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.