First Chapter First Paragraph: 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

eca8f-fistchapEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or is planning to read soon.

At the beginning of this month I read Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals set in 1595 as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men  are rehearsing Shakespeare’s new play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  And I remembered another book that I’ve been meaning to read for over 10 years – 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro. That was the year the Globe Theatre was built and that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

I’m not sure where this book actually begins – there is a Preface, then a Prologue before you get to Chapter 1 on page 27! So here are the opening lines of each.

First:

Preface

In 1599 Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company and waited to see who would succeed their ageing and childless Queen. They also flocked to London’s playhouses, including the newly built Globe.

Then:

Prologue

The weather in London in December 1598 had been frigid – so cold that ten days before New Year the Thames was nearly frozen over at London Bridge. It thawed just before Christmas, and hardy playgoers flocked to the outdoor Rose playhouse in Southwark in record numbers. But the weather turned freezing cold again on St John’s Day, the 27th, and a great snowstorm blanketed London on 28 December.

As the snow fell, a dozen or so armed men gathered in Shoreditch, in London’s northern suburbs.

The armed men then went to another playhouse, the nearby Theatre that had been vacant for two years and proceeded to dismantle the building. They took the frame to a waterfront warehouse near Bridewell Stairs to store it, ready to resurrect it as the Globe.

And at last here are the opening sentences of

Chapter  1 A Battle of Wills

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday 26 December 1598, two days before their fateful rendezvous at the Theatre, the Chamberlain’s men made their way through London’s dark and chilly streets to Whitehall Palace to perform for the Queen. Elizabeth had returned to Whitehall in mid-November in time for her Accession Day celebrations. Whitehall, her only London residence, was also her favourite palace and she spent a quarter of her reign there, especially around Christmas.

The Chamberlain’s Men were at the Palace to play the first night of the Christmas holidays, performing The Second Part of Henry the Fourth.

I think this is a book that will take me quite some time to read – it’s full of detail, not just about Shakespeare, his plays and the theatre, but also about the events of his life and times!

What do you think?  Would you continue reading? 

Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare’s Restless World was an impulse buy last year. I saw it on display at Main Street Trading bookshop, took it down off the shelf to look at it whilst having lunch there and then couldn’t resist buying it. It’s such a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

The objects include an iron fork  found, when the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames was excavated, in the remains of the theatre’s inner gallery walls, relics, medals, gold objects, a rapier and a dagger and strange objects such as an eye relic mounted in silver, complete with photos and illustrations. Through looking at each object MacGregor explores a number of themes, not just the theatre, but including what people ate whilst watching plays, religion, medicine, the plague, magic, city life, treason, and the measuring of time amongst other topics. It’s all fascinating and informative, and easy to read. There are plenty of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and puts both him and his work into context. For me, it was a new way of seeing into the past, which I missed when the series was broadcast on BBC Radio4.

Read Scotland mapIt may seem strange to include this book in the Read Scotland 2014 challenge, but Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was born in Glasgow and the challenge is to “read and review Scottish books -any genre, any form- written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.”

I would have read this book in any case, but I was pleased to find that there are sections in it that fit very well into the challenge, including a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ ie Macbeth. Shakespeare lived through a period of great change for Britain, not only the changes to be expected through the passage of time, but also changes nationally and politically with the death of Elizabeth I. The big question of the day in the 1590s was the constitutional question of who would succeed her, but in England the Treasons Act of 1571 forbade any discussion of the succession.  But dramatists addressed this through their plays – such as Shakespeare’s dramatization of the Wars of the Roses.

MacGregor covers James VI of Scotland’s succession to the English crown in 1603, bringing the whole island of Britain under one rule for the first time.  It was not clear then how things would change:

Everybody knew that with James as King of England and King of Scotland a new political world had been born. But it was not at all clear how things were going to change. …

But making a new nation turned out to be very difficult. For much of the previous 300 years England and Scotland had been at war; they had very different political and legal systems, a different established church, different currencies, separate parliaments and a long history of intense dislike and deep suspicion. James’s central ambition was to make two very foreign countries into one new state, with a new name – Great Britain.

The succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 created a dynastic union, and a personal union of political authority, but it did not create a union of the crowns in constitutional, legal, ecclesiastical or economic terms. Forging such a union was James’s paramount aim. (pages 204 – 205)

It was another hundred years before the formal Act of Union united England and Scotland into one state of Great Britain. These days Scotland is currently debating whether to break the union and once again things are very unclear – how will things change if Scotland becomes an independent state?

Mount TBR 2014

ShakespeareThis post is also my contribution to The Classics Club’s event Shakespeare in January, as well as qualifying for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014.

It’s also the first non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

First Chapter: Shakespeare the Biography by Peter Ackroyd

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

In my last post I mentioned Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Shakespeare when deciding which book to read next. As soon as I began the first chapter I knew that this is the next non fiction book I’ll be reading.

The first paragraph is:

William Shakespeare is popularly supposed to have been born on 23 April 1564, or St George’s Day. The date may in fact have been 21 April or 22 April, but the coincidence of the national festival is at least appropriate.

But it is the second paragraph that caught my attention, after all Shakespeare’s birthday or supposed birthday was not a surprise to me. The second paragraph, however, gives me information I hadn’t known before:

When he emerged from the womb into the world of time, with the assistance of a midwife, an infant of the sixteenth century was washed and then ‘swaddled’ by being wrapped tightly in soft cloth. Then he was carried downstairs in order to be presented to the father. After this ritual greeting, he was taken back to the birth-chamber, still warm and dark where he was lain beside the mother. She was meant to ‘draw to her all the diseases from the child’, before her infant was put in a cradle. A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly. ( page 3)

Ackroyd is not of course saying that this is what happened when Shakespeare was born, merely that this was the ritual at the time and he refers to David Cressy’s book, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England as the source of his information. But it is fascinating, nonetheless to think of the infant William wrapped in swaddling clothes and sucking hare’s brain jelly! Butter and honey sounds far more delectable. And how different from birth today.