Book Review: 1599 by James Shapiro

1599 by James Shipiro

1599 by James Shipiro

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


Theatre review: Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Henry VI, Part 1 Shakespeare's Globe

Graham Butler as Henry VI in Henry VI, Part 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe

Henry VI, Part 1 is according to, ahem, Wikipedia, considered by those that know, to be Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play. Of course, these things are relative. When you’re a genius, your worst tends to still be rather good. Shakespeare wrote 1, Henry VI in collaboration with Thomas Nashe (again, thanks Wiki) and despite its lack of poetry and some rather clunky rhyming couplets (exaggerated for comic effect at one point by Nigel Hastings as a hugely entertaining Duke of Burgundy when he highlights the awkwardness of the line, ‘Who craves a parley with the Burgundy’, we’ll blame Thomas for that one), it still beats an episode of EastEnders.

What it lacks in finesse, Henry VI, Part 1, the first part of an unofficial trilogy, makes up for with some kickass characters and some significant historical ground zeros. Unfortunately, the first of the big names arrives in a coffin as the play begins with the funeral of scourge of the French, Henry V. One of the many great things about Shakespeare’s Globe is its intimacy, especially for the groundlings who often find ourselves standing face-to-face with a distraught Talbot or shuffling out of the way of a soldier brandishing a plastic sword. This production opens with Henry’s funeral procession that walks slowly through the crowd as Mary Doherty as Queen Margaret, sings a haunting melody. It’s hugely affecting, you are as much a mourner as an audience member as we make way for the black coffin. The fall of the great king and the consequences of his early death are reflected in the youth and bewilderment of his son (play with a touching vulnerability by Graham Butler) who follows the coffin onto the stage and spends most of the first half reading a book, his chin wobbling in fear as his father’s legacy unravels in front of his innocent eyes.

There are more lively famous people from history stealing Harry 6’s thunder including car park internee Richard III’s father, Richard Plantagenet, who later becomes Duke of York played by Brendan O’Hea who was leek fan Fluellen in last year’s Globe’s Henry V and still retains that hint of engaging campness. Then there’s Joan of Arc, who starts off as lowly shepherd girl Joan La Pucelle and appears to be from Yorkshire played with vigour by Beatriz Romilly. Plus you get all the stuff about the beginning of the War of the Roses, which, according to Shakespeare took place around a rose bush where everyone tried to out-rose-pun each other.

Nick Bagnall’s production shares the same relaxed openness, easy charm and accessibility that have become characteristic of Globe productions. It’s a venue where despite the faux-Elizabethan architecture, minimal scenery and historically-appropriate costumes, Shakespeare feels more contemporary than many modern day versions of the Bard’s plays and one that can take his ‘worst’ play and conjure up a gripping, funny, poignant piece of theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Hollow Crown, BBC 2

ImageThere’s something truly special about Shakespeare’s The Globe, the Sam Wannamaker inspired theatre that sits like something from a model village on London’s South Bank, dwarfed by the modernist Tate next door.

Open to the elements, and London’s non-stop flight path, there’s no set, the costumes look like RSC cast-offs and the cast are (rarely) big Hollywood names. But within its circular walls, Shakespeare never sounds so alive, nor so relevant in these intimate surroundings. And the comedy, even in a blood soaked history like Henry V, always works so nicely as the actors play into the hands of the groundlings that stand transfixed in front of the stage . You do get a real sense of what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s day, with a (slightly) less stinky crowd and added helicopters.

The Globe’s Henry V season has just finished, picking off where it ended two years ago with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Henry V seems to be the big Shakespeare play of the year – Tom Hiddleston’s played the Prince turned King in BBC’s Hollow Crown series that ended this weekend while Jude Law (who was there doing some research the night I was there) is stepping into the breach later this year as part of a season of plays at Noel Coward Theatre.

At The Globe this season, Jamie Parker returned as the grown up Harry to lead the English army into battle under the shadow of Agincourt castle. It’s a stirring play that, as many commentators have noted, is particularly apt in this flag-waving year– but it has an emotional, almost moral, depth that both Parker and Hiddleston highlighted. Parker, perhaps wary of the big names who’ve gone before him took the bombastic element out of the big speeches. I quite liked this played down approach, and the BBC’s version took the same path with the ‘St Crispin Day’ speech, choosing to have Henry address an intimate crowd of Lords rather than the whole army. This more personal approach drew out the emotion, the horror of war, and highlighted the play’s Henry-as-a-normal-man theme that dragged the story out of history with a present day humanity.  But as good as the performances and staging were in The Hollow Crown, nothing quite beats watching Shakespeare under the stars with actors battling against the planes and elements.

by Suzanne Elliott