Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

1599. The book of this title by James Shapiro is a mixture of history and literary studies. Shapiro spent fifteen years researching a single year in history, with a focus on a single individual's place in and reaction to the events of his time. Today I reached what is probably the climax of the book: Shapiro's analysis of Hamlet. He makes a convincing argument that Hamlet is a microcosm of the conflicts wrenching England in 1599. The Catholic Church had been defeated, the age of chivalry was over. Elizabeth was old, surely soon to die. The date itself, 1599, marks the end of an era as the cosmic odometer gets ready to turn over to 1600. The English were trying to subdue Ireland, but they were failing, and the Spanish Armada was a looming threat. The character of Hamlet, torn between an old style of life, characterized by chivalry (represented by the revenge of his father's death), and a new way of life that he can't fully imagine, is paralyzed on the brink of action, just as England seemed to be powerless in the grip of history at that moment.

Shapiro's analysis is really fascinating. One of the reader reviews on Amazon says, "...there is only one test of a book on Shakespeare: does it send you back to reread the plays." I look forward to reading Hamlet again with the new background information I learned from Shapiro's book.

Here's a little Shakespeare trivia: Hamlet has more different words in it than any other Shakespeare play. It's hard for us to read Shakespeare because the words are often unfamiliar to us. What I never knew before now is that many of the words were also unfamiliar to Shakespeare's contemporary audiences, because Shakespeare made them up, or used real words in fanciful contexts that expanded their use beyond the commonplace.

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