancipation, was towering and revolutionary in that epoch. The Renaissance, including the English Renaissance, put the human individual at the center of things. It was not God or the Church now who could show men and women how to conduct themselves or make their way in the world—an often chaotic and cruel world, but also a dynamic source of endless fascination and possibility.

The German philosopher Hegel, in his Aesthetics, speaks strongly to this point. He argues that Shakespeare’s characters do not base themselves “on something higher,” i.e., the Divine, but instead, “unbending and unbent,” rest on themselves and “in this firmness” either realize themselves or perish. For Shakespeare’s principal human creations, Hegel writes, “there is no question of religious feeling … or of morality as such.” Instead, we witness individuals on stage who decide on “particular ends which are their own … and which they now set themselves to execute with the unshakeable logic of passion.” Macbeth, for example, initially “hesitates, but then stretches out his hand to the crown, commits murder to get it, and, in order to maintain it, storms away through every atrocity. This reckless firmness, this identity of the man with himself and the end arising from his own decision, gives him an essential interest for us.”

Shakespeare wrote about kings and queens and archbishops, and also servants and clowns and weavers. Act II of Henry the Fourth, Part 1, one of his most brilliant works, begins at 4 am in front of a roadside inn in Rochester, where a carrier (someone who delivered letters and packages in a time before regular mail service) laments the condition of his horse. A second carrier comes in and complains about the wretched “peas and beans” they feed the horses at the inn, the latter’s abundance of fleas (“this be the most villainous house in all London road” in that regard) and its lack of toilets. An ostler (stableman) offstage promises to come ready their animals. A thief enters, etc.

Shakespeare’s work endures in part because he excelled at—and clearly reveled in—creating this kind of “low” and “indecent” scene, as one 18th century actor–writer termed it, as much as he did at representing eloquent, titanic confrontations between titled personages. To as great a degree as any artist in history he confronted reality in an open and sensuous, universal and all-encompassing manner.

The relentless, searching, realistic depiction of life in all its dimensions (James Shapiro below refers to Shakespeare’s “ruthless honesty”) in the English Renaissance theater as a whole over the course of more than half a century had an incalculable, cumulative social effect. Before audiences that included large numbers of commoners, Shakespeare and the other writers presented in revealing detail the often inglorious doings of monarchs, princes and princesses, earls, cardinals and other dignitaries. The playwrights were not consciously subversive, but their dramas, which held up a truthful mirror to English society, helped undermine the social order and make possible the convulsive, revolutionary events of the 1640s.

James Shapiro

James Shapiro (born 1955), professor at Columbia University in New York City, is one of the most remarkable writers on Shakespeare in our day. He has written five books on the subject or related subjects: Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, 1991; Shakespeare and the Jews, 1996; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 2005; Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 2010; and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, 2015.

The works are rooted in exhaustive research. For his book on Shakespeare’s life in 1599, the year the dramatist wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet, for example, Shapiro set himself the task of reading “almost all of the books written in 1599 that Shakespeare might have owned or borrowed or come upon in London’s bookstalls.” His focus also allowed Shapiro “to reflect on the events of that year—recorded in contemporary letters, sermons, plays, poems, diaries, travelers’ accounts, and official records—that had a bearing on Shakespeare’s life and work.”

The results are often fascinating and eye-opening. Shapiro creates a vivid picture of English social life, with a particular emphasis on crucial political events and their influence on Shakespeare’s drama.

There are intriguing elements in all the books, especially the three aimed at a broader audience. Contested Will contains a wealth of material on the “controversy” over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, a controversy largely kept alive for political and ideological reasons. Shapiro identifies the essentially antidemocratic outlook of the leading “Shakespeare deniers,” and attempts to get to the bottom of what it was that led some very smart and often insightful people—including Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud, among others—to join their camp.

The Year of Lear treats 1606, the twelve months in which Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest tragedies, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro spends a good deal of time in this book on the impact of the foiled Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 and the brutal repression over the following months of the conspirators, a group of English Catholics who hoped to blow up King James I (James VI of Scotland), a Protestant, along with the rest of the country’s political and religious elite. The accession of the Scottish king to the English throne in 1603, on the death of the childless Elizabeth, had produced the “Union of the Crowns” (England, Scotland and Ireland). Shapiro argues persuasively that the momentous, ominous events of 1603-06 strongly informed the writing of King Lear, in which the “division of kingdoms” is the great and destructive issue, and Macbeth, which of course concerns the “killing of a King of Scots.”

However, I would like to concentrate here on a few of the questions Shapiro raises in the preface, prologue and body of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, because they seem to me to lie at the heart of his specific contribution and to be extraordinarily thought-provoking. Such a discussion will also help, I hope, shed light on the interview posted below.

The Columbia professor, to his credit, establishes clearly from the outset his intent to recount “a good deal of social and political history,” as the only means of conveying “a sense of how deeply Shakespeare’s work emerged from an engagement with his times.” This notion alone sets Shapiro apart from the “postmodernist-industrial complex,” whose labors are systematically directed toward rejecting and suppressing such considerations.

Shapiro explains that his book “is both about what Shakespeare achieved and what Elizabethans experienced” in 1599, because the two processes “are nearly inextricable.” In an especially potent and—under the present intellectual conditions—nearly provocative paragraph, the author comments: “Shakespeare’s appeal is universal precisely because he saw so deeply into the great questions of the day. Shakespeare himself certainly thought of his art in this way: the ‘purpose of playing,’ he wrote in Hamlet, is to ‘show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’”

Shapiro goes on to say that 1599 was “perhaps the decisive” year in Shakespeare’s “development as a writer,” but that 15 years earlier when he had begun the project of researching it, “I didn’t know enough about the historical moment in which plays like As You Like It and Hamlet were written and which they engaged.” The work, then, grew out of this “frustration.” Shapiro very seriously and, in the end, successfully set out to address his historical ignorance.

The reader, if he or she is sufficiently interested, should turn to 1599 and its account of such episodes as the English army’s attempt to crush rebellion in Ireland, the return of the Earl of Essex from Ireland after his military failure, the new armada threat from Spain, the founding of the East India Company and the mounting anxiety over royal succession.

In a fascinating chapter, Shapiro draws a connection between intense political repression under the aging queen and the writing of Julius Caesar, about which he asserts, “No play by Shakespeare explores censorship and silencing so deeply as the one he was writing during these months” in 1599. He adds, a few pages later, “Something extraordinary was beginning to happen as Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the spring of 1599. The various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare’s own reflections on the art of writing began to infuse each other.”

After a discussion of the Earl of Essex and his fate, interwoven as they were with the weakening and decline of the “ancient nobility” and its “culture of honor,” Shapiro writes: “Hamlet, born at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of globalization, is marked by these forces… They cast a shadow over the play … and certainly inform its reflections on the possibility of heroic action. They also reinforce the play’s nostalgia: there’s a sense in Hamlet no less than in the culture at large of a sea change, of a world that is dead but not yet buried.”

There are two further points, which I raised in the discussion with Professor Shapiro, but to which I feel the need to draw attention here, because they seem to me so pregnant with implications, and not simply for literature.

First, Shapiro, in his discussion of Julius Caesar, after observing that the playwright “was born into an England poised between worlds,” profoundly and elegantly writes: “From the start of his career as dramatist and poet, Shakespeare was compulsively drawn to epochal moments, to what it meant to live through the transformation of so much that was familiar.” One almost wants to add, and this was a key to his genius!

The phrase legitimately pleases Shapiro so much that he also applies it to the writing of Hamlet, asserting that “Shakespeare once again found himself drawn to the epochal, to moments of profound shifts, of endings that were also beginnings.” Pointing to the Reformation—which itself was an episode in “the long fight of the bourgeoisie against feudalism” (Engels)—and the death of the old religion, Catholicism, the author points out that “Shakespeare’s sensitivity to moments of epochal change was both extraordinary and understandable.” Hamlet conveys, he writes, “what it means to live in the bewildering space between familiar past and murky future.” All this speaks to the powerful, determining influence of social life, “the great questions of the day,” on art and the artist.


Second, Shapiro makes a valuable point, in my view, about Shakespeare and the rigorous, demanding artistic course he chose, which must pertain as well to every intellectual-moral endeavor of a serious kind.

Shapiro comments that Shakespeare at a certain point—and he presumably locates this condition in or around 1599—“was able to write plays that appealed to audiences across a wide spectrum,” but was nonetheless “frustrated by the limits this imposed on what he could write.” His desire “to experiment … to wrestle with increasingly complicated social, historical, and political issues … jarred with the demands of writing plays that had to please all.”

Should he adapt himself to prevailing tastes and opinions in an effort to satisfy one portion or another of his audience? Shapiro writes: “Shakespeare’s way out of the dilemma of writing plays as pleasing at court as they were at the public theater was counterintuitive. Rather than searching for the lowest common denominator, he decided instead to write increasingly complicated plays that dispensed with easy pleasures and made both sets of playgoers work harder than they had ever worked before.”

Isn’t this the arduous path taken by the most farsighted and historically ambitious figure or figures in every important field, that is, the individual or tendency most sensitive to the objective undercurrents, not yet visible to great numbers of people?

I spoke to James Shapiro at his office on the Columbia University campus, where he has taught for 32 years, in November. I asked him first about the history of his interest in Shakespeare, which he has discussed in other interviews. He explained that he was “force-fed Shakespeare in junior high school and at Midwood High School, in Brooklyn, New York” and despite “a pretty good teacher, I hated it.” He never took a college course on the playwright as a result of this unhappy initial experience.

Shapiro added, “When I write and when I think about Shakespeare, the ideal audience I have is made up of those who never went to college, who feel Shakespeare is distant from them and feel alienated from it. I’m pretty adamant about trying to reach a different kind of audience, who share a confusion that I can still remember.”

His attitude changed through his encounter with the British theater in the 1970s, “which was always holding that mirror up to postwar Britain. Whether it was seeing history plays there, whether it was Ian McKellen’s Coriolanus in 1984, or whether it was plays at the National Theatre where you really begin to see how authoritarian rulers come into power… It was an education without signing up for the courses.”

Over the course of several years, he would quit whichever “crummy job” he was holding down in New York “and go over to London in August and see 25 plays in 25 days. So after six years or so of that I had seen 150 to 200 plays… This was a moment of terrific theater, with great directors. The government was still subsidizing theater in significant ways, although the authorities were not entirely comfortable with it. It was a moment before HBO or Netflix, which would steal away great talent, or Hollywood for that matter… So my timing was very fortunate.”

I asked what route had led him to teaching Shakespeare. He attended Columbia as an undergraduate, where “I was not a very good student,” and the University of Chicago as a graduate student (“I wasn’t a very good grad student either”). He knew he would be a teacher of some sort, because “everyone in my family was a teacher.”

He spent a year teaching at Dartmouth, “and I was a really good teacher, especially in my mid-20s, but I was told by the vice chairman of the department that they already had one Jewish Shakespearean, and they couldn’t have two.” I told Shapiro that I was not surprised this was Dartmouth’s policy, but I was astonished the vice chairman of the department was so open about it.

“Well, he said it. It wasn’t personal; it was just the way Dartmouth was. He didn’t say it with regret or with any pleasure; it was simply the reality. I went to Goucher College for two years in suburban Maryland. Columbia advertised for a revolving door position. No one had gotten tenure in this department for a generation. Coming here just meant losing the security of living in Baltimore and coming back to New York and teaching great students. I got tenure seven years later and I’ve been here for 32 years now.

The rest of the conversation follows:

David Walsh: You speak in a couple of places in your books about not writing in an impenetrable fashion and making the decision to appeal to a popular audience. It wouldn’t be letting you in on a secret to suggest this is not the general trend. The postmodern, post-structuralist material I read is certainly impenetrable, deliberately impenetrable and inaccessible. Did you feel you were fighting against the stream or not, at that point?

James Shapiro: East coast, private universities, as opposed, for example, to the University of California system, give you no reward for writing a book. So if you’re going to write a book, you’re either going to do it out of commitment and passion, or because you want to say something and reach a particular kind of audience. That’s very liberating. It also means if you are going to write a book, it has to be good enough to persuade a commercial publisher to invest in marketing, sales, editing, printing, etc. It means serving different masters and having a different sort of pressure. It also means moving from the saltwater of academic prose to the fresh water that people can drink.

DW: I understand, but still it’s a conscious decision to write for a popular audience.

JS: Mostly, I was trying to ask questions that academics weren’t interested in, but which mattered hugely to me. So I wrote a book called Shakespeare and the Jews. I was interested in doing that in part because at the time the academic holy trinity of race, class and gender did not allow for questions of religion and theology. At the same time, I had an intensely personal reason. I was living with and soon married to an Irish Catholic woman. Nobody had ever intermarried in my very observant family. What better way to explore the nature of Jewish identity than to immerse myself in a book about it?

DW: You write in the preface to 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s appeal is universal precisely because he saw so deeply into the great questions of the day.” That’s a tremendously important point to me.

JS: Try that on an academic audience.

DW: That’s my point! This is definitely swimming against the stream.

JS: I think it happens in a lot of classrooms, but I think the professionalization of literary studies in our lifetime has meant that people won’t write about that, going back to the politics and pressures in the universities.

The BBC once brought in a number of actors and directors, and me—I think I was the only nonperformer in this group—to talk for four minutes about our favorite character in Shakespeare. The organizers were nervous. They said, “Oh, we’re so sorry, but Hamlet and Lear are already taken.”

I said, “They wouldn’t have occurred to me.” The character that I spoke about is a guy Shakespeare doesn’t even give a name to in King Lear. He is simply the First Servant, a guy who has kept his mouth shut and his head down his entire life, and then he sees Gloucester being cruelly blinded by the Duke of Cornwall. “Hold your hand, my lord,” he says. And he goes on, “Better service have I never done you than now to bid you hold.”

In other words, “Don’t do this [the blinding]. I served you ever since I was a child, and I’ve kept my mouth shut.” It’s really a class moment. He doesn’t have a name. I’m sure his lord doesn’t know who he is. They kill each other, effectively. He lived for one moment to do some good. He is a barometer.

In other words, you can push people to the point where they consider what you’ve done to be so morally reprehensible that they will abandon what they previously believed in, cross class barriers, pull out a weapon and say, “This is where I take to the streets.” This is the character I thought worth speaking to and about.

To be continued

Actress Glenda Jackson in Shakespeare’s King Lear

This video from England says about itself:

27 October 2016

Glenda Jackson and Antony Sher both play Shakespeare‘s King Lear this winter in London. The only question is which one you’ll see first!

By Gillian Piggott in Britain:

Thursday 17th November 2016

GILLIAN PIGGOTT sees Glenda Jackson give one of the great tragic performances in a flawed production of King Lear

King Lear
Old Vic, London SE1

IN THIS King Lear, Glenda Jackson makes a storming return to the theatre after more than two decades in British politics and her monumental performance shows just how much politics’ gain has been the stage’s loss.

Lear is the perfect choice for the wiry Jackson, whose elderly body, beautiful and androgynous, fascinates. The question of a female playing a fading old man does not even arise. She completely inhabits the role.

Jackson’s greatest asset always was, and still is, her mellifluous voice and meticulous articulation. That vocal range, moving effortlessly from gentle lower register to harsh higher notes paints Lear’s journey in bright colours and affords us the chance to relish the poetry.

But while Jackson’s performance will go down as one of the great Lears, director Deborah Warner’s uneven interpretation of the play as a domestic tragedy about the indignities and injustices of old age downplays the epic dimension and political context and fails to support Jackson’s marvellous work.

Surprisingly, Warner appears not to trust the material, seeking instead to import contemporary references at every turn.

While Jackson’s androgyny reflects the current interest in gender fluidity, clunky gimmicks such as setting the play in a rehearsal room or actors simulating masturbation and copulation are distractions.

And it’s difficult to take in the wonderful “stand up for bastards” speech by Edmund (Simon Manyonda) if it is delivered while he is working out.

Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks are good as Goneril and Regan and the sado-masochistic relationship between the latter and Cornwall (Danny Webb) works as a reading.

But no effort is made to make a case for the sisters’ cruelty and their “filial ingratitude,” lessening the dramatic texture of the characters and the play. Rhys Ifans, genuinely funny, is a fine fool.

But some of the younger cast members, far less convincing, are “severely o’erparted,” an instance being Morfydd Clark. Her excessively emotional interpretation of Cordelia renders her delivery inaudible.

Runs until December 3, box office: oldvictheatre.com.

Shakespeare and British poetry today

This 2012 video says about itself:

Shakespeare Sonnet 18 performed by 8 year old child actress Alexis Rosinsky.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

‘All of human life in a poetic instant’

Saturday 23rd April 2016

To mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann invited 30 leading contemporary poets to respond to Shakespeare’s sonnets in their own form, voice and style. The resulting book is, they say, a unique poetic celebration of a writer whose work ‘contains multitudes’.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE died on April 23 1616, which may have been his birthday. That his life should seemingly end on the anniversary of the day it began is apt, for Shakespeare’s death represents the start of a long and vibrant afterlife for the poet’s works.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems have continued to be read and performed around the world, translated into every language imaginable, and reinterpreted in every possible way.

Our book seeks to continue the tradition of reinventing Shakespeare, while also serving to commemorate his writing in the year of the quatercentenary of his death.

The poems they produced appear alongside the sonnets with which they engage most closely. At times this engagement is detailed and sustained; at others a single word, phrase, metaphor or fleeting feeling prompted their imaginations to take flight. In all instances it is Shakespeare’s language, his verbal brilliance, the dazzling way that he crystallises all of human life into a poetic instant, which our poets respond to.

While such virtuosic qualities are on display throughout his works, they are perhaps most potently captured in his sonnets; 154 poems of 14 lines of interwoven rhyme, first published in 1609, that form a loose sequence.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are at once the apex of the form, representing the heights of what it can achieve, and also an afterword to a poetic tradition that had dominated literary fashion some 20 years earlier: the 1590s saw sonnet sequences by Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Richard Barnfield, Samuel Daniel and others and it may have been during this period that Shakespeare first worked on his own poems.

An element of belatedness is central to our understanding of the sonnets, and to this book. Our poets, like Shakespeare himself, are returning to a form that is itself propelled by the logic of return, as its rhyme sounds constantly bring the reader back to preceding lines, making the past vividly present in the current moment.

One of the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s series is with how the poet and his lovers will be remembered after they are gone. As such, the sonnets make a particularly fitting place at which to pause and commemorate Shakespeare himself.

The themes of loss, grief, the passing of time, mortality, and posthumous remembrance that pervade the sequence have proved enduring. Our own poets frequently take them up and, like Shakespeare, explore such terrain as a way of thinking about what poetry itself can do.

When Shakespeare imagines his own poems as “the living record of your memory,” he speaks of each reader’s ability to bring life to his verse, as well as his verse’s ability to memorialise the beloved.

There is a knowing bravado there too and these new poems respond to the cynical competitiveness of the sonnet as well as its capacity for more reverent celebration. A concern with inheritance — the transmission of ideas, values and even words from one generation to another — often guides the writers assembled in the book, who look to the past and its literary riches as well as to the future and their own legacies.

This past is at once a source of inspiration and a shadow any writer must step out of. Shakespeare felt this acutely and now he himself casts perhaps the longest shadow of all.

The desire to emulate and surpass the writers of the past drove Shakespeare to new literary heights, while rivalry with his contemporaries prompted some of the most astonishing theatrical and poetic experiments ever known.

This potent combination of past tradition and individual innovation makes Shakespeare’s voice unique. His metaphors, in particular, deserve comment for their power, aptness and sheer unexpected beauty.

Shakespeare remakes the language afresh, and our poets in turn rework the imaginative landscape of poetry.

Sleep is figured as the sea, ebbing and flowing to its own rhythms. A fragile flower or plant comes to hold the weight of the universe. A storm summons up all the forces of nature and human invention. The sonnet form requires that each poem is often built around one such image — or conceit — exploring a metaphor by turning it inside out.

The “volta,” or turn, that comes in the latter lines of each sonnet gives this particular force, allowing a poet to radically rethink his or her own ideas within the security of a tightly constrained form.

Our contributors have seized this imperative and often borrow the logic of the Shakespearean sonnet, even where they do not choose to write in this form themselves.

The skeleton of such poems, which are usually structured in two units of eight and then six lines, but which retain a sense of quatrains and a couplet, prompts numerological play and allows a writer to create a counterpoint between the movement of a poem and the differing rhythms of the ideas it contains.

Again, Shakespeare does this to a superlative degree and our poets have internalised this aspect of his writing, giving it new life in their own verse.

The sonnet is at once the most compressed of literary forms and also one of the most expansive. Like Shakespeare, it contains multitudes.

We believe the poems in this collection do the same.

On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration, edited by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, is published by Bloomsbury in association with the Royal Society of Literature and King’s College London, price £12.99.

Sonnet 116

William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


Gillian Clarke

Pull between earth and moon, or chemistry,
carries the swallow home from Africa
to perch again on his remembered tree,
the weeping birch by the pond. A star
will guide his mate home in a week, perhaps,
to the old nest in the barn, remade, mould
of spittle and pond-sludge in its cusp
as the new year in the mud-cup of the old.
Loss broke the swan on the river when winter
stole his mate when he wasn’t looking. Believing,
he waited, rebuilt the nest, all summer
holding their stretch of river, raging, grieving.
So would I wait for you, were we put apart.
Mind, magnetism, hunger of the heart.

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales 2008-2016, was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2010 and the Wilfred Owen Award 2012. Her recent books include Ice, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012 and The Christmas Wren, 2014. She is currently working on a new collection Zoology and her New Selected Poems is to be published by Picador next month.