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James Shapiro "unravels" Shakespeare's life

By Kelsey McKinney

Portrait of William Shakespeare.
Portrait of William Shakespeare.

James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about Shakespeare’s “life” as currently written. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Shapiro specializes in Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture and is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Cultural Compass spoke with Shapiro about his research, the sparse data on Shakespeare’s early life, and his favorite play.

In your book 1599, you focus on a year in Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote five plays. How did Shakespeare, an actor himself, find the time to write such masterful works?

Shakespeare somehow managed to finish Henry V, write As You Like It and Julius Caesar in quick succession, and draft Hamlet in the course of that year. He seemed to have written plays in inspired bursts. The pressure of drawing audiences to his company’s new theater, The Globe, must have had something to do with it as well in 1599. But we do well to remember that playwrights turned out plays then fairly quickly. Thomas Dekker either wrote or collaborated on ten plays that same year. How Elizabethan playwrights did it without caffeine—neither coffee nor tea were available yet in England—makes that achievement even more remarkable.

With relatively little information to work with from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s life, how do you piece together his life?

It takes time—and patience. I started working on 1599 in 1988 and didn’t publish it until 2005. I started another year book—on 1606, the year of King Lear and Macbeth, five years ago—and don’t expect to finish it until 2016. Slowly but surely, over time, and with enough dogged research, the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. It can get frustrating—and happily it’s not the only project I work on at one time, or I’d go mad.

In several interviews you have hinted that biographers of Shakespeare are drifting toward fiction in their work. What amount of theory do you think is appropriate in a biography? Where is the line?

Well, that’s the subject of my talk on “Unravelling Shakespeare’s Life.” So come to the talk [or watch the live webcast] where I’ll address this—and will answer any questions you might have after. It’s less about theory than fantasy and invention, what biographers have to supply when the facts of the life, especially the inner life, haven’t survived.

You said that you hated Shakespeare in grade school. What changed your mind?

What changed my mind was seeing terrific productions. I spent a lot of time backpacking overseas in my teens and twenties and ended up spending a good deal of that time in England, where it was possible to see extraordinary actors taking on Shakespeare. I was hooked. Over the course of a decade I may have seen 80 or 100 productions of Shakespeare’s plays—and much of what I know of Shakespeare derives from those formative experiences. I never did take a college class on Shakespeare, though that’s what I teach these days. I also spend a lot of time now working with theater companies and helping to train teachers to teach through performance.

Do you have a favorite play?

Usually the one I’ve seen most recently, onstage or at the movies. The recent and brilliant film by Ralph Fiennes of Coriolanus has made me want to spend more time with that often overlooked tragedy.