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'A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare'

Oct 18, 2005 (Talk of the Nation)

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Professor and author James Shapiro talks about A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. The book provides a look into the daily life of the playwright during a time of personal upheaval and prodigious creativity. During this period, Shakespeare produced Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet.

From Chapter One: 'A Battle of Wills'

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 26, 1598, two days before their fateful rendezvous at the Theatre, the Chamberlain's Men made their way through London's dark and chilly streets to Whitehall Palace to perform for the queen. Elizabeth had returned to Whitehall in mid-November in time for her Accession Day celebrations. Whitehall, her only London residence, was also her favorite palace, and she spent a quarter of her reign there, especially around Christmas. Elizabeth's entrance followed traditional protocol: a mile out of town she was received by Lord Mayor Stephen Soame and his brethren, who were dressed in "velvet coats and chains of gold." Elizabeth had come from Richmond Palace, where she had stayed but a month, having been at her palace at Nonsuch before that. Sanitation issues, the difficulties of feeding so many courtiers with limited local supplies, and perhaps restlessness, too, made the Elizabethan court resemble a large-scale touring company that annually wound its way through the royal palaces of Whitehall, Greenwich, Richmond, St. James, Hampton Court, Windsor, Oatlands, and Nonsuch. But in contrast with the single cart that transported an itinerant playing troupe with its props and costumes, a train of several hundred wagons would set off for the next royal residence, transporting all that was needed for the queen and seven hundred or so of her retainers to manage administrative and ceremonial affairs at a new locale.

A century later Whitehall would burn to the ground, leaving "nothing but walls and ruins." Archaeological reconstruction would be pointless, for Whitehall was more than just a jumble of Gothic buildings already out of fashion by Shakespeare's day. It was the epicenter of English power, beginning with the queen and radiating out through her privy councillors and lesser courtiers. A cross between ancient Rome's Senate and Coliseum, Whitehall was where ambassadors were entertained, bears baited, domestic and foreign policy determined, lucrative monopolies dispensed, Accession Day tilts run, and Shrovetide sermons preached. Above all, it was a rumor mill, where each royal gesture was endlessly dissected. When the Chamberlain's Men performed at court, they added one more layer of spectacle.

Whitehall figured strongly enough in Shakespeare's imagination to make a cameo appearance in his late play Henry the Eighth. When a minor courtier describes how after her coronation at Westminster Anne Bullen returned to "York Place," he is sharply corrected: "You must no more call it York Place; that's past, / For since the Cardinal fell, that title's lost." Henry VIII coveted the fine building, evicted Cardinal Wolsey, and rechristened it: " 'Tis now the King's, and called Whitehall." The courtier who so carelessly spoke of "York Place" apologetically explains that "I know it, / But 'tis so lately altered that the old name / Is fresh about me" (4.1.95-99). Whitehall's identity was subject to royal whim, its history easily rewritten. That this exchange follows a hushed discussion of "falling stars" at court makes its political edge that much sharper.

For a writer like Shakespeare, whose plays exhibit a greater fascination with courts than those of any other Elizabethan playwright, visits to Whitehall were inspiring. The palace was a far cry from anything he had ever experienced in his native Stratford-upon-Avon, which extant wills and town records portray as a drab backwater, devoid of high culture. There was little touring theater, few books, hardly any musical instruments, no paintings to speak of, the aesthetic monotony broken only by painted cloths that adorned interiors (like the eight that had hung in Shakespeare's mother's home in Wilmcote). It had not always been this way. Vivid medieval paintings of the Passion and the Last Judgment had once decorated the walls of Stratford's church, but they had been whitewashed by Protestant reformers shortly before Shakespeare was born.

Whitehall had everything Stratford lacked. It housed the greatest collection of international art in the realm, its "spacious rooms" hung "with Persian looms," its treasures "fetched from the richest cities of proud Spain" and beyond. For an Englishman who (like his queen) had never left England's shores, it offered a rare opportunity to see work produced by foreign artisans. A short detour up a staircase into the privy gallery overlooking the tiltyard led Shakespeare into a breathtaking gallery. Its ceiling was covered in gold, and its walls were lined with extraordinary paintings, including a portrait of Moses said to be "a striking likeness." Near it hung a "most beautifully painted picture on glass showing thirty-six incidents of Christ's Passion." But the most eye-catching painting in the passageway was the portrait of young Edward VI. Those approaching it for the first time found that "the head, face and nose appear so long and misformed that they do not seem to represent a human being." Installed on the right side of the painting was an iron bar with a plate attached to it. Visitors were encouraged to extend the bar and view the portrait hrough a small hole or "O" cut in the plate: to their surprise, "the ugly face changed into a well-formed one."

A few years earlier this famous picture had inspired Shakespeare's lines about point of view in Richard the Second: "Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon / Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry / Distinguish form" (2.2.18-20). It may also have inspired a similar reflection in Henry the Fifth about seeing "perspectively" (5.2.321). What the Chorus in this play calls the "Wooden O," the theater itself, operates much like this Whitehall portrait: its lens is capable of giving shape and meaning to the world, but only if playgoers make the necessary imaginative effort.

Leaving this picture gallery, Shakespeare would next have entered the long privy gallery range that led past the Privy Council chamber, where Elizabeth's will was translated into government policy. The Christmas holiday had not disrupted the councillors' labors; seven of them had met there that day, ordering, among other things, that warm clothing be secured for miserably equipped English troops facing a bitter Irish winter. The councillors adjourned in time for that evening's entertainment and resumed their deliberations the following morning.

The foregoing is excerpted from A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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