I reread the portion of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare that deals with the rogue publication of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets along with others not his and still others that might be his, but on an off day, in a collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. I was struck again by Shapiro’s contention that the plays were public and the sonnets were private. The latter evolved over time, were worked on and reworked for their own sake and as canvases for Shakespeare to play with themes he later incorporated into the plays. Shapiro says that Shakespeare only shared his sonnets with a select few. What he doesn't speculate on is which of those select few let William Jaggard get his hands on them and publish them without permission. That's a good mystery for someone to solve!
I also really enjoyed the notion Shapiro introduces in this section that Shakespeare would have haunted the bookstalls of London:
There’s no way that Shakespeare could have bought or borrowed even a fraction of the books that went into the making of his plays. Besides his main sources for his British histories and Roman tragedies, which he probably owned—Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Lives, he drew on hundreds of other works. From what we know of Shakespeare’s insatiable appetite for books, no patron’s collection—assuming that Shakespeare had access to one or more—could have accommodated his curiosity and range. London’s bookshops were by necessity Shakespeare’s working libraries, and he must have spent a good many hours browsing there, moving from one seller’s wares to the next (since, unlike today, each bookseller had a distinctive stock), either jotting down ideas in a commonplace book or storing them away in his prodigious actor’s memory. P. 191
I also enjoyed reading how Marlowe’s poem “Live with me and be my love” was included in The Passionate Pilgrim, and so initially ascribed to Shakespeare. The really interesting part was how it was alluded to and echoed and mocked by both Shakespeare and Marlowe, and according to Shapiro is “one of the finest expression of pastoral in English poetry.” I didn’t know that!
Shapiro’s discussion on the sonnets and their creation and abduction morphs into a discussion of As You Like It, the play Shakespeare wrote over the summer of 1599. The discussion is rich and complex, but one gem jumped out at me:
…As You Like It is rooted in its place and time…its real topicality resides…in its attentiveness to evolving notions of Elizabethan comedy and pastoral. Comedy tends to have a briefer shelf life than other genres even as it’s more popular…What’s funny or delightful to one generation often feels pointless and strained to the next. When conventions and social expectations change, comedy must, too.
From my own somewhat limited play-going experience, it does seem that modern audiences laugh at the physical comedy that most directors ensure is present in most productions of the comedies/romances. The dramatic language still sways us mightily, but I don’t think we really would get most of the verbal jokes without help, Beatrice and Benedict, not withstanding. Maybe Shakespeare's genius lies in the fact that we think his comedies are funny at all. This notion certainly cements Austen's place in the Pantheon of literary geniuses...is there another writer who is as truly funny over time as Austen?