Fionnuala's Reviews > A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
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May 27, 2011

bookshelves: biography, non-fiction

1599 was the year that the famous Globe theatre was built and the year that Shakespeare created Hamlet - probably the first character in the history of the theatre to wrestle so intelligently and so eloquently with his own demons. These circumstances must have played a role in James Shapiro's decision to focus on 1599 when he set out to write his "intimate history of Shakespeare", as the blurb on the back of the book puts it.
But very little documentary evidence exists relating to Shakespeare's life, apart from his plays and sonnets, and therefore Shapiro felt obliged to draw heavily on the historical events of that year to flesh out his intimate history. The history would be very interesting and informative if Shapiro didn't intersperse it constantly with a huge amount of conjecture as to what Shakespeare might or might not have been thinking or doing at any given moment, indulging in empty theorizing that adds nothing to the readers' pleasure. He develops certain minor themes extensively, eg a possible trip on horseback from London to Shakespeare’s home in Stratford, only to draw weak and almost pointless conclusions: "There's simply no way of knowing how he felt unsaddling at New Place on this or other visits." or on page 203, “The answer to this would tell us a great deal about what kind of person Shakespeare was; but we don’t have a clue what he did.”
When Shapiro points out that the historian John Hayward, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, understood “how invented speech made the past come alive”, the reader wonders if Shapiro himself could not have learned from that and fictionalized this “intimate history”. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall comes to mind as a fine example of invented speech allowing the past to come alive. Such a device might have helped the pace of Shapiro's book as well; the first two hundred pages drag quite a bit. Then on page 211, Shapiro mentions Hamlet and the reader sits up. However, Shapiro immediately deflates her expectations: “But this is getting ahead of our story.” The reader thinks: Please, please let us get ahead of the story!
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