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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare


By James Shapiro
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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro

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.

Key idea 1 of 8

Londoners loved the theater, but there weren’t many talented playwrights in the 1590s.

Tudor London, a city of around 200,000, was famous for its theaters.

At the close of the sixteenth century, two “playing companies” dominated the city – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (William Shakespeare’s company) and their chief rivals, the Admiral’s Men.

The theaters in which these companies performed could accommodate between two and three thousand spectators. If two theaters staged plays on the same day, it’s likely that some three thousand Londoners attended, even if the theaters were half-empty. Over a week, that figure rose to 15,000 Londoners, meaning that almost a third of the city’s population paid to see a play each month.

It was this extraordinary cultural scene that brought Shakespeare, then an ambitious dramatist in his twenties, to London in 1585.

The key message in this blink is: Londoners loved the theater, but there weren’t many talented playwrights in the 1590s.

The popularity of plays was a boon for playwrights like Shakespeare, but it was a headache for the city’s authorities.

Theaters were typically found in seedy areas notorious for prostitution, petty crime, and heavy drinking. As London’s lawmakers, the aldermen, saw it, funneling two or three thousand boisterous theatergoers into these neighborhoods was a recipe for trouble.

In the summer of 1597, they petitioned the government to close London’s theaters. The stage, they argued, contained “nothing but profane fables.” Worse, such immorality attracted “vagrant persons, masterless men, thieves, horse stealers, and whore-mongers.”

True, common folk did love the theater, but London’s well-heeled citizens were just as fond of playgoing as their plebeian counterparts. Theater audiences may have had their fair share of “masterless men,” but they also contained plenty of young gentlemen and aristocrats. It was ultimately the latter’s patronage that saved London’s playhouses from closure. 

Despite its eager and large audiences, the 1590s was a lean decade. The best dramatists of an earlier generation had exited life’s stage. By 1597, master playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and George Peel were all dead. The new generation, which included dramatists destined for greatness like Ben Jonson, was only just finding its voice.

That left Shakespeare – the only significant playwright to straddle these two generations. Labeled an “upstart crow” by the first, he was closer to a grizzled veteran in the eyes of the second. But it was only in 1599 that he established himself as the finest dramatist of the day.

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