A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

by James Shapiro

Published by HarperCollins

416 pages, 2005

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Rewarding Research

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Queen Elizabeth I is in her sixties and insecure. The rebellions in Ireland simply cannot be crushed. Her loyal subject, the Earl of Essex, is ineffectual in battle and his loyalty is becoming questioned. The Spanish armada could be approaching London, traitors and spies for Scotland lurk everywhere. The Queen's insecurity translates into censorship -- anyone writing or even speaking badly of the queen risks rotting in prison or worse, every able-bodied man winds up being trounced off to starve in yet another war, and periodically London is overrun with soldiers.

This is Shakespeare's London at the very turn of the 16th Century, a London where he obviously flourished and which he enjoyed in spite of the tensions engulfing the city. He didn't have to be here in order to earn a living, it seems. His family was well connected and independently wealthy back in Stratford, where in addition to his parents, his wife, their two daughters, her parents and family all lived. William Shakespeare owned the second most expensive home in the town, with ten rooms to house the little family of three plus domestics. When we realize this, it becomes clear that what Shakespeare needed from London was far more than a livelihood. Perhaps he wanted away from an early marriage to an older woman he may have fallen out of love with, perhaps -- as one of his sonnets suggests -- he had a paramour in London and almost certainly he needed the stimulus of the city and the world of his theater to enrich his life and his work.

Author James Shapiro is a Shakespearean scholar, a professor at New York's Columbia University and the author of another study of Shakespeare; Rival Playwrights: Shakespeare and the Jews. His research for A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is prodigious. The bibliography, a huge chunk of the book, gives some idea of the amount of time he must have spent poring over references, discarding and amassing information. Those with a keen interest in Shakespeare will be rewarded with a sharper insight into the man, his work and his times. They will need to persevere, however. Initially the onslaught of details and size of the text can be daunting. Shapiro hasn't bothered to "hook" the reader. He knows his readership will be a motivated one and is counting on the subject material to drive them to carry on. An esoteric work, some may say, but again -- isn't the fascination with and interest in the Bard and his work far more widespread than the circles of academe?

Once you get into the book, interest in the London the author details, along with its troubled times and monarch, will whet your interest sufficiently to read -- or at the very least skim -- on.

The amount of research the author would have to do just to decide on the year he was going to focus on is in itself formidable. Ultimately Shapiro chose 1599, "not only because it was an unusually fraught and exciting year but also because, as critics have long recognized, it was a decisive one, perhaps the decisive one, in Shakespeare's development as a writer (and, happily, one from which a surprising amount of information about his professional life survives)."

The reader is bound to discover new facts about Shakespeare, which in itself makes the book worthwhile. The fact of his family wealth, for example, and the news that probably while on tour in 1596, the traveling player would have received news of his son's death.

But what makes the book even a more engaging read is the political context is provides, enabling us to see beyond Shakespeare in isolation. We can begin to understand why he wrote some of his plays, what he may have meant in creating certain characters, fools and lines, and what pressures would have been on him as he walked the narrow path between staying on the "cutting edge" of his craft and keeping the masses interested while staying in the Queen's favor and avoiding a regal backlash.

For those with a serious love of Shakespeare, A Year in the Life is a treat. It will also fill a very important void in Shakespearean research and could easily become a valued text for students of Elizabethan times and of Shakespeare. | February 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.