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Closer to the Bard

Print edition : Oct 20, 2006 T+T-
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This biography is an elaborate exploration of an elusive literary genius and his world in one turning-point year.

FOR literary biographers, few subjects have proved more testing or elusive than William Shakespeare. Attempts to flesh out his life have had to contend with paucity of information and gaps in the record. Doubt now hovers over paintings once believed to have captured his physical likeness. Against the ocean of words that he poured out into the world, almost nothing is known about his personal qualities or inner feelings. More than any other creative figure in history, Shakespeare has proved adept at hiding behind his art.

At the start of a bold new engagement with this most slippery of subjects, James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that in Shakespeare's case conventional strategies of literary biography seem set for failure.

Efforts to locate the wellspring of genius in formative experiences can make small headway in relation to a subject who left no letters, memoirs or diaries. It may in any case be misleading to assume that someone living four centuries ago inhabited the same emotional universe as ourselves.

If biographers in cradle-to-grave pursuit of Shakespeare fall back on his plays in search of clues, they are likely to tumble into the trap of "circularity and arbitrariness", misreading his plays as two-way mirrors that reflect their creator's own experience. Missing their target by a mile, conventional biographies of Shakespeare are "necessary fictions", essentially playing out "our fantasies of who we want Shakespeare to be". Like a character from one of his creations, the playwright will continue to lurk behind the arras, provoking our curiosity while protecting his inner mystery.

Shapiro argues for an alternative strategy: a "partial" biographical engagement that unites the writer with his times. From the quarter century (1588-1613) that formed Shakespeare's creative life, the scholar plucks a single year, 1599, which he then applies as a lens - at once literary, historical and political. The reader is zeroed into the events and preoccupations of what Shapiro characterises as a tumultuous, turning-point year, the time when Shakespeare went from writing The Merry Wives of Windsor to writing a play "as inspired as Hamlet".

Through an elaborate, many-faceted exploration of this single year, Shapiro aims for a dense texture, a sumptuous Elizabethan brocade whose evocation of life and times is interwoven with detailed textual analysis. The ambitiousness of the undertaking and Shapiro's aplomb in carrying it off explain why the book won the 2006 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

In the book's preface, Shapiro justifies his single year focus firstly as a coping mechanism, a way of delimiting and making manageable both the complexity of Shakespeare's creative life and the superabundance of historical knowledge about Elizabethan England.

With his concern to establish the "form and pressure" of the time that shaped Shakespeare's writing, his strategy also seeks to elude the twin pitfalls of "circularity and arbitrariness" by showcasing the knowable: what Shakespeare read and wrote, the actors and playwrights he worked with and "what was going on around him that fuelled his imagination".

Treading lightly round the issue of Shakespeare's feelings (which Shapiro regards as beyond our reach), the author aims for greater intimacy with this approach, hopeful that by seeking out "some of the unpredictable and contingent nature of daily life too often flattened out in historical and biographical works of greater sweep" (page xx) he will draw us closer to what it may have been like to inhabit Shakespeare's world.

While any year in Shakespeare's creative life might have served such purposes, Shapiro argues that 1599 was an exceptional year both for Elizabethan England and for Shakespeare. Beyond the machinations at court, the Earl of Essex's ill-fated attempt to crush rebellion in Ireland, persistent rumours of foreign invasion and the ratcheting up of state censorship, he detects the signals of a dying epoch, an irrevocable turning away from the medieval world towards the modern. He imagines Shakespeare, a writer "compulsively drawn to epochal moments", soaking up the atmosphere of this crucible year and allowing its multiple currents to elevate his writing to new levels of complexity.

As Shapiro explores this interface chronologically across his chosen year, he strives to balance conjecture with evidence, to root speculation and surmise in a close reading of Shakespeare's works.

Henry V, written at the start of the year, emerges from this as a `historical' play with potent contemporary resonances, its invocation of Agincourt and ancient codes of chivalry tapping deep wells of nostalgia and its references to current military adventures (in particular the deeply unpopular Irish campaign) obvious to its audience. Shapiro uses textual analysis to support his view that the play reveals Shakespeare's growing interest in character and biography, his pursuit of complexity through competing, critical voices: "the backroom whispers of self-interested churchmen, the grumblings of low-life conscripts, the blunt criticism of worthy soldiers who know that leaders make promises they have no intention of keeping... " (page 104).

Moving back and forth between events and text, alert to the tangential and the less perceptible, Shapiro casts the play as in essence "a debate about going to war", its central protagonist "a lot like Shakespeare himself: a man who mingles easily with princes and paupers but who deep down is fundamentally private and inscrutable" (page 105).

Shapiro's single year focus and multidisciplinary instincts allow plenty of scope for excursion. The reader is carried deep into Elizabethan London's theatre world, a thicket of rivalries where companies fought for patronage and no playwright - not even Shakespeare - could evade the need to write for his known audience.

This prominence of public theatre is then contextualised: Shapiro argues that in post-Reformation times, when life was purged of old religious holidays and the spectacle offered by Catholic ritual, the stage may have offered succour to ordinary people craving colour and wonder.

Here, as elsewhere, the author shows himself well attuned to the `background music' of the age: the intellectual debates, the experimentation with new literary forms, the foraging through the past to serve contemporary political imperatives.

At times, there is a laboured feel to Shapiro's efforts to establish linkages between the external world and Shakespeare's work in progress. A case in point is the way in which the founding of the East India Company in the autumn of 1599 becomes an ingredient in his discussion of Hamlet, the writing of which began towards the end of the year. Shapiro detects a connection between the birth of joint stock merchant venturing and the play's reflections on the possibility of heroic action, arguing that both testify to the passing of a chivalric age. But little in his subsequent reading of the text substantiates what is essentially a free-floating inference.

Overall, however, the scholar emphatically carries it off. In pursuit of the "partial", Shapiro offers an exuberant, totalising vision that straddles genres and subverts the notion that scholarship must be dry. One senses throughout this author's respect for his reader, his eagerness to share complex and challenging ideas, the pleasure he derives from his role of guide, whether through Shakespeare's words or through the many dimensions of a teeming lost world.

If at the end Shakespeare does not quite yield his inscrutability, perhaps no one before has taken us closer to him than Shapiro.

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