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Thursday, January 31, 2013

James Shapiro at the Folger Shakespeare Library

James Shapiro spoke at the Folger Shakespeare Library last Friday on the subject of the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote and performed his Henry V play, in 1599.

I had the great pleasure of hearing this speech, spoken from the stage in the Folger Library Theatre, where a production of Henry V is currently underway. It runs until March 3.

James Shapiro teaches Shakespeare at Columbia University, and he is the author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Contested Will, and Shakespeare and the Jews.

If you haven't read any of them, I strongly recommend them all. You might want to start with 1599, since it perfectly puts you right into the life of Shakespeare as he lived it in that tumultuous year.

This same book makes a strong case for the fact that Shakespeare's Henry V play was written and performed to entertain and inspire the crowds in London who were fraught with doubt and fear over the continuing war in Ireland.

Shakespeare was trying to elevate Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex -- one of the country's greatest and most promising military figures -- as a great national hero in the tradition of King Henry V.

Professor Shapiro went into great detail to give us an sense of what it was like for Shakespeare's 1599 audiences to go see this play.

For one thing, if you were a man, there was a risk in going to any public place, a tavern or a brothel for example. Press Gangs were common in those days, and they would kidnap you and put you in the army, and send you off to Ireland to fight.

They could -- and did -- break into playhouses while a play was in progress, and kidnap you!

I actually included a scene like this in my version of Merchant of Venice.

In writing my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and Merchant of Venice, James Shapiro has been indispensable. His books are like portals into the Elizabethan era.

Professor Shapiro's speech was excellent, and I was not the only one in the packed house at the Folger who was excited to hear such an authority on Shakespeare talk.

He has been very busy lately.

You may have seen his excellent three-part documentary last year The King & The Playwright on BBC Four. It covers the reign of King James and the plays that Shakespeare wrote as a King's Man.

The series will be coming to American TV soon. Please check your listings.

He is currently at work on a new book about 1606, the year that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth. He even mentioned that he had been doing some research at the Folger about the Gunpowder Plot, which influenced these plays.

And not long ago he was interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show, in the same episode as Kenneth Branagh.

It was around the same time that his book Contested Will came out, and he was strongly defending Shakespeare as the true author of the Shakespeare plays.

I hope you spend some time and learn more about James Shapiro's work, and the effort he is leading to bring us in touch with Shakespeare as he lived and worked in the Elizabethan era.


David Schajer

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