What’s it about?
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) sets out to answer a slippery question: How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? Despite centuries of digging, literary scholars have failed to find the kind of documentary evidence that illuminates conventional biographies. Does that mean we can only speculate about the great dramatist’s life? Not quite. In these blinks, we’ll shed light on the real Shakespeare by reconstructing the world in which he lived during the single and remarkable year of 1599.
About the author
James Shapiro is a professor of English literature at Columbia University, New York, and one of the world’s leading experts on Shakespeare. He has written numerous books on Elizabethan drama and poetry as well as the highly acclaimed study of authorship, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 won both the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2006 Theatre Book Prize.
The theater was famous in London in the 1590s, although there were few excellent playwrights:
Tudor London, which had a population of roughly 200,000 people, was known for its theaters.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (William Shakespeare’s company) and the Admiral’s Men were the two “playing companies” dominating the city in the sixteenth century.
The theaters where these organizations performed might hold anything from two to three thousand people. Even if the theaters were half-empty, it’s conceivable that three thousand Londoners would come if two plays were produced on the same day. Over a week, that number grew to 15,000 Londoners, indicating that over a third of the city’s residents paid to see a play each month.
In his twenties, Shakespeare, then a burgeoning dramatist, was drawn to London in 1585 by this fantastic cultural scene.
The main point of this story is that Londoners enjoyed theater, but there were few creative authors in the 1590s.
The popularity of plays benefited playwrights such as Shakespeare, but it caused city officials problems.
Prostitution, minor crime, and heavy drinking were all common in unsavory districts where theaters might be found. According to London’s lawmakers, the aldermen, the aldermen, bringing two or three thousand rowdy theatergoers into these areas was a recipe for disaster.
They petitioned the government to close London’s theaters in the summer of 1597. They claimed that the stage was complete with “profane fables.” Worse, such immorality drew in “vagrants, masterless men, robbers, horse thieves, and whoremongers.”
True, the ordinary people enjoyed going to the theater, but London’s well-heeled citizens enjoyed it just as much as their plebeian counterparts. While there were numerous “masterless men” in the crowd, plenty of young nobles and aristocrats were also there. The patronage of the latter eventually preserved London’s playhouses from closure.
Despite its large and enthusiastic audiences, the 1590s was a challenging decade. The best dramatists of a previous generation had passed away. Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and George Peel, master playwrights, were all dead by 1597. The new generation, which included dramatists like Ben Jonson, destined for greatness, was still establishing its voice.
That left Shakespeare, who was the only prominent playwright who lived in each of these eras. The first called him an “upstart crow,” but the second saw him as more of a weathered veteran. But it wasn’t until 1599 that he cemented his reputation as the best dramatist of the day.
His investment in a permanent playhouse ensured Shakespeare’s financial future:
The playhouses of London were not only cultural landmarks but also enterprises. Entrepreneurs expecting to profit from Londoners’ passion for the theatre spent extensively in new theaters in 1599. The Admiral’s Men relocated to the Fortune, a purpose-built theater well outside the municipal limits. The Boar’s Head, for example, opened in the eastern suburbs.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t have a permanent theater. Faced with more competition than ever before, Shakespeare and his fellow actor-shareholders decided to take a chance and invest their own money in the construction of a new home – the Globe.
Business people paid the cost of building theaters like the Fortune. In exchange, these investors received a large portion of the income created by companies such as the Admiral’s Men.
The Globe was unique. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, two enterprising brothers, financed half of the cost of construction — around £700. Shakespeare and four other actor-shareholders chipped in £70 each to cover the other half.
This was a substantial sum. To put it in perspective, a freelance dramatist earns around six pounds for a play, but a day worker is lucky if he makes more than ten pounds in a year. So, why did Shakespeare and his associates take such a chance? They would, too, if the Globe prospered. Unlike actor-shareholders in other organizations, they would each have a 10% stake in the theater’s future income. Given Londoners’ insatiable desire for the stage, this could amount to as much as £100 per stakeholder every year – enough money to put them in the well-to-do middle class.
The Globe, a timbered structure with a circular stage and a roof, was located outside the city’s southern limits in a rough-and-tumble district. This area, known as Bankside, was mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. One character in Twelfth Night, for example, is urged to stay in the “South suburbs, at the Elephant” – a reference to a Bankside brothel recently turned into an inn that must have elicited knowing smiles among the Globe audience.
In July, the Globe was supposed to open. Shakespeare, on the other hand, needed to write a new play to commemorate the occasion. Recent occurrences would be a great source of inspiration.
Theologically and militarily, Elizabethan England was at odds with Catholic Spain:
Before we continue with our story, let’s go back to the 1530s, which was one of England’s most crucial decades.
In the 1520s and 1530s, England was still a Catholic country, which meant that it followed the Pope in Rome on religious matters. However, there was a spiritual shift on the horizon. Henry VIII, King of England, stated his desire to annul his present marriage and marry another woman in the late 1520s, which the Pope refused. Despite the Pope’s objections, Henry persisted. The church and the king conflicted now.
This conflict, which began as a political one, began to take on a spiritual overtone. Isn’t it true that the English king was the ultimate religious authority in England if he could disobey the Pope? Henry became the leader of the English church as a result of a series of statutes passed in the 1530s. This was the first salvo of the English Reformation, a branch of the European Protestant Reformation.
This blink’s central message is that Elizabethan England was engaged in a doctrinal and military conflict with Catholic Spain.
Henry VIII began England’s Protestant conversion, but Elizabeth I finished the “English Revolution,” as it became known. Elizabeth, who had come to the queen in 1558, adopted a new theology in 1559 that was primarily influenced by Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin. This action put her at odds with Europe’s most potent Catholic state, Habsburg, Spain.
The Spanish empire spanned Latin America, Italy, and what is now the Philippines. Philip II, the Spanish king at the time, was a fervent Catholic and considered himself a defender of Catholicism, which he believed was under attack by Protestant rebels like Elizabeth.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. In the Netherlands, another Spanish colony, Protestant revolutionaries were fighting for independence from Spain. Elizabeth supported these insurgents and sent English troops to assist them. In retaliation, Philip backed Catholic rebels struggling against English rule in Ireland. But Philip and Elizabeth’s clash wasn’t limited to mere proxy wars. It soon escalated into direct conflict.
In 1588, Philip wanted to depose Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England. That year, Philip launched a fleet of 130 ships, known as an armada, to England, carrying Spanish troops. The attempt to remove Elizabeth was thwarted by bad weather and the English navy’s employment of highly maneuverable vessels against Spain’s heavily laden ships. Still, it was only a reprieve for the English queen.
With English troops encamped in the Netherlands and Ireland by 1599, England was once again exposed to invasion – Philip III, Spain’s new monarch, and Elizabeth both knew it.
As the city prepared for a Spanish invasion, Shakespeare nailed the spirit in London:
England was in a frenzy when the Globe opened in July 1599. English soldiers had inflicted multiple defeats in Ireland, and they were stalemated in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the treasury was depleted.
Brutus chastises Cassius, another Roman senator, for withholding “money to pay my legions” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play written around this time. It was a remark that Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up on right away. Throughout the summer, there were rumors that English soldiers in Ireland were preparing to revolt “due to a lack of pay and a dearth of victuals.”
Another Spanish armada was also mentioned in London. Fifty-seven ships carrying 25,000 soldiers were being prepared for departure in Andalusia by mid-July, according to sources.
The forces that remained in England were deployed to strategic defense sites. Thousands of soldiers descended on London, a city besieged by the Thames, a large deep river that runs into the North Sea. With little else to do but wait for the Spanish, these men must have appreciated the distractions provided by London’s theaters. While we don’t know how Shakespeare spent his summer, the Globe is likely busy during that time.
The Chamberlain’s Men’s repertoire indeed included plays that were appropriate for the time. One of them was Shakespeare’s own Henry V, a play about English military might. Then there was A Larum for London, a play portraying the Spanish armies’ capture of Antwerp in 1576. It would have sent shivers down the spines of viewers expecting the coming of Spanish forces in their city, a horrific work in which citizens are killed, virgins are threatened with rape, and Englishmen are tormented.
The Spanish never arrived in the end, but it’s apparent that the tense environment influenced Shakespeare. Take, for example, Othello, a drama written a few years later, which opens with generals debating the strength of an impending enemy fleet. One says, “My letters say a hundred and seven galleys.” Another says, “Mine a hundred and forty.” “And mine,” a third says, “two hundred.”
Similarly, the first scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1599, depicts anxious soldiers guarding against an unseen foe. “Why this same tight and most vigilant watch,” one wonders, “so nightly toils the topic of the land?” This gloomy atmosphere, rife with threats, would have been all too familiar to Londoners during that summer.
In 1599, the assassination was one of the most contentious political issues:
Julius Caesar was one of the first plays to be performed at the newly opened Globe, and Shakespeare appears to have written it specifically for this occasion.
Because the play’s main scene – Julius Caesar’s assassination by his former allies, Brutus and Cassius – occurs early in the first act, many audiences find it imbalanced. The second and third acts, on the other hand, focus on his death’s consequences.
This wasn’t due to a blunder or faulty plotting on Shakespeare’s side. Although Julius Caesar is set in ancient Rome, it is not a study of Roman history. It’s more about the political issues that preoccupied Elizabethan audiences rather than the consequences of political violence.
Brutus and Cassius in Shakespeare’s Brutus and Cassius use a moral argument to explain their decision to kill Caesar. They argue that Caesar was becoming increasingly unstable and unjust and that if they hadn’t intervened before it was too late, he would have brought Rome to its knees.
According to them, a monarch may be legitimately deposed if he abuses his legitimate powers or threatens the state’s interests. As a result, subjects owe their devotion solely to good rulers. Nothing is due to evil rulers, not even their lives.
This is a central tenet of republicanism, a political doctrine with roots in ancient Greece and Rome revived by radicals in Elizabethan England. It would play a crucial role in the English civil war of the 1660s, culminating in republicans justifying the killing of an English king with remarks that mimicked Shakespeare’s Brutus and Cassius.
However, the English queen was more concerned with Catholic murderers than with Republican extremists. The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570. This meant that Catholics faithful to Rome might advocate her assassination and even strive toward it in good conscience. Many did precisely that, and Elizabeth was subjected to a barrage of insults, one of which concerned a Shakespeare relative.
The goal of Julius Caesar, on the other hand, isn’t to support or condemn one side over another; it’s to comment on the human condition. He demonstrates that noble efforts of any kind have unforeseen repercussions. Brutus and Cassius, like all killers, sought to be quoted as “sacrificers, not butchers,” yet they ended up bringing Rome the very chaos they had tried to avoid. Shakespeare thinks that England might benefit from learning this lesson.
Shakespeare was not just a poet, but also a businessman:
The Reformation wasn’t merely a play acted out by a cast of kings and queens, empires and armies on the stage of world history. In provincial towns across the kingdom, familiar people helped shape the changes that swept through Elizabethan England.
Take, for example, Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town some 100 miles northwest of London. Crowds gathered in front of Stratford’s church in 1571, when Shakespeare was seven, to watch a glazier remove the church’s stained windows, a reviled symbol of popery. It was a declaration: Stratford would not rejoin the Catholic Church.
Other adjustments occurred as well. In the past, traveling actors would stop in Stratford to perform. Anyone caught harboring “players” now faces a fine from the Puritanical town officials. What role did Shakespeare, the famous playwright, play in all of this?
Shakespeare paid around once a year visits to his wife and children in Stratford. He didn’t return as a bard; instead, he returned as a clever investor and a wealthy man.
Consider an occurrence that occurred in 1598. One of Stratford’s most renowned inhabitants, Richard Quinney, was desperate for a £30 loan. He did not, however, seek assistance from his neighbors. Instead, he addressed a letter to Shakespeare, whom he described as a “beloved dear friend and countryman” in London.
We don’t know if Shakespeare handed Quinney the money or turned him down, but it’s understandable why Quinney believed he had it. Shakespeare appears to have been financially stable even before his investment in the Globe in 1599. In 1597, for example, he purchased New Place, a big Stratford mansion with ten rooms, three stories, two gardens, two orchards, and two barns. He paid £120 for it.
Shakespeare then made a second purchase, purchasing 80 bushels of malt. This was a pricey item that could only be bought in large quantities. The malt was in scarce supply when he made his buy. Because of the severe shortage, the government attempted to force people like Shakespeare to sell their work on the open market to avoid public outcry.
On the other hand, Shakespeare gambled with Stratford’s angry poor, who was mumbling about hanging hoarders like the writer “on gibbets at their doors” by this point. Shakespeare sold his malt at a profit after keeping the grain off the market and helping to drive up the price.
Shakespeare’s status as the best dramatist of his time was cemented thanks to the Globe:
Shakespeare was a prolific and successful playwright in the start of 1599. His work was favorably received by the public and sold successfully, albeit in anonymous volumes.
That had altered by the end of the year. His name had become a draw in and of itself. One businessman even published a book of his poems, filled out with knock-offs by inferior poets. It was sold out in a matter of days. Shakespeare’s contemporaries were aware of this growing popularity, criticizing young men who looked for pick-up lines in Shakespeare’s works and whose “lips doth flow/nothing but Juliet and Romeo.”
This obviously irritated Shakespeare, much as that unlicensed collection of poems, but it was a sign of the times: he was now a household name.
Shakespeare’s success hinged on the Globe. Before its opening, all of London’s theaters performed the same repertoire of plays. Londoners didn’t go to the theater; they went to whichever theater was closest to them.
The Globe, on the other hand, was the place to go if you wanted to see a riveting historical drama like Henry V or a superbly designed current piece like Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s ability to detect great actors capable of performing the parts he wrote for them wasn’t simply due to his writing; it was also due to his ability to spot brilliant actors capable of playing the pieces he wrote for them.
London’s theater would never be the same again. To stay up with the Chamberlain’s Men, other corporations realized they needed to alter as well. The Admiral’s Men even engaged the same builder who oversaw the construction of the Globe to create their theater. It also had a program that could not be found anyplace else in the city when it first debuted.
Shakespeare was 35 years old at the time, halfway through what the Italian poet Dante referred to as “life’s journey.” He’d authored or collaborated on nearly 20 dramatic works, with an average of two plays per year. Shakespeare may have felt safe enough in his artistic reputation and financial situation to slack down a little at Christmastime, looking back on the year.
In any case, from early 1600 until Queen Elizabeth’s death in the spring of 1603, Shakespeare wrote only two plays: Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida. He finished his life’s labor with three great tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare died young in 1616, at the age of 52. He was rapidly destroyed from the Elizabethan world to which he had belonged. Soon after, England was engulfed in a bloody civil war, with hardcore Puritans gaining power. One of their first moves was to shut down all of London’s theaters and demolish the Globe.