Unraveling Shakespeare's Life

Dr. James Shapiro tackles the Bard one slice at a time

Forget cradle to grave; get to know Will just one year at a time
Forget cradle to grave; get to know Will just one year at a time

Whether or not you believe William Shakespeare really wrote all those plays, you can probably concede that writing his life story is a challenge all its own. But Columbia professor of English James Shapiro has devised a cunning approach, one he's laid out in his acclaimed history, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

Austin Chronicle: I've read enough biographies and partial biographies of Shakespeare to know that it's a particularly tricky pursuit. How did you choose which strand to pick up in writing about Shakespeare from a historical or biographical standpoint?

James Shapiro: "Strand" is exactly the right word, and it led me to the idea of unraveling. I even got curious when the word "unraveling" came into use in English. Turns out to have been a Dutch word introduced almost surely by Shakespeare's contemporary playwright, Thomas Dekker, and in Shakespeare's day it had a much stronger meaning than, say, unraveling the sleeve of a sweater. It had the sense of really undoing, and my talk is really about undoing what has been done, untangling various strands.

I've been practicing since 1988 a different kind of biography &ndash some people call it micro-biography, that sounds too close to micro-beer for me. It's studying a smaller but significant moment in a life. And one of the things that has long struck me is that there are a lot of great writers who had extraordinary moments of creativity or transformative moments in their writing careers and had them fairly early on, like Wordsworth at the beginning of his career and in the wake of the French Revolution, around 1800. And he goes on to live for a lot of years, a lot of decades, and late Wordsworth is not the most interesting Wordsworth, to my mind and I think to most. You can make that kind of claim about many, many writers and many playwrights in particular. Like Arthur Miller, for example, who was extraordinary early on in his career. I think that's one of the things that goes with playwriting: It's a young writer's game, and playwrights tend to see and feel their world with a kind of edge and intensity that is most powerful &ndash not always, but often &ndash when they're younger. That's not to say they're at the top of their writing game, but their insights are really strongest then.

So I began to think about how much of Shakespeare's life &ndash he didn't live very long, he only lived 52 years &ndash but how much of that was spent writing, and it turns out to be about half. I then thought, what do we really know about his adolescence and teenage years and even his early 20s, these formative years? And we know nothing really, almost nothing. And what do we know about the last couple of years, in which he retired to Stratford? Very, very little, other than what we can tell from the will and a handful of records that survive in Stratford. And there's so much to be learned, an extraordinary amount that has really not been unearthed, as surprising as that sounds, looking at slices of Shakespeare's life during really exceptional moments. So I began to think, what's lost by retelling the same story, cradle to grave, what has to be invented to make that cradle-to-grave story work, and how does that derail us? &ndash in other words, if you invent for Shakespeare in his formative years or years that we like to think of as most formative, say, from the time he was married and has children to the time that he shows up in London, a decade or so, if you invent for that period some kind of religious crisis or sexual crisis or political coming-of-age crisis, how does that change your reading of what comes later in the work? So it's like a train in a sense getting derailed. I felt like once these biographers made these guesses or speculated in this way about how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, they ended up coloring the creative periods that followed. And I'm just suspicious of that simply because I know the record as well as any other scholar who spends his or her life committed to studying these documents, and the information just isn't there.

AC: Borrowing your train imagery, it also feels like once that train is moving downhill, it gathers momentum, and it gets harder and harder for the scholar to jump off. If you've invented that formative crisis and apply it to his later work, you can't uncouple yourself from it very easily.

JS: That's right. That's not a thing you jump off of. It's moving way too fast. If you believe that Shakespeare is struggling with Catholicism in his teenage years, you can read Catholicism through the plays. And it's not to say that everyone in Elizabethan England had a grandparent or four grandparents who were Catholic, they all did pretty much because religion changed back and forth from Henry VIII through Edward VI through Mary I to Queen Elizabeth, so everyone understood and had a family tradition of Catholic practices, but to make the argument that Shakespeare must have spent his boyhood or his adolescence in a Catholic family and therefore is writing crypto-Catholic plays is an invention for which there is no evidence but for which we have a lot of biographical works nowadays making that case. It just throws me, because not everyone gets to spend as much time as I do thinking about this, researching about this, and writing about this, and scholars have been too tempted to believe their hunches rather than stay within the more narrow confines of what the evidence allows us to say with confidence.

AC: Well, I believe you've crossed into this territory with your book on the authorship controversy. (Contested Will) As we know all too well from popular culture of the past 50 years, conspiracy theories feed on themselves. Once you've convinced yourself that something is there, then you begin to see evidence of Shakespeare's Catholic leanings or sexual crisis or whatever you want to wherever you look.

JS: It's like conspiracy theory, but I became more interested in the narrative aspect of it. I wanted to know &ndash I came across in a book called Shakespeare Biography by my great teacher, David Bevington, a statement along the lines of &ndash and I'm paraphrasing &ndash "Shakespeare biography really took its current form by the end of the 18th century." And I thought, "That cannot be." You look at any early Shakespeare biography, and there is no kind of form. It's just a bunch of anecdotes strung together chronologically from birth to death. So I began to wonder: "Okay, if that's the case, then how did the form of Shakespeare's biography take place?" And that's really what this talk is going to be and what's original about this talk. I became very interested in a critical moment in the last decade of the 18th century and the first decade or so of the 19th century and began to think about the ways in which biographers reached out to contemporary fictional models that were emerging to try and find a way of telling the life story. And one of the main emerging genres at that time was the bildungsroman &ndash and historians of the novel know all this. It's really a coming-of-age novel. So part of my talk is going to be the ways in which they took this assemblage of anecdotes, which didn't really have a story or a narrative to it and reached to out to this very novelistic form, and it became wildly influential for everything George Eliot to Dickens and every major major writer of the 19th century is wrestling with this form, and it's one of the great and main, dominant literary forms to this day. But it only emerged late in the late18th century, just as all these biographers were struggling for the first time to tell Shakespeare's story. I'm talking about the cross-insemination, if you will, of biography and the novel and trying to understand what it means to fictionalize, quite literally, Shakespeare's life in ways that people have not discussed or not thought about. Because for all that people write about Shakespeare biography, there's very little reflection about the assumptions or &ndash I shouldn't say that &ndash increasingly, people are thinking about it, but for a very long time, people just wrote biographies, assuming that the assumptions underlying them are self-evident: You begin at birth or with somebody's parentage; you end at death and with legacy, and nobody really looked at the cost, in Shakespeare's case, of doing so and what assumptions fed into that story.

So what I was going back into a moment ago before I derailed myself: Open up any biography of Shakespeare that you have on your desk, and just count pages of the Elizabethan Shakespeare and the Jacobean Shakespeare. Shakespeare was writing under King James from 1603 to 1613 or so, and he's writing under Elizabeth from maybe 1590 to 1603. But most biographies devote at least three-quarters of the career to the Elizabethan Shakespeare, and the Jacobean Shakespeare &ndash which I'm thinking about a lot right now, because I'm writing about Shakespeare in 1606, which is the year he's writing King Lear &ndash is always given short shrift in Shakespeare biographies. And in part it's because of the story line and in part because the weight of the story has to be pushed back to those formative years, to that moment when Shakespeare is wrestling with his sexuality and his religion and his political views or whatever other crises you want to add to that. It's really a story of an Elizabethan Shakespeare because of that. We don't have as rich and as full a sense of later Shakespeare as we might. So there's a cost to the way that Shakespeare biographies get written. I'd just like to talk about those costs.

AC: Building on that idea of the coming-of-age story, it feels like in the pop culture of the last 50, 60 years, the glamour of youth and the intensity of youth has driven so much of popular culture, we have to understand the genius from the beginning. We have to know how he or she was when that flame was just starting to burn. Because there's nothing sexy about starting with the middle-aged genius, about the guy whose genius is flowering in a distinct way when he's 35 or 40.

JS: I couldn't have put it better myself. We want to know. The reason why Shakespeare in Love, for example, is such a brilliant movie is, you go from a guy who is writing about Ethel the Unready or whatever and all of a sudden, he meets a woman and falls in love and writes Romeo and Juliet and is off to the races. That's the Shakespeare that we love. You can't write Shakespeare in Love about a middle-aged writer working 18 hours a day &ndash acting, reading, writing, going to court, doing all those things. It's not exciting enough. It's not sexy enough. It's not about the lighting of that flame. It's hard to make that story as exciting.

AC: One of the things that grabbed me so much about your book 1599 was this image you create of dismantling the Globe on the north side of London and carrying it across the Thames and rebuilding it on the south side. That felt so concrete to me. It helped really ground me in that period and envision that London.

JS: It took me months and months to do because I couldn't envision it in the beginning. I'd read these legal documents that tell us that, yes, the theatre was dismantled and reassembled, and I'd be, well, okay, when did they reassemble it, and how did they build the foundations and when did they build the foundations? I got really interested in the weather, because if it's too cold, you can't lay foundations. I do a little stone wall building, and I went to some masons that I knew up in Vermont, and I said, "What do you do when it's really cold and you have to put in a foundation?" And they said, "You wait until it's thawed." And I said, "What if you can't wait that long?" And they said, "You pour in a little antifreeze." And I said, "What if you can't pour in antifreeze?" They said, "Well, then you really do wait." It was actually those kinds of questions that I found myself wrestling with to understand how the Globe was built. And they seem like silly questions, but not to a mason and not to the workers who were involved back then then. So if you ask enough questions of enough really smart people who work with their hands &ndash builders and masons and the people who worked assembling the new Globe in London, who had to wrestle with a lot of these technical questions, you get smarter, and you get to paint a portrait. The problem with that book is, or with 1606, it just takes too damn long to write. It takes 10 years. If two of these books take 25 years, that's about all I'll be able to do with this kind of approach. Other than inspire younger, smarter writers to. I'm not going to franchise out the other years; it doesn't work like that. I'm hoping to inspire others to. I know of a couple of other writers who are working on 1613 and 1603 and 1594, all of which are really exciting years.

AC: Was there something about 1599 that made you go, "This is the year I really want to focus all of this time and energy on"?

JS: I'll be honest. I didn't know how long it was going to take when I started. I applied for National Endowment for the Humanities grants. I applied for a couple of years, and they all said the same thing: There's no book here. This is not a particularly good idea. I think had I been given a fellowship to complete it by a certain date, it would have been a really bad book. So I had the luxury of being rejected for a fellowship. I never did win a fellowship of any kind for that book, and it's easily the best book I've written. But it also goes to show you that it wasn't something that was familiar enough to the leading scholars who evaluated that proposal and didn't find it worthy enough. And that was a lucky break. Sometimes not getting a fellowship is a good thing. It doesn't sound like that could be true, but in this case it was.

AC: But back to the question, what was it about 1599 that led you to tackle that year?

JS: Back in the late Eighties, everybody was doing what we called then and what we call now but what we don't fully understand new historicism. And I felt that a lot of the work of new historicism &ndash even the best work of the new historicists &ndash was simply anecdotal &ndash that is, you spent a weekend at the Folger, the British Library, the Huntington Library, found a couple of really nice bits, and gave a paper two months later at the Shakespeare conference to applause. And I felt that anecdotes were not enough. I wanted to read everything written in a year. I wanted to read about the climate. I wanted to read every legal case I could get my hands on. I wanted to read about architecture, religion, politics, so that I had a denser, thicker description of that cultural moment. Since I didn't know how much I had to read &ndash and this is primarily printed sources &ndash if I had extended it to every manuscript, the book would still be unwritten. But I wanted to know what circulated, and that just took a long, long time. But the commitment was not to the year. The year was almost arbitrarily chosen. I knew that that was the year that the Globe was built, and that was useful enough. I did not know as much about that year as I wanted to. It wasn't like I had this story in my head. It was just trying to educate myself in materials that I felt I didn't know much about &ndash sermons. You know, we don't read many sermons compared to plays and novels because they're fairly dry, but you can learn a lot about a culture in which thousands turned out to hear sermons at Paul's Cross and elsewhere. It's slow going, but you learn a ton.

AC: Because each generation tends to interpret Shakespeare's plays to fit their own sensibilities, do we do the same thing with Shakespeare biographies as well?

JS: That's a great question. I would reframe it a bit more crudely. It is impossible to write biography without writing autobiographically. You limit the damage of seeing things through your own personal or cultural perspective, through your own life or through your times, which, as you say, is inevitable. Each age re-creates Shakespeare in its own image. But there's less of a likelihood of wild distortion if you focus on a slice of life than on a half-century of somebody's life because then you have to start making connecting judgments about what led to what, and that's when the autobiographical element comes in, and also you're forced to make certain judgments. I'm friends with a lot of people &ndash sometimes close friends with people who write biographies of Shakespeare, and it's painful for me when I know what they're really writing about is their own domestic situations. If people only knew that they're mapping their lives onto Shakespeare's, they might not believe those stories in those biographies so readily.

AC: One of the games we play in our family is: When you get to heaven, you get to ask one question that you've always wanted to know of God or the historical figure of your choice. Is there one question you'd like to ask Shakespeare, one mystery of his life that you'd like cleared up?

JS: You know, I do, but it's going to sound strange, because I know what his day was like: rehearsing in the morning, performing in the afternoon, then reading and writing late into the night. He did this at a time when there was no coffee or tea, by which I mean no caffeine in England. I'd like to know how he did it. I'd like to know how you can live by your pen and have the energy and the stamina and the intellectual sharpness after acting and rehearsing all day to write this brilliant stuff at night. Everybody talks about the genius of Shakespeare and, you know, how did that come about? That's a given. We'd all like to know that. I'd like to know how he actually managed to stay sharp at the end of what, for anybody else I've ever met, is a brutally long and mentally taxing day. So that's my question: How'd you do it?

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