William Shakespeare is rightly regarded as the greatest playwright of the English language. And King Lear, his searing meditation on family, political life, and sanity, is perhaps his crowning work. Renowned Shakespeare expert James Shapiro here explains its power and reveals that the Bard was also a brilliant businessman and a commercial creator with his finger on the pulse of his age. His work demands to be seen, not read, says Shapiro. The 400th anniversary of his death this year offers tremendous opportunities to do just that.
Octavian Report: What sparked your interest in Shakespeare?
James Shapiro: It’s probably easier to say what first turned me off of Shakespeare. I went to high school in Brooklyn in the early 1970s and, like many others, was force-fed Shakespeare in a deadening way. I didn’t get it, didn’t get what the big deal about Shakespeare was, didn’t even get the dirty bits that some of my classmates picked up in Romeo and Juliet. I never really got interested in Shakespeare, never took a Shakespeare course when I went to college. My interest only developed later in the 1970s when Freddie Laker was flying people back and forth across the Atlantic for $199 round-trip.
My brother and I went backpacking around Europe, found ourselves in London, and I found myself at the theater, seeing Shakespeare. It must have cost 50 pence to see a really great production and maybe another 50 pence to sleep in a youth hostel or church basement, and I was hooked. It was like a drug. I would hold down some job as a medical secretary or selling Guatemalan handicrafts for the first part of the summer, and then head over there every summer of my late teens and early 20’s for 20 or 30 days and see 20 or 30 plays. I kept doing that, and I probably saw, at that really formative time of my life, 200 productions, most of which were spectacular, and all of which were Shakespeare. That really has determined in a way probably different from most academics how I think about and respond to the plays.
OR: Is it more important to see the plays staged or to read them?
Shapiro: It is a choice, and there are really brilliant critics, like Harold Bloom, who brag about not having seen a play in a half-century. These were written to be staged, and the more I study and teach them — and I have been doing that at Columbia for 30 years — the more crucial it seems to me to see them realized on stage or at least to encourage readers, whether they are fourth-graders or college students or inmates at Rikers Island, to see them staged.
OR: What’s the best production you have seen?
Shapiro: Richard Eyre’s production of Hamlet, starring Jonathan Pryce, in the early 1980s. Pryce played both Hamlet and his father’s ghost as a dybbuk or force within him: he was possessed by his father’s ghost. I remember the entire audience levitating when Pryce first spoke the ghost’s lines. It has stuck with me. I remember every line of that production. Almost everyone I know, when asked that question, will describe something that they saw in their late teens or early 20s, and it is really important to see a memorable Shakespeare, early on. That was it for me.
OR: Whom do you think is the greatest Shakespearean actor?
Shapiro: There are a couple that rank at the very top of the game. One is Ian McKellen, who has been extraordinary. I saw him in Coriolanus in the 1980s, and really never need to see Coriolanus again. My favorite, although my preference is shaped in part by my knowing him pretty well and getting to talk with him every once in a while, is Simon Russell Beale. His Richard III was as brilliant as any. His Thersites was probably the greatest since Shakespeare’s day. He has gone on to play Lear brilliantly.
Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale are the finest in the U.K. There is an also an American style of Shakespeare, and that is a little different. For my money, F. Murray Abraham was the greatest Shylock, and I have seen many Shylocks. John Lithgow played a brilliant, brilliant Lear at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. But there is a lot of talent out there, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
OR: Are you a purist when it comes to questions of textual fidelity and production design?
Shapiro: One of my responsibilities at the Public Theater is helping directors cut the text. When we take productions to prisons like Rikers or to federal penitentiaries in and around the city, we have to bring a 90-minute version, so I have to help trim a text to 90 minutes. I am very conscious of what it means to cut a text, and at the Delacorte, because of security and park closure, you have to end at 11:00 p.m. Some Shakespeare plays are only 2,100 lines, and others are 3,700 lines. They all have to be cut to a very particular length to be shown in very particular venues.
There are Shakespeare purists out there, academics are devoted to not changing a single word. The people who think that don’t realize that even in Shakespeare’s day, these plays were cut in performance. We have maximal or near-maximal texts, texts that are too long to be staged, that were submitted to the Master of the Revels for approval. All the plays have a 400-year tradition of being trimmed.
As for different settings, be they futuristic or Neanderthal, I have seen them all. The problem is not the choice of modernizing or not. A lot of people want to see doublet and hose when Shakespeare is staged. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in doublet and hose, for the most part, with whatever was available in the prop room — which means, of course, that they were staged in modern dress in their own day. Somehow there is a fantasy that we can’t stage them in modern dress today and be true to Shakespeare. But the problem is not when a director chooses some wild place or costuming or set design. The problem is when it doesn’t work, when it is not appropriate, when it drives a production, or when it doesn’t capture what’s urgent about that play.
OR: How close are the actual texts that modern actors and directors rely on to what Shakespeare actually wrote?
Shapiro: The texts are remarkably close, for the most part, to what Shakespeare wrote. We have, in the First Folio of 1623, 36 of the plays — and, of course, by 1623 a lot of these plays had been on the boards for 20 or 30 years. Some of them show the marks of revision. Censorship in 1606 demanded that all references to God be removed. Those are small changes. Before 1623, half of the plays, 18 or so, had appeared in cheap quarto editions. There are small differences between those early printed editions and the ones that came out in 1623. At least half the plays we have derive from a now-lost manuscript, what scholars call the “foul papers of Shakespeare.” So what we have is pretty darn close to the original.
There are certain plays, like Macbeth, which are extremely short, and probably we have lost some of what Shakespeare wrote. Other plays seem to have additions by other hands, such as, again, Macbeth. A playwright named Thomas Middleton added songs in the Hecate scenes, but we know what is Shakespearean and what’s not, and the plays that have come down to us are, let’s say, 99 percent Shakespeare if you add it all up.
“He understood the limitations and strengths of every writer of his day, he understood the weight each word carried, and he was extraordinary at telling stories and at rewriting stories that others had told.”—James Shapiro
OR: Who and what were Shakespeare’s influences?
Shapiro: Everything that was written that he could get his hands on, and everybody who was writing popular plays that were pulling his audiences away. All you have to do is look at his career and see what’s happening when Shakespeare is in his 40’s: he sees that edgier comedies by Middleton or tragicomedies by John Fletcher are the big hits of the day. And what does he do? He sits down and starts collaborating on plays like Timon of Athens with Middleton; he writes three of his last plays with Fletcher because he understands that you have to connect with new voices. Shakespeare understood that as well as any writer ever has.
OR: Did Shakespeare’s genius function in opposition to the exigencies of his medium, or did it flourish because of them?
Shapiro: I get nervous when the word “genius” comes in. Usually, rushing behind that is an image of an artist struggling in a garret similar to the kind of Shakespeare we imagined, tongue in cheek, in Shakespeare in Love (that great movie). Let me throw a different version of Shakespeare at you and see what you think. Here is an entrepreneurial young man who, when he is born in England, is living in a country where no writer can make a living from writing unless he — and it is invariably a he — gets some rich patron to cover his expenses. When Shakespeare is a young man, someone decides to invest in a new venture: permanent playhouses in London. The population is large enough to do that. It is a speculative venture. These buildings can hold 2,500 to 4,000 people. Then groups of — again — young men come together, such as Shakespeare and a half-dozen others, and decide to exploit this possibility by creating a joint-stock company.
Shakespeare, in 1594, joins seven other men in such a company. He invested 70 pounds, the equivalent of a couple of hundred thousand dollars today, in exchange for being a partner. Shakespeare was never paid for writing a play. He made his money either from being a shareholder in this company or as a part-owner of the theater that they obtained in 1599, the Globe, and then a second theater, Blackfriars.
The Shakespeare that really ought to balance out that fantasy of the romantic artist is an investor who worked very closely with his team of actors, who met with them every morning to rehearse that day’s play. Audiences required — demanded, really — that the company put on a different play every day, in a repertory that had 20 old plays and perhaps 20 new plays a season.
They worked on that play in the morning, stopped for a meal, performed from 2:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon, and then, when the other actors went off to do what actors do, to drink and carouse, Shakespeare had to read and write late into the night to generate two or three new plays a season. Issues of perfectionism, issues of artistry, and issues of genius have to be balanced out against the need to earn a living, maintain the status of the company, create new plays, perform them well, and avoid censorship to get around the dangers of play closures. It was a really hard, hard life, and he was working 15-hour days for a quarter-century.
He understood the limitations and strengths of every writer of his day, and I think that he understood the weight each word carried, and he was extraordinary at telling stories and at rewriting stories that others had told. He was a master, in part because he was a trained actor and a skilled one, of understanding what his fellow artists, his fellow actors, needed. When he is writing plays, he is writing something for actors whose abilities he knows, whose talents he is trying to stretch and take advantage of, and he is writing for audiences that are exceptionally sensitive to changes in taste and genre. He is challenging them, too, so I think that he was a very self-aware artist, and he is also working in a very collaborative environment, both with his fellow actors, sometimes with other playwrights, and always with his audience.
OR: Are all of his plays non-original plots?
Shapiro: There may be two or three plays where we can say Shakespeare created the story. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are perhaps the best examples, although there are many sources we can track in there. To mix metaphors, Shakespeare was much better at doing gut renovations of the structures others had built than he was at creating his own plays. He was less interested in creating his own stories.
His two greatest plays are arguably Hamlet and Lear. If there was a Hamlet on the boards, he probably had acted in it. His company had it in their repertory, and you can easily imagine Shakespeare playing some minor role in this early Hamlet and thinking, “God, if I could add soliloquies here or change this or develop that, it could be an extraordinary play.” And that’s what happened. With King Lear — and this is one of the things I write about in my book The Year of Lear — from 1590 to 1605, for 15 years or so, there was a play on the boards that Londoners loved, called King Leir. It is a play about this father and his three daughters. It had a happy ending. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, is reconciled to Leir at the end of the play, and Leir gets his kingdom back. Shakespeare takes this old Elizabethan play, which is a tragicomedy with a happy ending, and turns it into the most searing tragedy imaginable for his Jacobean audiences.
It is not just taking somebody else’s play and updating it. It is understanding how it doesn’t speak to the time and place in which Shakespeare is writing. That drives those revisions of others’ stories.
OR: What is your favorite play?
Shapiro: My favorite play is the one I am working on at the moment, and it seems like one nail drives out the next. The most recent play I worked on was The Comedy of Errors at the Public Theater, and I have a deep, deep affection for that play. It is not his greatest play, but it is one of his most underrated ones.
OR: You think that his greatest play is either Hamlet or Lear?
Shapiro: Yes. Some mornings I wake up and think it’s Hamlet, which is better-constructed than Lear. Lear is kind of rickety in its construction, but Lear is extraordinary and daunting. Lear is the Everest of the plays. Maybe Hamlet is K2. Many have tried to scale it, and I spent 10 years thinking about Lear. I spent probably that many thinking about Hamlet and the plays he wrote in 1599, and Lear defeats you. It is so complicated.
OR: Turning for a moment to the subject of your latest book, what do you view as the driving force behind his extraordinary productivity in 1606?
Shapiro: I think that Shakespeare responded to all sorts of pressures. They are different in 1599 and in 1606. In 1599, his theater company faced a crisis. They had lost their lease and were potentially itinerant if they didn’t get a new playhouse. They owned a playhouse called the Theater, but they didn’t own the land it stood on. One of the most important moments in literary history was that cold December day when Shakespeare and his fellow actors went, armed, to the Theater along with a crew of carpenters and dismantled the building. When challenged, they bluffed it out, carried the dismantled building across the Thames, and rebuilt it as the Globe. That was a very close call, and Shakespeare was obviously under enormous pressure since they had rebuilt this new playhouse a stone’s throw from their main rival, The Admiral’s Men, in Southwark. They were under tremendous pressure to get an audience and to establish themselves on the south bank of the Thames. I am sure that Shakespeare’s fellow actors were saying, “Please, come up with some really good plays because these are tough times.”
In 1606, there was a different set of pressures. 1606 was a terrible year for England. It turned out to be a terrific year for Shakespeare’s productivity, in part, because he was responding to those times. There is no competing media then. There is no radio; there are no newspapers. Other than sermons and executions, there are very few places where people gathered to get a sense of what was going on. Londoners turned to the public theaters to try to understand themselves and the political and economic and social world in which they found themselves. If Shakespeare spoke to that with great insight, then they would go to see his plays. If, at competing theaters, Marston or Dekker or Jonson spoke more powerfully to their concerns, they would go to those plays instead. The pressure was on Shakespeare to speak to the moment, and he responded very well to pressure.
OR: Do you see any detectable political position or philosophical position in Shakespeare?
Shapiro: The answer is that Shakespeare must have had really clear political views — and if you look at the plays, you won’t find them. I have been teaching Julius Caesar to my Columbia students for 30 years. Three decades ago, maybe 90 percent of the students sympathized with the conspirators in their justification to kill Caesar. Now it’s flipped entirely: 90 percent of them do not identify with the conspirators. The answer is not because I am teaching it any differently. It is still the first question I ask, when I walk into class. But the change in attitudes derives from the fact that now we experience politics differently. Shakespeare was quite brilliant at setting up political tensions, whether in Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, but he wasn’t interested in giving sermons. He was interested in writing plays that sat on the razor’s edge of political concerns. That is why, 400 years later, we still bother reading and staging the plays. We don’t know what Shakespeare’s religious beliefs were, and we certainly don’t know what his political views were.
OR: What do you think King Lear is about, and what do you think makes it so great?
Shapiro: Lear is a family story about a man whose wife is no longer alive, who doesn’t know himself and certainly doesn’t know his daughters. I think that is a timeless domestic story. On another level, one that is more meaningful today, Lear is about a man who’s losing his mind. As we now grow older, and a greater percentage of the population suffers from dementia, that too is a powerful story. Lear is also a political story, and certainly was, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a story about a king who wrestles with dividing his kingdom and the terrible consequences of both union and division.
Hamlet and Lear are useful examples of plays which are domestic tragedies and political tragedies at the same time. I think that what makes the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays as extraordinary as they are is their ability to work on these many levels at once. This is part of the mystery of why Shakespeare continues to be such a powerful literary and cultural force today. The plays somehow reinvent themselves every 10 to 20 years and speak with fresh urgency to political moments.
Now, the Comedy of Errors that was staged down at the Public Theater was a play about what happens when people sail out of some Mediterranean city and end up on some other island, and they are immediately imprisoned. You don’t have to look at the newspapers to know that that’s what is going on with the Syrian refugee problem right now. The play comes into an entirely different focus when you see it as a play set in the same geographic area where we are struggling right now to deal with refugees and immigrants and the tension between one state and the next. These plays somehow continue to speak very powerfully as the world changes from decade to decade. King Lear, in the 1950s, was the great play about the apocalyptic nuclear annihilation. The Merchant of Venice read a lot differently before and after the Holocaust.
OR: Do you think Shakespeare was anti-Semitic?
Shapiro: That is a question that is always asked, and it is a funny kind of question. I won’t deflect it by saying that the very concept or term anti-Semitism is a 19th-century term that has racial and national overtones which it would not have had in Shakespeare’s day. I would put it differently. I think that Shakespeare found, in both of his Venice plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, a way of understanding something about the anxieties that the English were facing. Shakespeare was not really interested in Jews or black Africans except insofar as they revealed something to his audiences about what it meant to be white, Christian, and English. This was a moment, 400 years ago, where notions of race and of nation and of religious difference were highly contested. This was a world in which people were trying to figure out who they were in those terms, so the Jew became a wonderful way of triangulating identity and of figuring out what it meant to be a Christian.
I don’t think Shakespeare was philo-Semitic. I don’t think Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Shakespeare wrote a play, a comedy, in which a Jew and his daughter figure largely, and that touched on the things that were near and dear to this culture. What does it mean to convert from one religion to another? How do we deal with the ways in which Christianity emerged out of Judaism? This is, remember, at a time when people are Judaizing. Christians — like the Sabbatarian John Traske — are passing themselves off as Jews. All these questions circulate through this play.
One of the really exciting things for me right now is that I will be going to Venice, to the ghetto, next summer, where a production of The Merchant of Venice is going to be staged on the 500th anniversary of the Venetian ghetto, in that very ghetto. I think that the questions raised by this play don’t go away. I will give you one more example, not to belabor the point. When I finished my book Shakespeare and the Jews, before it came out in print, I went to Israel to lecture. While I was there, I heard that there was a production of The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew at the Cameri Theater, in Tel Aviv.
It was a little strange, seeing a production of the play where everybody is a Jew, every actor, but I settled into it. Shylock was, at the beginning of the play, a typical Jewish businessman, a secular guy. Halfway through the production, he got radicalized, and became a settler, a religious Jew spraying people with an imaginary Uzi once he had lost his daughter and felt betrayed by Jessica and the Christians. What had happened, in the middle of the rehearsal period for that really terrifying production, was that Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Jew, had dressed up in his IDF uniform and killed 20 Palestinians and wounded over 100 others in the Tomb of the Patriarchs before he was clubbed to death by those he hadn’t managed to kill.
It was a production that revealed something about the fissures in Israeli culture at that moment. What doubly brought that home for me was that I grew up in Brooklyn at the same time as Baruch Goldstein. We had both attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in our youth; I went on to write books about these issues, and he went on to take a gun and became a mass murderer. I am fascinated by the ways that these plays allow us insight into the fault lines that divided people then, and in different ways divide us now.
OR: How much do we actually know for sure about Shakespeare?
Shapiro: We know less than we want to about Shakespeare, but more about him than about almost any other playwright of that time. The gaps in the lives of John Webster or John Marston or Thomas Dekker are huger than the gaps in the life of Shakespeare. If you spent your life studying the several dozen dramatists of that time, you would go mad trying to piece together their life stories: what their childhoods were like, what their family lives were like, what their sex lives were like. We live in an age of celebrity. We live in an age where, if you want to know something about Adele, you Google it, and there will be 40,000 websites that will have answers to those questions. This was not an age in which everybody kept a diary. Only a handful of writers at that moment thought it was necessary to do so. It was also not an age of autobiographical writing, which our own is, so we are at a disadvantage in piecing together these lives.
If somebody was trying to piece your life together from official records, they might find your draft card, when you got your first driver’s license, when you bought a house. Those are real-estate and official records. That is what we mostly have for early modern people who were not royals or aristocrats, and Shakespeare was neither. We have to piece together what we do know, and most of what we know concerns Shakespeare’s professional life over a quarter-century.
One reason I don’t plan to write a cradle-to-grave biography of Shakespeare — and one reason I am skeptical of anyone writing such a biography — is that we simply don’t know what brought Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon, in his late teens or early 20s, to London. We don’t know whether Shakespeare ever went abroad. We don’t know what happened in the 10 most formative years of his life. We do know what he was doing between 1593 and 1613 as a playwright, as a member of a joint stock company called The Chamberlain’s Men, which was then brought under the protection of King James himself in 1603 and called The King’s Men. We know, for the most part, who were the major actors in that company, and we know where they played, and we know what Shakespeare wrote. That is enough to tell an interesting story.
OR: Where do those who question Shakespeare’s authorship and identity fit into that?
Shapiro: I will answer that in two ways. The background of almost every playwright who wrote for the Jacobean stage, and most of those who wrote for the Elizabethan stage, was identical to Shakespeare’s. They had what was called back then a grammar-school education — essentially what we would call a college education today. That is all that you needed to write these plays. A university education was primarily training for a career in the church, so England had superb grammar schools, and whether you were Shakespeare or Webster or Ford or any of his other great contemporaries, that is the training you needed, and that’s the training Shakespeare brought.
As for why people don’t think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, having written a book on the subject, Contested Will, and thought a lot about that question, I believe it is ultimately, in large measure, a matter of faith. People do not want to believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The book I wrote probably did not change the mind of a single Shakespeare denier. Not long after I wrote that book, I received a letter from Justice John Paul Stevens, who had retired from the Supreme Court and who the previous year had received an award for Oxfordian of the Year — an award given to one of their own group by those who believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. We corresponded for a while about this question. Now, I admire Justice Stevens to just this side of idolatry. He is one of the great jurists of the 20th century. But when a man as educated as this doesn’t want to believe evidence, then it is really discouraging.
For 200 years after Shakespeare died, no one claimed that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Such claims came only in the mid-19th century, in the aftermath of discoveries about both Homer and the Bible, which indicated that there probably wasn’t a guy named Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and that the Bible wasn’t dictated at one historical moment but was a work that was put together by different hands over time. After this, people then turned to another god of our idolatry, as David Garrick called Shakespeare, and decided: let’s pull Shakespeare down.
The first person to do so was Delia Bacon, an American woman, who was trying to argue that Shakespeare was a rabid republican — or rather that the handful of men responsible for his plays were revolutionaries and the kind of revolutionaries responsible for the creation of America and its republic in response to the monarchy of the day. Then 60 years later or so, the other main claimant to authorship of Shakespeare’s plays — the Earl of Oxford — was proposed by a man named Looney. Looney was an adherent of a deeply anti-democratic political ideology. He rewrote the story of who wrote Shakespeare to fit that ideology. This made Justice Stevens’s adherence to the theory especially disturbing to me. I couldn’t get my mind around why somebody who was one of the great, great protectors and defenders of democracy, which Justice Stevens was and is, would subscribe to a theory that is really an anti-democratic one. He never had an answer to that question. He thought you could keep the two things separate, and, of course, you can’t. There is a politics behind the Shakespeare deniers that they are loath to acknowledge.
There have been, all told, some 70 claimants for who wrote Shakespeare. There is a subtly different ideology behind each one, and those who promote them don’t want to acknowledge what is driving their theories. There is no evidence that suggests anybody else other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. There is tons of evidence that shows us, from his names on the title pages to documents from court and what others have written about and mentioned in Shakespeare’s own day, that Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him. My book was really an attempt to show not what people think, which turns out to be not very interesting, but why people have thought, out of their own personal needs or ideological imperatives, that somebody else wrote the plays.
This is a dying movement, by the way. Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous was supposed to change the world and lure in tens of thousands of skeptics, and it crashed and bombed at the box office. Those who doubt Shakespeare are now licking their wounds and are at loss to figure out what future they have.
OR: If a busy, successful professional wanted to pick up Shakespeare for the first time, what play would you recommend he or she read?
Shapiro: I would not recommend that they read a play. I would suggest that they drop $20 or $50 or whatever it is going to cost, or even line up in Central Park this summer at the Public Theater and pay nothing, and see a play. I think that the mistake is thinking that this is an academic discipline rather than a form of entertainment. Go to see a live production, something playing near you, wherever you are.
2016 is going to be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. So there is probably not a better time in the last 100 years to rekindle an interest in Shakespeare. But don’t sit down and read a play. Go see a play. Trevor Nunn is bringing Pericles to the Theater for a New Audience. The Public Theater is going to have a great line-up this summer. The 92nd Street Y, Public Theater, and New York Historical Society are going to be hosting a huge exhibit centered around a First Folio that the Folger Shakespeare Library is sending to New York. This is going to be a great, great year for Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company is bringing Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V to BAM later in the spring. Go see one of those plays. I’ll be there.
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. His books include Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), the anthology Shakespeare in America (2014), and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015).