Friday, May 22, 2009

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

I finally got started on A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.), which I learned about from Nick Hornby. It is as terrific as I had hoped. I love the premise--instead of doing a traditional birth-to-death bio, author James Shapiro, examines Shakespeare's life and works indepth during the course of one critical year, 1599. He explores not only what Shakespeare himself was up to (and this was arguably the most important year in his career), but also the weather, what people were eating, discusssing, the current political situation, what preachers were preaching about, etc. Shapiro puts Shakespeare in context, which is probably the most important task in analyzing a life and works.

So what was Shakespeare up to in 1599? Well, he wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It, and drafted Hamlet. And that was in his spare time at night, when he wasn't acting, directing, and generally managing the business affairs of his acting troupe. For all of those people who worry about what Shakespeare was doing in London away from his wife, it looks like he was working. There's an old saw that success is 10% talent and 90% hard work. I won't discount the genius that was Shakespeare, but he did work hard.

Now on to the really interesting notion that Shapiro leads with:
...cradle to grave biographers of Shakespeare tend to assume that what makes people who they are now, made people who they were then. Historians of sixteenth century England are not so sure. Because almost no one thought to write a memoir or keep a diary in Shakespeare's day...we don't know whether their emotional lives were like ours.

Their formative years certainly weren't. Strangers breast-fed infants, and babies were often swaddled for their first year. Childhood was brief, and most adolescents, rich and poor, were sent from home to live and serve in other households. Plague, death in childbirth, harvest failures, and high infant mortality rates may have diminished the intensity of family bonds...

Even constants such as love and marriage weren't the same...the meaning of key concepts, like what constitutes an "individual," was different....Given that this was an age of faith, or at the least, one in which church attendance was mandatory, religion, too, played a greater role in shaping how life, death, and the afterlife were imagined.

All this suggests that as much as we might want Shakespeare to have been like us, he wasn't. Conventional biographies of Shakespeare are necessary fictions that will always be with us--less for what they tell us about Shakespeare's life than for what they reveal about our fantasies of who we want Shakespeare to be.

This got me to thinking about other biographies--certainly most writers are not as illusive as Shakespeare, but how far back can we go before we can say that we really cannot understand an author because the worlds that we inhabit are just too different?

I would go so far as to say that, to paraphrase Shapiro, conventional biographies are necessary fictions--less for what they tell us about another's life than for what they reveal about our fantasies of who we want to be. Maybe this is why we read in general--reading for self-knowledge transcends reading bios.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book! I really love the unconventional approach and the idea that looking at one year can give us a different kind of insight into someone's life.

  2. I've had this book for a while and am always "just going to read it". It looks well worth reading. I like biographies that place the person in the context of their time and think that even with a contemporary biogrpahy a lot of it must be fictionalised.

  3. Great review of a book I'm not familiar with. Thanks for posting about it.

  4. Oh, my kind of book! Maybe that is why I have a problem with Jane Austen bios. I have my own ideas about her. Thanks for sharing and I just discovered that my library has a copy!

    Linda Fern

  5. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. I have a boatload of earmarked pages to ramble on about, but I need to find the time to digest...hopefully, I'll be able to post more on this really cool book tomorrow.

    BTW, Linda - I was wondering when someone would do a book like this about Austen. Personally, I think 1813 would be a good year to pick, but I would be interested in others opinions.

  6. I've had this on my list for a couple of years now to read. I must read it this year!! thanks for the review - I'll come back as you give more.