One of Shakespeare's defining knacks, so it's said, is his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art. So although it seemed uncontroversial when Paul Salzman recently related a rich and miscellaneous clutch of Jacobean publications (Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Donne's elegies, Wroth's Urania and Middleton's Women Beware Women among them) to the political and cultural circumstances of 1621, since nowadays these texts are read only as period pieces anyway, it might appear shockingly polemical for James Shapiro to locate everything William Shakespeare wrote in 1599 in a topical context. Salzman's aim was simply 'to solve some of the problems raised by the theoretically informed return to history in Renaissance/early modern studies over the last fifteen years'. By contrast, Shapiro claims that his use of similar methods and assumptions in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare represents a decisive break from most previous critical writing, and he offers his book as one fruit of a long overdue 'return to history'. Ever since Heminge and Condell failed to organise the contents of the First Folio by date of composition, Shapiro argues, lazy critics - such as Coleridge - have found it easy to 'lift Shakespeare out of time and place', and 'only recently has the tide begun to turn against a view of Shakespeare as a poet who transcends his age.' In 1599, Shapiro reads Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet as texts written solely to 'show . . . the very age and body of the time his form and pressure'. He cites this remark of Prince Hamlet's as evidence that 'Shakespeare certainly thought of his art in this way' (though only a couple of pages afterwards he criticises earlier commentators for naively or disingenuously trawling the utterances of Shakespeare's characters for sentiments they wished to attribute to the writer himself).
LRB 20 October 2005 | PDF Download