James Shapiro is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of the Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His latest book traces Shakespeare’s life and work from late 1605 through to the publications of King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra during a time of huge political and social upheaval. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear is out now and published by Faber.
What is an historian?
I’m a literary historian, and the definition of that for me is someone who tries to understand the world that shaped what writers wrote—especially the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago. That means uncovering everything I can about his cultural moment: the politics, religion, economics, the fears and hopes of the times, even the weather.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
Until my 30s, I never thought of myself as an historian of any kind, or the practice of it something I wanted to pursue. I was someone who read and wrote about Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who felt that he didn’t know about their lives and times. It mattered hugely to how I understood Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. So I committed myself to learning everything I could about a single Elizabethan year—1599—not knowing that it would take me fifteen years to finish a book on that subject. Happily, mastering a Jacobean year to my satisfaction—1606—took just under a decade.
There are probably a score I couldn’t do without, but there are two that stand out as inspiring models: Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), and Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977). Those two books did so much to bring the past to life and illuminate the worlds of early modern English men and women.
What is your favourite website for historical research?
Early English Books Online (EEBO), to which my university subscribes, and which allows me to read and search from home every book published in England before 1642. It has freed up a lot of time, allowing me to focus in my visits to archives and libraries on manuscript materials.
What is your favourite historical site?
My favourite historical site is actually a recreation of one: the indoor Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe in Southwark, the closest I suspect we’ll ever see to a theatre resembling Blackfrairs, the indoor and atmospheric playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote, along with the outdoor Globe, some of his last and greatest plays. Standing on its stage is exhilarating and seeing Jacobean plays performed there by candlelight is thrilling.
You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?
That’s easy: the first performance of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre.
What is your normal working pattern?
I tend to plot out books long in advance: I like to work on problems that take a long time to solve. Once I know what I’m going to write about I try to alternate between extended periods of research (often at the British Library or the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.) and intense periods of writing. I try to do some writing or reading every day, and have managed to do so, whatever my mood or confidence level, for over thirty years.
Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?
Anything. The pleasure is in the discovery: baseball, mountain climbing, forestry, it wouldn’t much matter. Just put me in a library or archive.
Why is history important today?
History is as important today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow: if we fall out of touch with the past we fall out of touch with ourselves.
What is your best historical fact?
That in Shakespeare’s day men and women were, on the average, 24 or 25 when they married, not 13 or 14, as most people believe. I always ask audiences that question, and they are always surprised by the answer. The nice thing about facts is that they highlight the myths we want to believe in—and then dispel them.