Shakespeare ‘the man behind the quill’ is notoriously elusive. He left so few clues as to the kind of man he was that he’s frustrated scholars, theatre buffs and the Warwickshire tourist board for years. He’s such an enigma that Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s very identity is the subject of great debate; was this provincial ghost-like fella simply a ruse for the Earl of Oxford Christopher Marlowe or even Elizabeth I?
The majority of scholars dismiss the anti-Stratfordian arguments on the basis that we don’t need letters and eyewitness accounts to understand Shakespeare; his plays provide us with plenty of clues as to the man at the parchment. Amongst them is James Shapiro whose highly readable 1599 is a study of Will the man through four of his most important plays and the times he lived in.
Fifteen ninety-nine was a very eventful year both for Shakespeare and England and Shapiro weaves both their fates – deftly and convincingly – to create a book that is as much a history of a crucial time in Elizabethan history as a Shakespeare bio.
The final year of the 16th century, was a game-changing one for Shakespeare. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company Shakespeare wrote for and performed with for much of his life, built their own theatre, The Globe. Shakespeare had a major financial stake in the new theatre and so his fortunes were, in every sense, tied up with The Globe’s success.
As risky as the venture was, Shakespeare saw the opportunity to move away from writing tried-and-tested money spinning comedies. Shakespeare, no longer shackled by a theatre owner, used his freedom to write plays that would challenge his audience. He ditched the fool, littered his scripts with new words – or old ones used in a new way – introduced soliloquies and feisty female characters.
We’ve become so used to talking about Shakespeare as a playwright whose works transcend time, whose themes and concerns fit as neatly into our world as they did into his own, that it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t writing for us. He was writing for an Elizabethan audience, and to ensure that he had food on the table, these plays had appeal to 16th century punters enough to encourage them to part with their groats.
Shipiro grounds Shakespeare in his time, stripping him of his future and allowing the man to come out from behind the legend. But despite Shipiro’s attention to detail and convincing arguments that attempt to lure out him out from behind his words, the Stratford man is still very much a bit part in 1599, a wisp of a character conjured up from the trail of breadcrumbs he left in his scripts.
Shakespeare the playwright has a far bigger role, and Shapiro does a convincing job of fleshing out the influences that informed four of Shakespeare’s great plays. During this year, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and began work on Hamlet. Not a bad 12 months work. Using the seasons as a marker, Shapiro weaves events, both major (England’s ill-fated war in Ireland) and less obviously seismic (the introduction of the essay to England), as factors that filtered through into these Shakespeare’s works.
Shapiro’s research is impeccable – his bibliographical essay at the end is the size of a novella – and that he then distils this library’s worth of academia into a enjoyable, pacey, often gripping, read is impressive. That he deftly dances around all he doesn’t know with believable speculation, padding it neatly with the stuff he does know, is even more so. We may never know if Will was a mead or a beer man, but 1599 is a brilliant companion read to some of Shakespeare’s greatest works.
by Suzanne Elliott