James Shapiro: Shakespeare Was NOT More Than One Person
The Author of 1599 on the Baillie Gifford Prize Podcast, Read Smart
In this episode of the Read Smart podcast, host Razia Iqbal will be speaking to James Shapiro, who won the prize in 2006 with 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Iqbal and Shapiro explore life in Elizabethan England, how Shakespeare managed to produce four great works (including Hamlet) in just one year and why the rumors that Shakespeare was in fact more than one person are false. Hear more to find out how and why Shakespeare became one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
On the importance of 1599
James Shapiro: It was an eventful year, I suppose, for everyone. Every year seems to be eventful, but looking back, this seems to be an extraordinarily complex one. On the political and foreign front, the Elizabethans were sending out an army 16,000 strong to crush an Irish rebellion.
They were fearing yet another armada threat from Spain, an invasion that would destroy the country and turn it Catholic. They were establishing the East India Company, which would transform England’s place in the world, globally, and with Queen Elizabeth, aging and childless and unmarried. They were waiting to see who would succeed her. So for Elizabethans, these are really quite traumatic experiences.
And one of the things that I was trying to do in 1599 was to look at the ways in which Shakespeare used his plays, used his theatre as a site for engaging the issues that people cared about and were anxious about.
On how historical events shaped Hamlet
James Shapiro: I realized I knew almost nothing that I needed to know about a playwright who was so engaged with the social and the economic and the political crises of his time. And it set me in motion.
I’ll give one tiny bit from Hamlet simply because it comes to mind. And that is the opening scene when men are preparing against invasion.
And it’s a scene often enough cut in productions of the play. But if you were in England in 1599, in the summer of 1599, anticipating another Spanish armada landing on the shores, an opening scene in which men are standing guard against invasion would have been extremely, extremely real and vivid. So, yes, that is not set in England. The play is set in Scandinavia in a different time as well.
But that’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare would do to give an edge to his plays
On earlier versions of Hamlet
James Shapiro: When Shakespeare came to London, there was a play called Hamlet on the boards, and we hear traces of it as late as 1596, when the play’s being performed and this play is now lost. They call it the Ur-Hamlet or earlier Hamlet.
And you can imagine Shakespeare as a young actor watching this play. Maybe he’s standing as a messenger in his first role. And we don’t know. Thinking, I can do something with this. This play is stale. It’s past sell by date. Why don’t I put into Hamlet‘s mouth soliloquies, long speeches in which he reveals what he’s thinking and how he’s thinking.
And you can start to see Shakespeare, who didn’t really like creating plots. He liked doing court renovations on somebody else’s story that needed fixing up. And he had a brilliant facility for how to transform a work that had been popular and make it ever more so. And it’s extraordinary what he does.
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