Book Review: "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599" by James Shapiro


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Review by Gene Bedient

 1599" by James Shapiro“A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599”
Author: James S. Shapiro
New York: Harper Collins

This was a fascinating read for me in the field of “not my job.” A friend mentioned the book and, being a life-long Shakespeare devotee, I asked if I could borrow it.

James Shapiro has made an amazing patchwork quilt, a hypothetical, historically annotated bio­graphy of Shakespeare’s life in the year 1599. Shapiro informs the reader at the very beginning that much of the story is created from historically informed conjecture, but what a magnificent job he has done. The bibliography at the end of the book is enormous and impressive. While some authors include such lists to provide the appearance of scholarship, it is apparent that Shapiro is very well informed.

For those of us who love reading, watching or participating in the performance of the plays of Shakespeare on stage, this fine tome provides an important dimension that most of us are necessarily lacking. It has been demonstrated by each subsequent century after Shakespeare that his plays are timeless, ageless and easily adaptable to the current political and social issues of each age. Be that as it may, it is even the more remarkable considering that, while William Shakespeare certainly wrote his plays to fulfill the desired need for popular entertainment of Eliza­bethan times, he based them inexorably on the political, social and economic conditions of those times, often at personal risk.

Shapiro admonishes the reader at the outset that some of the initial reading contains background material that will seem tedious, and he encourages the reader to stay on board. I found the entire work to be completely fascinating and engrossing.

The story begins by setting the background of the theater business/theater profession in London at the end of the 16th century. A small acting troupe called the Chamberlain’s Men is discussed in detail throughout the book. Today, we think of William Shakespeare primarily as a writer of plays and sonnets. He was also an actor and an integral member of the Cham­berlain’s Men, who had the official status of being on call to perform for the court of Elizabeth I. These actors at the outset of the story are Richard and Cuthbert Burbage (their late father, James, had been the primary financial backing for the troupe); John Heminges; Augustine Phillips; Will Kemp (a very popular comic actor); Thomas Pope; and William Shakespeare. At the outset of the book, the Burbages offered an investment plan to their fellow actors. Their current theater was tenuous due to its location: It could be interrupted at the whims of the London city fathers, who were often hostile toward theater. They also had a testy landlord. Under the laws of the time, the landlord owned the land but not the theater structure. The Burbage brothers located a new site outside of the city but within easy access to their audiences. The five above-mentioned members of the Chamberlain’s Men were offered a deal: They would each put up 10 percent of the funds necessary to relocate the theater and they would share in 10 percent of the profits. Actor’s equity was born. This part of the story continues with the players, designated carpenters and volunteers dismantling the existing theater from the unknowing landlord’s property in the cold of winter, moving it, and setting up at the new location on the west bank, near the current Globe theater.

The book is full of gems. Because the sword was the main form of man-to-man combat of the age, actors were necessarily skilled fencers. They were also high-spirited individuals, as their profession dictated. It was not uncommon for the actors to become entangled in off-stage disputes, settled with the sword and often with deadly outcome.

Those interested in the history of England and Ireland will find the book fascinating. It deals with “the troubles” set into play when Elizabeth’s predecessors, in particular Henry VIII, encouraged his subjects to colonize Ireland. Not surprisingly, Ireland did not want to be colonized and a good part of Elizabeth’s reign was spent dealing with the consequences. An anonymous document of the time, discussing “the troubles” and the perceived problem of intermarriage between English and Irish suggests of the Irish “Ideally they’ll be shipped off to provide a servant class throughout England…” The English colonists in Ireland were constantly being terrorized by the Irish, and English troops were dispatched to quell them. Where did the troops come from? The senior military officials simply went to public gatherings, such as church services, plays, fairs, etc., where they contained the entire gathering while they culled the suitable young men and forced them into military service. It was called “mustering the troops.” Fraught with corruption on all levels, well-to-do young men were usually able to purchase their release. Con­siderable coverage is given to the political/military situation of England at the time and with Elizabeth’s relationship with the militarist, the Earl of Essex, who was to go to Ireland and clean up the terrorists, once and for all. Not! If Elizabeth did not have enough problems with uprisings and defeats in Ireland, she could look to the south and worry about a possible invasion by the Spanish armada.

Those interested in Shakespeare will be fascinated with revelation after revelation. Not the least of these is the discussion about Shakespeare’s made-up words, new words used in plays and then disappearing from use in subsequent plays. There are many important details about specific plays and how they were shaped by events of the day. The discussion of “Hamlet” is absolutely fascinating and gives the reader a glimpse into the difficulties and tenuousness of play publishing in Shakespeare’s time. “Hamlet,” as written, was a long play, and actors speaking as rapidly as possible would have required more than four hours to get through it. Two versions were written. Cuts were made. Shapiro conducts the reader through a fascinating discussion of differences between the two versions via Shakespeare’s pen. Unauthorized versions were published. A popular 2,200-line edition, which endured into the 19th century, was created by an opportunist publisher. He hired an actor who had performed the play to transcribe it as he remembered the lines!

Shakespeare had family and property in Stratford-on-Avon. Shapiro discusses travel between London and Shakespeare’s Arden, and some of his less-than-honorable money-making activities at the expense of the locals. There is a description of a worker arriving long after the Reformation had peaked to break out the stained glass windows in the local church and replace them with clear glass.

I’ve loved the works of Shakespeare since the time I cowered in fear under the reign of Josephine, my high school senior English teacher, who would have been suitable for the female lead in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Our community has an incredible gift in the Flatwater Shakespeare Company. Anyone who is at all interested in Shakespeare and in the history of Great Britain and Ireland should read this book.


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