Rating: 4 Stars
I will be upfront right away and say that I do not believe for one moment that anyone but William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays credited to him - not Bacon or Devereaux or anyone else. For a man who wrote, "The play's the thing" (which I realize is followed by, "wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king", but just go with it here), it makes sense to me that we don't know much about his personal life. The plays, the sonnets, those are what mattered to Shakespeare. Fame did not. If it had been important, he would have taken the route of fellow author and frenemy Ben Jonson, and put together a Folio in his lifetime for himself. While the identity of Shakespeare is not the subject of this particular book, I always feel it is important to mention this, given the amount of ridiculousness out there purporting anyone else to be the true Bard.
I've read Shapiro's work before and one thing I appreciated from this book especially is that he is very up front about what little information we actually know to be fact about Shakespeare. In the introduction he says quite plainly that he does his best to acknowledge when facts are unknown and will not deal with conjecture as much as he can avoid it.
1599 was quite the year for Master Shakespeare, and for England in general. Shapiro weaves the story of the country and the story of the playwright together very well, breaking his book up into four seasons, then within each section chapters varying back and forth between life in London and life for Shakespeare and Company. I can imagine London was not a very comfortable place to be living toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, after decades of religious upheaval, assassination plots (real and imagined), the threat of the Armada, Ireland's constant 'rebellions', and so forth. This was the backdrop against which Shakespeare wrote and performed some of his greatest works - Hamlet, As You Like It, Henry the Fifth, and Julius Caesar. It is in this time frame we truly get a sense of Shakespeare the writer, the actor, and the businessman. We get glimpses of how he related to his fellow writers and actors (Will Kemp, anyone?!) and the rivalries that came with his line of work.
Shapiro details the many books and plays that were banned and burned at this time for fear of their traitorous content, and it seems Shakespeare was lucky enough to be one of the few that escaped any kind of censorship. Imagine if he had not been, we might have even fewer copies of his plays than we already do.
This is a superbly written book that really gives the reader a feel for what life was like across the social spectrum for people in many walks of life in that fateful year. Shakespeare has been one of my favorite writers for as long as I can remember, since I first tried to make sense of Romeo and Juliet way back when I was a 5th grader with a habit of reading every book I could find on my uncle Kraig's bookshelf (that's how I discovered To Kill a Mockingbird the following year and my life was never the same). Many times I have wondered what it would be like to travel the city in Shakespeare's time, to see the sights and sounds of HIS London, to see the people and places and other plays that gave him inspiration. Imagine my pleasant surprise to find this gem so early on in the book (page 81):
"But Shakespeare's was an aural culture, the music of which has long faded. Lost to us are the unrecorded sounds reverberating around him - street cries of vendors, church bells, regional and foreign accents, scraps of overheard conversation, and countless bits of speech and noise that filled the densely packed capital."