In the last year of the 16th century, London had a population of 200,000. The two main playhouses held 3,000 each. Take a popular play and a run of just a fortnight and around 15 per cent of London's adult population would have seen it. It's a staggering statistic. Put another way, that 15 per cent would very likely have been watching a play by Shakespeare, again a statistic to which the present day cannot begin to aspire.
Theatre in Britain can never have been both so influential on and so reflective of the society it served. The Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro makes this case forcefully and with great narrative power by concentrating on one year in which there was a nasty war going on in Ireland, the threat of a renewed Spanish Armada, a queen growing old, and growing anxious enough to order satirical books be burned, a population worried about the succession, and a playwright approaching his peak.
From the deliciously vivid first pages, in which a group of armed theatricals make a dash through the snow in the dead of night to filch a theatre's timber frame and transfer it to the site of the Globe, Shapiro weaves a tantalising narrative out of what could have been a fairly dry piece of scholarship.
During 1599 Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Inevitably, in a book that aims to show the seminal nature of a year, Shapiro sometimes tries too hard. Yes, a year that saw Shakespeare draft Hamlet must be counted key; but it is rather harsh to imply that what had come before was of lesser worth than the rest of the output of 1599.
Richard II can be counted every bit as mature and political as Henry V, just as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet are as poetic as As You Like It. Shakespeare's career does not lend itself to a straightforward linear progression.
What this book drives home is that he was a man influenced by his time and by events. In our own age of directors determined to make Shakespeare relevant, we have rather forgotten to look at what was happening in the playwright's own time and to see the effect on the plays. Shapiro puts that relationship back into dramatic focus.
By far the most fascinating and convincing relationship between a play and contemporary events concerns Henry V. The attempted crushing of the Irish rebellion of 1599 proved a deeply unpopular war. Shapiro cites the court sermon by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes urging support for the war. Its rhythms and repetition of the words "this day" are echoed in the St Crispins Day speech.
Most importantly, Shapiro reminds us that in Henry V the chorus actually refers to Elizabeth's commander in the conflict, the Earl of Essex, "the general of our gracious Empress... from Ireland coming/ bringing rebellion broached on his sword." This is the only time in the entire canon that Shakespeare moved outside the time of a play to address the audience about a contemporary event.
Shakespeare was a playwright, argues Shapiro, who entered this year frustrated. He quotes poetic tributes by critics enjoying the sexually charged Romeo and Juliet and Venus and Adonis. Did Shakespeare consider his fame as a love poet faint praise, making him determined to prove himself the great tragedian? We don't know. Any assertion by Shapiro to the contrary is mere speculation. As he acknowledges, Shakespeare left no diaries and no letters. We don't even know what he looked like as the only portraits are posthumous. The physique, personality, motivation and feelings of our greatest genius are a mystery.
But the physique and feelings of other protagonists are documented. The 67-year-old Elizabeth's sensitivity to ageing is captured in a cameo. An ambassador's report tells how she "had a petticoat of white damask, girdled and open in the front, as was also her chemise, in such a manner that she often opened this dress". One could see "all her belly, and even to the navel."
Even Shakespeare would not have dared to parody that on the stage. But thanks to Shapiro's exemplary work, we can see just how much the personalities and issues of his time did affect the plays, and how Elizabethan audiences would have smiled at allusions lost on their modern counterparts.
David Lister is arts editor of 'The Independent'
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