November 17, 2006

The poetics of anxiety: James Shapiro on Shakespeare and 1599

Elizabethan England has today a reputation of being a glorious time when Englishmen either composed poetry of exquisite beauty or singed the King of Spain's beard- it is a tale not of sound and fury but of Spencer and Armada culminating with the foundation of England's national poetic tradition and with the foundation of the institutions that would lead on to the British empire. In this sense the Elizabethan age represents the moment of glory before the storms of the seventeenth century, before Guy Fawkes, Civil War and Restoration- Elizabeth's reign in this vision is the beggining of a story, lost under the Stuarts, but taken up again in the reigns of William III, Anne and the Georges- a story which leads to empire. This is in many ways the Churchillian tale of England's past.

There is only one problem with it- its completely false. Elizabeth's England was as James Shapiro shows wonderfully through this book on Shakespeare beset by anxiety. As England left the sixteenth century, its monarchy was under pressure. Whether that pressure came from Catholic Spain, the superpower of the day, whose war machine was occupying Englishmen abroad or more locally from Catholic Ireland where English forces were being embarrassedly humiliated in their attempted occupation by the Earl of Tyrone, the pressure was leading to great instability within English society. An instability compounded by the spectacle of an aged childless queen who had no obvious successor. An instability which culminated with the attempted coup of 1601, when the Earl of Essex, the darling of the court and of Elizabeth herself, having led a failed expedition against Tyrone, attempted to return from his command and raise the city against Elizabeth's corrupt councillers.

Shapiro's focus and hero in the midst of all this turmoil is the poet and playwright William Shakespeare. He details Shakespeare's significant plays across the year- from Henry V with its reminders about martial glory, to Julius Caesar a meditation on tyrannicide, As you Like it an attempt at darker comedy and finally onto Hamlet begun in this year though revised later. Through all of these plays, Shapiro traces common themes- themes of regicide, republicanism, political disquiet, the end of pastoral and last but not least Shakespeare's own concern with his position in his own times. Shakespeare was nothing if not a political dramatist, one of his plays provoked a famous Elizabethan moment when Elizabeth realised that when the play of Richard II (documenting the fall of a foolish monarch during an Irish War) was being put on at the Globe, she was the target and exclaimed "I am Richard II".

Shapiro doesn't only focus on the grand picture, but also the rather more mundane but also interesting machinations within a company. He takes a look at the Globe, founded in 1599. At the replacement within the company Shakespeare worked in of one clown Kemp with another Armin adn the way that altered what Shakespeare could do with his drama. He focuses on the process of redrafting, particularly redrafting Hamlet and on Shakespeare's hints that poems attributed to him in collections were not by him. He describes the rivalry with Marlowe who died in 1592 that still seven years later flowed through Shakespeare's works. He describes the complex process of editing that took place within the plays that Shakespeare adopted. He considers how the plays work within themselves- contrasting Hamlet say to Horatio's judgement of Hamlet as a simple revenge play, he shows that Horatio misses the point, that Hamlet is about the inner life as much as the outer reality.

All in all though what Shapiro seems to seek in this year- 1599- is a moment at which the Churchillian story became true. He is exactly right to say that the state was more vulnerable, Shakespeare no God than a conventional history would have it, but he wants still to have this moment as a moment of change. For Shakespeare he thinks that 1599 marked the beggining of something new, for English history the change from Essex to the East India Company he sees as the death of the medieval and the beggining of empire. This reviewer can't comment on the discussion of Shakespeare- though personally two of the works that Shapiro dismisses- Twelfth Night and Richard III are two that I find particularly powerful- but I can comment on the history. What Shapiro has done though is to misplace this year- the foundation of the company and the fall of Essex were unrelated though important events. The first did not mark the beggining in any way of empire- the second did not mark the end of chivalry. Both had a more local relevance. Looking for the ends or begginings of such huge economic and political facts, it is worth looking to the structures of society- the change in the relationship between England and the continent, the change in the relationship between landholders and military power than looking to particular events. Hindsight may tell us that Essex's fall and the Company's creation were key, but other things made them key in the end and those other things were structural changes, beggining as early as the early sixteenth century, but which had a long time to run before England lost chivalry and acquired an empire.

Shapiro is right to suggest that the world of 1599 was a much more haunted place than we have thought- that the drama produced out of it carries echoes of those ghosts and screams of terror in the past. He is wrong to suggest that the drama also suggests a new world- losing one kind of Churchillian hindsight about golden ages shouldn't mean we adopt another about the begginings of the modern world and pivotal years. Thinking about Shakespeare as a modern comes naturally often to us, and Shapiro is alive to some of the aspects of Shakespeare rooted in his times- suggesting a transition in the bard's life though, he wants that to mirror a transition in the nation's life. Whether he is right about the bard, I'd suggest he is wrong about the nation.