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1599 [Nov. 17th, 2007|11:43 am]
Tony Grist
1599 by James Shapiro. Faber 2005.

Forget the Cate Blanchett in a breastplate view of English history. 1599 was a year of terror alerts and national humiliation. The Earl of Essex was in Ireland, fucking up the imperial project and going increasingly Kurtz in the head, the Scots and the Spanish were threatening invasion, there were worries about the harvest and the Queen- ever more pettily tyrannical as she aged- was racking up the angst by refusing to allow the question of the succession even to be discussed. And there in the thick of it was William Shakespeare- forging a new kind of theatre, writing plays that reflected the febrile national mood- Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You like It, Hamlet- whilst trying to keep on the right side of the jumpy political authorities- a balancing act that only he- among his distinguished contemporaries- managed to perform without taking a fall. Kyd had been arrested for treason, tortured and silenced, Marlowe had been assassinated, Jonson had spent time in gaol. Being a playwright was a dangerous trade.

Also very risky to the pocket. 1599 was the year Shakespeare and his fellow sharers built the Globe Theatre- a business gamble hedged around with lawsuits. It was also the year Will Kempe- the company's star comedian and popular favourite- walked out on them (whether pushed or not we've no way of knowing). So- crisis, crisis, crisis!

Shapiro's book relates the playwright to his world. We don't know much about Shakespeare as a personality but we do know a great deal- a surprisingly great deal- about what was going on around him. And knowing what was going on around him illuminates the plays. Henry V is as much about Essex and the Irish campaign as it is about Agincourt, As You like It reflects the crisis in the Elizabethan countryside, Hamlet is the essential fin de siecle document- full of inwardness,and anxiety. Questions that have puzzled critics for generations are cleared up by reference to the everyday nitty-gritty. Why did Shakespeare renege on his promise to feature Falstaff in Henry V? Quite simply because Kempe- who played him and had become indissolubly associated with the role- was no longer available- or was being forced out. 

This is a terrific book.  By placing Shakespeare in his own time, Shapiro brings him up to date. This isn't the unapproachable Swan of Avon, the poet for the ages, but a working dramatist, grappling with tricky political issues, reacting to the stuff that's being thrown at him, doing the business.

And now I really need to read the plays again.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2007-11-17 01:11 pm (UTC)
Blanchett. The actress's name is Cate Blanchett. I am the Blanchard around here, thanks...

Once you fix the typo, feel free to delete this comment.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-11-17 01:36 pm (UTC)
Heh, heh, heh.....

No, I'll let the comment stand. Fancy me doing that. You must have been on my mind :)
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2007-11-17 01:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I am going to put this one in Mr M's Xmas stocking.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-11-17 02:48 pm (UTC)
I believe he'll enjoy it.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2007-11-17 02:12 pm (UTC)
Cate Blanchett in a breastplate

This post wins for these five words alone.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-11-17 04:00 pm (UTC)
It's about the only reason I can think of for going to see that ridiculous film.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2007-11-17 04:35 pm (UTC)
Chalk it up to American fascination with European royalty, British in particular. I suppose I'm as guilty of it as any other Yank (especially when you throw the religious conflict into the mix). Makes for interesting reading if nothing else, particularly when our contemporary examples of public figures (Bush, Spears, Winehouse, etc.) are just so banal.

I've often heard it said that more than a few Europeans have a fascination with the American West, circa 19th century. I've never really understood it myself, as I equate the time with filth, disease, and a finer line between civilization and barbarism than I'd be comfortable with. But some manage to see the romance of the era, much like Elizabethan England.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-11-17 08:57 pm (UTC)
I'm one of them. I grew up on TV westerns and used to play at Cowboys and Indians and that stuff went deep into my soul. I know Wyatt and Billy and Wild Bill were a mean-spirited bunch of chancers and grifters and psycho killers but I just don't care. They're like Hercules or Achilles or King Arthur and his knights to me- just mythic.
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From: msjann65
2007-11-17 05:07 pm (UTC)

One for all Time

"...grappling with tricky political issues, reacting to the stuff that's being thrown at him, doing the business."
And THAT is most likely the reason that his plays have endured for centuries -- the issues are timely, and the humanity of the characters is universal. If Shakespeare had been a novelist, and if psychology had been a science at the time, he might have written psychological novels with equal success, although they would not be nearly as entertaining.

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[User Picture]From: qos
2007-11-17 07:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for highlighting this. It's not a book I would have looked at twice if you hadn't posted about it, but now I'm intrigued.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-11-18 10:15 am (UTC)
Ailz is doing a Shakespeare course next year. A friend recommended 1599 and she read it and was hooked. Then she passed it to me and I was hooked too. It's not only fascinating- it's a gripping read.
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