In a lengthy Q&A Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires draws out Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro about his methods and discoveries about Shakespeare's life, especially during the process of writing 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.
Unraveling Shakespeare's Life
by Robert Faires, Fri. Mar. 23, 2012
Forget cradle to grave; get to know Will just one year at a time
Whether or not you believe William Shakespeare really wrote all those plays, you can probably concede that writing his life story is a challenge all its own. But Columbia professor of English James Shapiro has devised a cunning approach, one he's laid out in his acclaimed history, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.
Austin Chronicle: I've read enough biographies and partial biographies of Shakespeare to know that it's a particularly tricky pursuit. How did you choose which strand to pick up in writing about Shakespeare from a historical or biographical standpoint?
James Shapiro: "Strand" is exactly the right word, and it led me to the idea of unraveling. I even got curious when the word "unraveling" came into use in English. Turns out to have been a Dutch word introduced almost surely by Shakespeare's contemporary playwright, Thomas Dekker, and in Shakespeare's day it had a much stronger meaning than, say, unraveling the sleeve of a sweater. It had the sense of really undoing, and my talk is really about undoing what has been done, untangling various strands.
I've been practicing since 1988 a different kind of biography -- some people call it micro-biography, that sounds too close to micro-beer for me. It's studying a smaller but significant moment in a life. And one of the things that has long struck me is that there are a lot of great writers who had extraordinary moments of creativity or transformative moments in their writing careers and had them fairly early on, like Wordsworth at the beginning of his career and in the wake of the French Revolution, around 1800.