“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”
Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.
James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.
Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.
Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?
I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.
As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?
That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.
Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?
I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.
Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?
I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?
Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?
There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).
If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?
Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?
If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?
One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.
You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?
I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.