Lear's Shadow: Shakespeare and the Modern World

An Interview with James Shapiro

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.

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.