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March Books 14) 1599

14) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, by James Shapiro

The last book I read about the events of a single year in a single country was a bit of a disappointment. This is not. Shapiro has done a brilliant job of painting a picture of London in 1599, the year that Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and started on Hamlet, going through as many surviving books and documents from that year as possible, mooring his narrative quite firmly in what facts we have, frank about the extent to which he is speculating when he does.

For those who are not London residents (maybe even for those who are) the first interesting page is the very first, with a map of London in 1599. My own business in the city these days tends to be concentrated around Whitehall and Westminster, so there's a bit of cognitive dissonance at seeing them so far outside the old city limits. And while I knew that the Tower roughly marked one end of the City, I didn't realise that St Paul's marked pretty much the other end. Even by Pepys' day, sixty years later, a lot of the West End had been built over. Shakespeare's generation must have been the last for whom Lincoln's Inn Fields really were fields.

To my surprise, Ireland also looms heavily in the story. At school we were taught a bit about the Nine Years' War of 1594 to 1603, which led to the Flight of the Earls 400 years ago this coming September. (I bet English schoolchildren are not taught about it at all.) But to get it from the English perspective is very interesting.  Here you had a seemingly unending overseas conflict pitting English soldiers against bitter and successful insurgents, to the point that the government as a whole was becoming deeply discredited by its failure to win and the waste of money and soldiers. So, no resonances with the situation of 400 years later at all then.

The book also brought home to me how little I know Shakespeare. I "did" Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet at school, and I guess I have picked up a certain knowledge of a few others by seeing them on stage and screen since (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, er, that's it). Also I used to spend tedious amounts of time arguing the authorship question with Oxfordian wingnuts on hlas. Now I want to go out and buy the complete BBC Shakespeare DVD collection. But then I saw the price. Maybe I'll try and borrow them from the in-laws.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 26th, 2007 07:10 am (UTC)
You make Whitehall sound like some bit of rural hinterland, when in fact your job 400 years ago would still have been in Whitehall and Westminster. They were well within city limits, but it was another city, the City of Westminster, that they were (are) within the limits of. The lawyers cannily based themselves on the bit of strip development between the two cities running along the Strand, Fleet Street, and Holborn, conveniently placed for both the Commerce of the port and the Government of the capital.

I recommend a short book called A History of London by Robert Gray, whose chapter headings are little silhouette maps of urban development.
Mar. 26th, 2007 08:33 am (UTC)
My total knowledge of the 'Flight of the Earls' is this folk song: http://www.folkinfo.org/songs/displaysong.php?songid=647

I learnt it at school, but never knew what it was about until I went and looked at Wikipedia just now.

A lot of my misc history is in the form of folk songs - I never forget the words.
Mar. 26th, 2007 10:11 am (UTC)
If the curiculum is the same as in my day, then not one bit of it is mentioned. To the point where I had to check that I had the right earls in mind when writing this reply.
Mar. 26th, 2007 10:20 am (UTC)
That's the first time I'd ever heard of the nine years' war, let alone the flight of the earls. Hmm. (See also Japan, history text books, Rape of Nanking ...)
Mar. 26th, 2007 05:11 pm (UTC)
I have an English degree and went to extreme lengths to avoid Shakespeare as much as possible. I know *why* he's important, but I've never been able to bring myself to care. I do tend to enjoy going to see the plays, but reading them does zilch for me.

Having said that, I hate Hamlet so much that I can't even watch the Ken Brannagh film version, and I *heart* Ken.
Mar. 27th, 2007 04:04 am (UTC)
I'm reading this now! And have been for a while - it's taking me forever, but it's excellent. Very odd about all the main palaces being in different places.

Much of the BBC series is famously boring. Try to make it to the Globe if you haven't, and to the RSC (but the only theater I found worth going to in Stratford is the Swan which is small and also in the round).
Mar. 30th, 2007 09:21 am (UTC)
Can you recommend a book that deals with the Flight of the Earls?
Mar. 30th, 2007 09:40 am (UTC)
I found a whole website about it!

Browsing Amazon, the books that keep popping up are the biographies of O'Neill by O'Faolain and Morgan, and Nicholas Canny's book on Making Ireland British, 1580-1650. The O'Faolain book is reasonably priced, but I suspect a bit old-fashioned and romantic in its take (depends what you want of course)!

The one book I've read on it recently was Colm Lennon's Sixteenth Century Ireland, but I don't especially recommend it.
Mar. 30th, 2007 10:09 am (UTC)
Oh, this is all splendid - thank you very much. Old-fashioned and romantic might be perfect, actually - I was thinking that it might make an terrific subject for a YA historical novel (on the lines of a Rosemary Sutcliff novel).
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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