If we lived in more ideal world, the accounting after, say, the US Presidential primaries in the newspapers would mirror less partisan editorialising masquerading as news and be closer to Shakespeare's portrayal of Julius Caesar.

This, as James Shapiro argues, in his '1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' beautifully captures both sides of the perennial debate about this critical character in the history of our 'West'. Was he a proto-tyrant deserving of death or a martyr for a Rome in need of a renewing order (or indeed an uncertain admixture of these conflicting possibilities even unknown to himself). As soon as you are allowed by the play to imagine one possibility, some other evidence intrudes to unsettle such certainty, you are invited not to redouble your prejudice but pay attention, re-think, re-imagine, and move out of the theatre with a better appreciation of the complexities out of which any judgement should be made.

Like his subsequent, ''1606..." see here: http://ncolloff.blogspot.nl/2015/12/catholic-terrorism-and-its-lessons.html, this probing of history is saturated with present time concern. Shakespeare is finely tuned to the anxieties of his age - the timelessness of his art is fashioned by leaning into history, not by stepping out of it.

In this case, we are nearing the end of an age, Queen Elizabeth is ageing (inspite of zealous application of her time's equivalence of botox) and has no heir. This is destabalising and makes her regime increasingly sensitive to perceived sedition. It is too a regime beseiged by conflict - in the Low Countries where she aids the Dutch in their never ending rebellion from Spain and, in turn, is faced by an Irish rebellion against her own colonizing that, understandably, the Spanish aim to manipulate to their advantage. In steps the Earl of Essex as purported military saviour - and possibly more than this - loved and feared in equal measure by Elizabeth (and seriously undermined by his enemies at her court). He fails in Ireland, returns, is arrested, launches a failed coup and is executed - a low note in Elizabeth's body politic (if more than once a display of her own personal courage). How to rule, the limits of rule, the justification for tyranny and for its overthrow, and more, get subtly woven into the fabric of Shakespeare's plays and which, with Hamlet, take on a new depth and direction in Shakepeare himself.

All of this, and more, Shapiro explores in his detailed reading of texts against diverse historical backgrounds - from those of high state to the intimacies of Warwickshire life (in which we discover, amongst much else that Shakespeare was a food speculator, hoarding malt)!

Shapiro aims to show that Shakespeare was not an unalloyed genius deposited from heaven (as later Romantics might have had it) nor, however, if transposed to the twenty-first century, likely to be found working as a scriptwriter on Eastenders but that his genius arose out of history (his own and his times) and yet remains striking for its capacity to see beyond history to the complex weaving, recurring patterns in time that are recognised throughout history as compelling questions - and how he is a genius not at providing answers but of deepening questions, of directing our attention to the attention we need to genuinely ask beyond prejudice and into the complexity of life; and, only sitting here are answers likely to emerge that are 'not fixed' (for all time) yet are true responses to what needs are here now.


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