I recently read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro. For this nonfiction book Shapiro chose the year 1599 because, he says, it was a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s career, the year in which, at age thirty-five, he “went from being an exceptionally talented writer to being one of the greatest who ever lived.” In 1599, Shakespeare completed and staged his most complex history play, Henry V, and also wrote and produced Julius Caesar and As You Like It. He also was revising Hamlet as the year came to an end, and it was probably first produced in 1600.
Shapiro deals up front with the many “probabilities” in writing about Shakespeare in the preface to his book:
When writing about an age that predated newspapers and photographic evidence, plausibility, not certitude, is as close as one can come to what happened. Rather than awkwardly littering the pages that follow with one hedge after another–“perhaps,” “maybe,” “it’s most likely,” “probably,” or the most desperate of them all, “surely”–I’d like to offer one global qualification here. This is necessarily my reconstruction of what happened to Shakespeare in the course of this year, and when I do qualify a claim, it signals that the evidence is inconclusive or the argument highly speculative.
Did you know that The Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, tore down their former landlord’s theater in December 1598 and used the materials to build the Globe Theater? They spent a great deal of time afterward in court defending their actions against a lawsuit brought by that landlord, Giles Allen.
Did you know that 1599 was the year of the Fall of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, whom she sent to Ireland to quell a rebellion? Essex failed and returned to England without the queen’s permission, incurring her wrath. He later led an unsuccessful rebellion of his own, and the first hint of Essex’s overweening pride is the historical background against which Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, a story of rebellion, ambition, and pride going before a fall.
Did you know that the last part of The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot echoes Brutus in Julius Caesar?
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
(I imagine that this is a revelation to no one else, but I’m a little slow.)
Did you know that Shakespeare was “probably” influenced by Montaigne’s essays and others that were just beginning to be written and published in the late 1500’s to write Hamlet’s soliloquies?
Have you ever heard of hendiadys? “Hendiadys literally means ‘one by means of two.’ a single idea conveyed through a pairing of nouns linked by ‘and.'” Some examples from Hamlet:
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”
“the book and volume of my brain”
“a fantasy and trick of fame”
“the abstract and brief chronicles of the the time”
There are sixty-six hendiadys in Hamlet, more than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays. Almost no other English writer uses hendiadys extensively. I tried to do it in the title to this post, but it’s not as easy to do well as it might sound. You have to pick out near-synonyms that both complement and qualify one another.
Have you ever compared Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Don Quixote? Both were mad, or feigned madness. Both had a friend, a sort of a straight man, who didn’t understand their dilemma. Both were caught between the age of chivalry and the renaissance. Both saw ghosts and phantoms. Both were unable to relate to a real woman. Don Quixote created his own ideal lady; Hamlet goaded his Ophelia into insanity and death. Shakespeare collaborated on a play late in his career, around 1612, called Cardenio that was taken from a story in Don Quixote. At the time of the writing of Hamlet, Don Quixote had not yet been translated into English. Are the similarities in the two characters coincidental or a reflection of the times? Of course, Don Quixote is a much more comic and more hopeful character, but both he and Hamlet die in the end.
I learned all these things and chased down several of these rabbit trails while reading A Year in the Life of WIlliam Shakespeare: 1599. Highly recommended for literary history buffs and Shakespeare fans.