We don’t usually pay all that much attention, as James Shapiro points out, to the Jacobean Shakespeare. We’re in the habit of thinking of him as an Elizabethan playwright: look in most cradle-to-grave biographies for ‘what Shakespeare was doing after James came to the throne in 1603 and there usually aren’t many pages left to read’.
That’s to scant his decade-long engagement with the dawning of the Stuart era. Also to ignore that, as Shapiro argues, only three cultural artefacts created during the first decade of King James’s reign still matter 400 years later: the King James Bible, the mythology of the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s late plays.
Shakespeare, as 1606 began, was 41. The new king was just under three years on the throne, and the previous autumn the Gunpowder Plot had been uncovered. Among the subjects that were then occasioning national anxiety were the union of kingdoms (and, in shadow, mutual mistrust and the possibility of civil strife); the assassination of kings (enough of a hot potato that it was illegal even to imagine it); witchcraft and demonic possession (both feigned and real); equivocation (a political and, to an extent, theological panic was underway over the idea of ‘equivocation’ — that Jesuits were training Catholics to lie, or half-lie, under oath); and a cautious nostalgia for the Elizabethan age.
1606 was not just, rhymingly, the year of Lear; it was also the year of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. And Shapiro shows how all these disparate national anxieties come roaring into the work. 1606, in the tradition of the author’s breakthrough book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, zeroes in on its particular historical moment to explain, in detail, how this worked. In doing so he illuminates the plays and shows how intensely particular in origin these universal dramas are.
The Shakespeare Shapiro painstakingly and subtly presents here is a virtuoso remix artist, a textual sponge, a magpie, a master-orchestrator of the Zeitgeist. The grand issues of the day ran through his work at the level not only of theme but of language itself. Pre-1603, the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ appeared 224 and 132 times respectively; in his Jacobean work, only 21 and 18 times. ‘British’ never appeared before 1603, and ‘Britain’ only twice; the latter ‘occurs that many times in King Lear alone, and 29 times in all his Jacobean plays’. ‘Equivocation’ —previously only once seen in Shakespeare’s work, in the gravedigger scene in Hamlet —percolates through Macbeth.
It’s well enough known that the names of the demons that haunt ‘Poor Tom’ in Lear are lifted verbatim from Harsnett’s 1603 book on fake demonic possession, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures; but Shapiro ingeniously plumbs Harsnett as a source for Macbeth too (‘Is this a dagger…?’). ‘Rarer monsters’, in Macbeth, adapts a phrase attributed to King James himself. The word ‘farmer’ in the porter’s scene in that play alludes to the alias of a notorious Jesuit priest. And so on.
But to say that Shakespeare worked from secondary sources — that he borrowed from Holinshed, or Plutarch, or Jonson’s lavish masque Hymenaei, or the unknown author of King Leir — is not to cast him as being in their thrall: rather, here, it’s to see him master and repurpose them. He knocked King Leir’s happy ending on the head; and he not only ignored Plutarch but hundreds of years of settled tradition to produce an Antony and Cleopatra that gave grandeur and sympathy to the story of a drunken Roman bruiser and his Egyptian floozy.
You learn, too, why Shakespeare’s comedies tend to end not (as is often thought) in weddings but in betrothals; of how the actors’ superstition about the curse of ‘the Scottish play’ is a 19th-century fabrication (break a leg, Max Beerbohm); of why shifts in the political wind caused every ‘zounds’ or ‘sblood’ to be excised from Shakespeare’s back-catalogue for the First Folio; of the reason for his turn to pagan and classical settings; even how carvings intended to ward off demons, on a wooden beam in a suite where King James stayed overnight, can be dated precisely to 1605–6.
Shapiro pays attention to the feel of day-to-day life, too, not just to literary influence and top-level history. When the plague struck in London — as it had a couple of years previously and as it did again in the summer of 1606 — the city became cacophonous with bells, as each funeral occasioned an hour-long death-knell in one of London’s 114 churches. In August 1606 the plague was claiming 161 people a week (when the death toll reached 30 or 40, the theatres had to close). Absent was the barking of dogs: thought to be plague-vectors, they were rounded up and killed.
And here, quoted from Thomas Dekker’s The Wonderful Year, is a (somewhat high-coloured) contemporary account of what it was like to be interned in an infected house:
What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house, hung (to make it more hideous) with lamps dimly and slowly burning, in hollow and glimmering corners? Where all the pavement should, instead of green rushes, be strewed with blasted rosemary, withered hyacinths, fatal cypress, and yew, thickly mingled with heaps of dead men’s bones. The bare ribs of a father that begat him, lying there: here the chapless hollow skull of a mother that bore him. Round about him a thousand corpses…
We don’t know much at all about Shakespeare’s life — particularly not in 1606, when he’d all but forsaken acting and was keeping a low profile — and the author exercises a scholar’s proper caution. So he describes a pageant written by Matthew Gwinne and staged outside Oxford, in which three Sibyls greeted the king (‘Hail, King of Scotland’), but then writes:
Because Gwinne’s pageant so clearly anticipates the opening of the as yet unwritten Macbeth, some biographers like to place Shakespeare in the crowd that day in Oxford. It’s more likely that Shakespeare heard about this royal entertainment from others…
At another point: ‘It’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare, riding northward, passing this group of prisoners [recusant Catholics] who included townsfolk that he had grown up with. But it’s unlikely…’ He notices that a London neighbour’s infant daughter was given the highly unusual name of Cordelia in November 1605, while Shakespeare was writing King Lear: ‘The tantalising detail only underscores how much is lost of the fabric of Shakespeare’s daily life.’
This is not to make of Shapiro a party-pooper, though. By unpicking the plays, and by attending to the political and literary currents of the time, he discovers a huge amount about what Shakespeare read and saw and how he used it, what plays dared and dared not say or imply, how and where plays could and could not be staged.
In the fine tradition of early modern historicism, Shapiro is at pains to emphasise how intensely literary were the politics of the time. He talks about how the official account of the gunpowder treason — propounded in speech and sermon — was given a ‘plot’, ‘best supporting actor’, ‘leading villain’, and notes that ticket prices for the trial of the plotters in January were ‘far greater than at any sold-out performance at the public playhouses’. He describes how the participants in the political marriage of the young Earl of Essex to Frances Howard, both ‘fully played the roles in which they were cast’.
‘Political theatre’ is a dismissive buzz-phrase nowadays: but for the Jacobean court, politics was theatrical and theatre was political. Interpretation was everything. All the world, as this terrifically interesting book shows, really was a stage.
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