What’s Past Is Prologue: Shakespeare as Author of Historical Fiction

Charlotte Wightwick

1606In the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte Wightwick talks to James Shapiro about his latest book, 1606: Shakespeare and The Year of Lear (Faber & Faber, 2016), and the playwright’s use of history to illuminate contemporary events.

It’s easy to think of Shakespeare’s plays simply as ‘classics’, speaking to us across the centuries and acting as a timeless mirror for human drama. Yet as James Shapiro rightly points out in his new book, Shakespeare was very much a creature of his time, using myth and history to cast light on the politics and social upheavals of his day. Shapiro says, “Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers turned to the theatre – there really weren’t alternatives at the time – to engage [with] pressing contemporary issues. Playwrights, including Shakespeare, didn’t disappoint, whether the topic was Union with Scotland or the aftershocks of the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare, more than his rivals, tended to look to the distant past to illuminate the present.”

Shapiro’s books bring out very vividly for the reader how Shakespeare’s plays would have resonated with their contemporary audiences. This is all the more fascinating when we consider the dramatic events that took place during his lifetime – and see how these change what he wrote about and how he treated his subjects. Shapiro has previously studied another key year in Shakespeare’s life as a playwright, 1599, when he wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. In 1606, it was Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

Shapiro reflects on the differences, explaining that, “During the waning years of Elizabeth’s reign, it was clear that she would not marry nor bear children [and refused] to identify her successor. The first decade or so of [Shakespeare’s] playwriting career was spent writing one succession play after another – from Titus Andronicus to Hamlet. The understandable fear of foreign invasion and civil war fuelled these plays. In 1603 all that changed after King James of Scotland peacefully succeeded to the throne, arriving from Edinburgh with a wife, two sons, and a daughter. Playwrights, including Shakespeare, turned to more topical issues generated by the new regime, especially, in the early years of James’s reign, the possibility of a Great Britain.”

Indeed, as this last shows, the England of 1606 has many parallels with our own, with hotly contested debates over sovereignty within the British Isles and the country still reeling from the failed terrorist attack – the Gunpowder Plot – of the year before. When asked whether modern artists try to use history in the same way as Shakespeare, Shapiro says: “Nowadays I see parallels almost everywhere I turn: in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (the brilliant hip-hop historical drama on Broadway), and especially in television series – to which I am especially addicted – such as Homeland and The Americans.” He goes on to say: “I’m deeply jealous of historical novelists, who derive pleasure from their research but then are free to go beyond where I permit myself to go, exploring the interiority and motives of their characters and reshaping stories into compelling plots. I’m keenly aware that this is what Shakespeare himself was doing when, for example, he invents for Brutus such remarkable soliloquies in Julius Caesar, or imagines the love-affair of Antony and Cleopatra.”

Perhaps it is this that is one of the reasons for Shakespeare’s undying and almost universal popularity: just as we do, he was compelled to look into the past to try and make sense of his present. As Shapiro says, “The celebration [marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death] in 2016 is truly global. I spoke about Shakespeare’s plays in India last month, a fortnight ago in Vermont, in London this past week and I will be heading to Argentina and Uruguay. I’ll surely lift a glass in his honour and memory on April 23rd.”

About the contributor: Charlotte Wightwick is a writer and reviewer for the HNS. Her first novel, The Lady with an Ermine, is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the same name and is set in Renaissance Milan.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 76, May 2016

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