An intriguing addition to Shakespeare studies, stressing his immersion in the issues of his time.
Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) identifies 1599, when Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders built the Globe Theatre, as the pivotal year during which the 35-year-old playwright’s style changed and his ambitions grew as he wrote four new plays. He had already established a strong reputation with successful comedies and histories like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IV, but Shapiro contends that Shakespeare “was restless, unsatisfied with the profitably formulaic.” The departure from the Chamberlain’s Men of Will Kemp, the great comic who played Falstaff, signaled the playwright’s break with an older form of theater rooted in folk traditions. Falstaff was gone from Henry V, a drama poised on the knife’s edge between patriotism and cynicism that reflected contemporary spectators’ mixed feelings about an unpopular Irish war; fears of a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth fueled the Roman characters’ debates in Julius Caesar. With As You Like It, the Bard moved toward a mature view of love quite unlike his earlier “honey-tongued” romantic poetry. This productive year closed with Shakespeare drafting Hamlet, which transformed the monologue by using it to convey the interior workings of a character’s mind. Shapiro’s best chapters cogently analyze Shakespeare’s extensive revisions of Hamlet, which backed away from the first draft’s radical break with theatrical tradition and softened its dark, existential tone just enough to avoid alienating his audience. The book’s early sections, heavy on specific incidents in Elizabethan history, will not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re necessary to the author’s detailed and ultimately convincing argument that to appreciate Shakespeare as a genius for all ages, we must understand how his art addressed the concerns of his own.
Sure to be hated by Harold Bloom and others who view any attempt to locate the Bard in history as blasphemy against the religion of Pure Art, but open-minded readers will be stimulated and enriched by Shapiro’s contextual approach.