Nowhere man: the challenges of tracking down Shakespeare

Germaine Greer looks for the real Shakespeare in James Shapiro’s 1606: the Year of Lear.

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Having had a great success in 2005 with 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro has provided his many admirers with an account of another year, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Literary biography is a tricky genre, and not made more straightforward by slicing it into year-long tranches. The chosen year began in the middle of the ongoing drama of the Gunpowder Plot, which itself was a response to the king’s persecution of his beheaded mother’s co-religionists. The effects of the Essex Rebellion of 1601 were not yet played out but continued with the shockingly elaborate and costly celebration of the contrived marriage of the 14-year-old son of the executed earl and the 15-year-old daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, which would mire the court of James I in scandal, treachery and ultimately the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, a full seven years later.

Shapiro’s new book is a collection of short, interconnected essays about the literary and historical context of the three great plays Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. The project is daring, perhaps even foolhardy, because Shakespeare’s 42nd year is one of the most mysterious in his mysterious life. Shapiro is surprised that Shakespeare is seldom understood as a Jacobean dramatist, when his greatest works were written after James’s accession. In fact, Shakespeare is an Elizabethan dramatist, rather than a Jacobean. King’s Man or no (he had no choice but to appear at court), his stage is still the earth, his roof is still the sky. He is not a city dramatist, but Shapiro cannot imagine him anywhere but in London.

It is thought that Lear was first acted in early 1605; some version of it would be played at Whitehall on 26 December 1606. Nobody knows exactly when Macbeth was written and some believe that the play bears signs of having been written before the accession of James I and updated for subsequent performances. Certainly a version of Macbeth was performed at Whitehall on 7 August 1606.

It is thought that Antony and Cleopatra was staged before Barnabe Barnes quoted lines from it in his own play The Devil’s Charter, which was performed by the King’s Men in February 1607. This we know because Barnes’s play was printed as Shakespeare’s plays for that year were not. Neither Macbeth nor Antony and Cleopatra would be printed until the First Folio of 1623, with a facetious preface that apologised for the publication. The Tragedy of King Lear, too, was not printed until 1623, in a markedly different version from the True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which had appeared in quarto in 1608. One question that Shapiro does not ask, let alone answer, is why booksellers should have lost interest in Shakespeare in 1606.

He assumes that in 1606 Shakespeare was still lodging in the house of the Huguenot tire-maker Christopher Mountjoy in Cripplegate; the evidence for this is the poet’s appearance in a civil suit of 1612, in which Mountjoy was sued for his daughter’s unpaid marriage portion in the Court of Requests. The wedding had taken place on 4 November 1604. None of this amounts to hard evidence that Shakespeare was still living in Mountjoy’s house in 1606.

For any writer of an extended narrative the temptation to abandon the conditional for the indicative is almost irresistible and Shapiro has not resisted it. He overinterprets the fact that Shakespeare’s landlady Mrs Mountjoy solicited and entreated the poet to act on behalf of her daughter in 1604 as meaning that they had a personal relationship. Marriage settlements were negotiated by “friends” of bride and groom, usually gentlemen of good standing who had to be persuaded to accept what was quite often a thankless task. Once Shakespeare agreed to play the role, he had a responsibility to bear witness and resolve any eventual disagreement. At the hearing in 1612 he could not state on oath exactly what was agreed and he was stood down, not to be recalled. These events should not be interpreted as proof of a relationship with the bride’s mother, but Shapiro cannot resist the assumption. “We can only wonder whether he felt any connection between the untimely death of [Cleopatra] and Marie Mountjoy’s. What Shakespeare thought of the woman who had entreated and solicited him, and why he abandoned Silver Street so soon after her death, must remain, like so much else about his emotional life, a mystery.”

We have no evidence that Shakespeare did not leave Cripplegate before Mrs Mountjoy’s death. We only know that by 1609 he was living in Southwark. Though Shapiro quotes the evidence of John Aubrey that Shakespeare spent time in Stratford every year, he doesn’t take it into account. The evidence we have from tax records indicates that when he was in London Shakespeare lived very frugally, with few of his own belongings about him. It seems most likely that each time he went back to Stratford when the theatres had been closed, either for Lent or to limit contagion, he quit his lodgings, to take up new ones if and when he returned.

With so little evidence, Shapiro is almost bound to overinterpret it. When Susanna Shakespeare is listed among the parishioners of Holy Trinity Stratford who failed to take communion at Eastertide, he comments, “It took a very bold 22-year-old unmarried woman to assert her independence in this way.” All we know is that she failed to take communion, probably because she was not in Stratford. Her case was not pursued, almost certainly because there were extenuating circumstances. Shapiro assumes that Shakespeare’s daughters lived with their mother in Stratford; in fact we have no idea where the daughters might have been in 1606. Unmarried women of their age and class were usually in service.

More misleading is Shapiro’s conviction that in 1606 England was securely Protestant. Ben Jonson clung to Catholicism until 1611, over many years when it was impolitic for him to do so, and we may be sure that other folk, too, hedged their bets. Even James’s queen, Anne of Denmark, wavered in her religious allegiance. James persecuted most Catholics, which was unwise, but he also favoured some Catholics, which was unwiser still.

Among the odder aspects of Shapiro’s book is his unwillingness to position Ben Jonson in the narrative, which is not to say that Jonson is entirely absent, but that his presence is underplayed. The prologue begins with an imaginary scene of people hastening to the Banqueting House at Whitehall on 6 January 1606 to see a masque. We are not told the name of the masque, which was Hymenæi, nor that its author was Ben Jonson, until 150 pages later.

Shapiro hypothesises: “Though he was now the most experienced dramatist in the land, Shakespeare had not written the masque and, had he been invited to do so, would have said no . . . There was a price to be paid for writing masques, which were shamelessly sycophantic and propagan-
distic, compromises that he didn’t care to make.” Perhaps more important is the fact
that Shakespeare, experienced and all as he was, had never written a masque, while London was full of fashionable younger writers who had. Masques are versions of pageants; they illustrate the policies and philosophies of their patrons. They are not meant to persuade, but to emblematise. What’s more, they are performed once and once only, with a cast of celebrity amateurs, often very badly.

Hymenæi was written to celebrate the fake marriage that was meant to neutralise the bitter enmity between the factions of Suffolk and Essex. The clapped-up union between the two children was Robert Cecil’s idea and he was also the stage manager of the Gunpowder Plot. One way to make subjects anxious for the safety of an unpopular ruler is to show him in extreme danger. This ruse was resorted to by all the Stuart kings; within a generation or two it had become completely ineffectual. Shapiro believes that public reaction to the Gunpowder Plot was “almost visceral”; it seems at least as likely that the abortive conspiracy was talked up by James’s supporters, anxious to keep it in the minds of the populace as a “real and present danger”, though it was no such thing. We will not understand 1606 until we understand how the King’s Men dared to stage Volpone by Jonson, a known associate of the plotters, at the height of the orchestrated furore, in March 1606.

It is not easy for readers of 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear to determine when assumption becomes assertion, not least because Shapiro has chosen to provide rather congested endnotes instead of footnotes. This is only too understandable, given the blizzard of commentary that surrounds the meagre facts of Shakespeare’s life. If readers are inspired to read the three great plays again and thereby to liberate their author from the chains of speculative biography, Shapiro’s valiant attempt to re-create that mysterious year will have been justified.

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro is published by Faber & Faber (423pp, £20).Germaine Greer’s books include “Shakespeare's Wife ” and “White Beech: The Rainforest Years” (both Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide