Goodreads: 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare
1599. Queen Elizabeth is childless on the throne of England. Her people anxiously await a potential foreign invasion, especially if she does not name an heir. In Ireland, rebellion brews and the queen’s former favorite, the Earl of Essex, sets out to quell it. But some fear he could return at the head of an army, his sights set on England crown. Tensions run high and, through it all, Shakespeare writes four of his greatest plays, speaking to his contemporaries about their unexpressed hopes and fears.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 is one of my favorite non-fiction Shakespeare reads to date. It focuses intensely on one year in Shakespeare’s life, drawing connections between cultural, political, and religious moments that would have impacted Shakespeare and potentially influenced his writings. No easy one-to-one connections are drawn, but Shapiro convincingly demonstrates that Shakespeare was sensitively attuned to what was happening around him and to how the nation–and his audience–may have been thinking, feeling, and responding. He tapped into their hopes, their fears, their bitterness, and their anxieties in order to write plays that spoke strongly to their historical moment, but that still resonate with us today.
Shakespeare’s ambiguity seems to be one of the defining features of his works that continues to appeal to audiences. It allows for vastly different–and opposing–interpretations of his writing, while also allowing readers who enjoy ambiguity to simply revel in the apparent contradictions. Shapiro compellingly arguments that this feature of Shakespeare’s writing arose directly out of his historical and political moment. It makes sense, on the one hand, not to take sides if you want to draw in as many audience members as possible. But it also makes sense never to take sides if you wish both to avoid appearing like the government’s sycophant and if you wish to avoid getting into legal trouble for producing a play that could offend the government. Walking a middle line where both sides are convincingly argued and rejected, so no one ever knows where the final judgment lays, could be the very best way to keep your audiences coming back and to keep yourself out of jail. (It is notable that Shakespeare appears to have successfully avoided running afoul of the censor for his entire career, unlike many of his playwright contemporaries–perhaps most notably Ben Jonson.)
Reconstructing Shakespeare’s inner life is never going to be possible. However, Shapiro demonstrates that we can have some idea of what Shakespeare may have been thinking about and responding to if we bring our attention to the major historical moments of Shakespeare’s day. Doing so reveals nuances that are easy for contemporary readers to overlook. But it also makes Shakespeare’s work seem even more marvelous in that, by speaking to his own time, he continues to speak to ours.