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James Shapiro "unravels" Shakespeare's life

By Kelsey McKinney

Portrait of William Shakespeare.
Portrait of William Shakespeare.

James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about Shakespeare’s “life” as currently written. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Shapiro specializes in Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture and is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Cultural Compass spoke with Shapiro about his research, the sparse data on Shakespeare’s early life, and his favorite play.

In your book 1599, you focus on a year in Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote five plays. How did Shakespeare, an actor himself, find the time to write such masterful works?

Shakespeare somehow managed to finish Henry V, write As You Like It and Julius Caesar in quick succession, and draft Hamlet in the course of that year. He seemed to have written plays in inspired bursts. The pressure of drawing audiences to his company’s new theater, The Globe, must have had something to do with it as well in 1599. But we do well to remember that playwrights turned out plays then fairly quickly. Thomas Dekker either wrote or collaborated on ten plays that same year. How Elizabethan playwrights did it without caffeine—neither coffee nor tea were available yet in England—makes that achievement even more remarkable.

With relatively little information to work with from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s life, how do you piece together his life?

It takes time—and patience. I started working on 1599 in 1988 and didn’t publish it until 2005. I started another year book—on 1606, the year of King Lear and Macbeth, five years ago—and don’t expect to finish it until 2016. Slowly but surely, over time, and with enough dogged research, the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. It can get frustrating—and happily it’s not the only project I work on at one time, or I’d go mad.

In several interviews you have hinted that biographers of Shakespeare are drifting toward fiction in their work. What amount of theory do you think is appropriate in a biography? Where is the line?

Well, that’s the subject of my talk on “Unravelling Shakespeare’s Life.” So come to the talk [or watch the live webcast] where I’ll address this—and will answer any questions you might have after. It’s less about theory than fantasy and invention, what biographers have to supply when the facts of the life, especially the inner life, haven’t survived.

You said that you hated Shakespeare in grade school. What changed your mind?

What changed my mind was seeing terrific productions. I spent a lot of time backpacking overseas in my teens and twenties and ended up spending a good deal of that time in England, where it was possible to see extraordinary actors taking on Shakespeare. I was hooked. Over the course of a decade I may have seen 80 or 100 productions of Shakespeare’s plays—and much of what I know of Shakespeare derives from those formative experiences. I never did take a college class on Shakespeare, though that’s what I teach these days. I also spend a lot of time now working with theater companies and helping to train teachers to teach through performance.

Do you have a favorite play?

Usually the one I’ve seen most recently, onstage or at the movies. The recent and brilliant film by Ralph Fiennes of Coriolanus has made me want to spend more time with that often overlooked tragedy.

Errol Morris book highlights photos from Ransom Center's collections

By Kelsey McKinney

Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.

Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, published by Penguin in September 2011.

Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections.  The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.

In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?

Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.

Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.

Related content:

Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).
"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.

There really is “Something About Arthur”: A peek into Charlotte Brontë’s childhood

By Kelsey McKinney

The daughters of Patrick Brontë built a literary empire. Combined, the three women published seven novels and two books of poetry. In 1847 alone, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, Emily published Wuthering Heights, and Anne published Agnes Grey. For the Brontës, literature was a way of life that started young. Charlotte’s unpublished juvenilia book “Something About Arthur,”—housed at the Ransom Center—provides an active look into the childhood imagination of a woman who would become a major part of the Western literary canon.

Charlotte Brontë wrote “Something About Arthur” at the age of 17 shortly after returning from boarding school. The text is 25 pages long and includes a 42-line poem. It is the story of a struggling artist who battles an arrogant aristocrat for the heart of the heroine, Lady Emily Chalwort. Like many of Charlotte’s juvenilia books, “Something About Arthur” is small enough to fit in one hand, measuring only 5.7 cm by 9.5 cm (2.5 inches by 3 5/8 inches). Charlotte’s handwriting is microscopic and barely legible.

Charlotte’s motivation for creating such small books is debated. Patrick Brontë was by no means a poor man, though it is suspected that he may not have wanted to fund the paper cost of his children’s fantasies. The distance from the Brontë house to the nearest store to buy paper could be a reason. Some suspect that the small words kept the stories secret from adult eyes or that Charlotte was merely trying to imitate newspaper print. The most common theory, however, is that the books were originally created for a group of toy soldiers. In 1826, the year the first small manuscript was created, Patrick Brontë returned from a conference toting a set of 12 wooden soldiers for Branwell, the second eldest and only male child. Eventually, each child chose his or her favorite soldier. The stories in these juvenilia manuscripts, it is speculated, were not about the soldiers, but created for them. Thus, the size of the book would need to be in direct proportion to the size of the soldier.

When creating the worlds for their toy soldiers, the Brontë children were divided. Charlotte played primarily with the next eldest, Branwell, leaving Emily to play with Anne. Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary kingdom and filled it with the characters of their imagination. They named the imaginary world Verdopolis. They created characters with names, occupations, and motivations. Charlotte transcribed their fantasies in her tiny, illegible hand. These fantasies became “Something About Arthur” and what is known as the “Glass Town” series. The majority of Charlotte’s juvenilia novellas are set in Verdopolis, the earliest written at the age of 14. “Something About Arthur” was written three years later, and Charlotte stopped writing about the characters of Verdopolis by her mid-20s.

The Brontë sisters’ fiction has long been the subject of biographical interpretation. The Brontë children were known to be social recluses. Charlotte especially was timid and often struggled to cope with her surroundings. Some scholars claim that because the Brontës spent the majority of their lives secluded, the fiction they produced must be the product of their own circumstances. Yet others dispute this claim. We may not see Charlotte herself in the characters of “Something About Arthur,” but we do see Charlotte’s evolution as a writer. This tiny book shows her love for strong heroines, current events, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her writing mimics gothic literature and the adventure novel, two devices she would discard in her later works. “Something About Arthur” is the beginning of a craft that would be skillfully and carefully honed.

The Ransom Center acquired “Something About Arthur” in 1952 through the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation. Fannie Ratchford, esteemed figure in the Ransom Center’s history, orchestrated the entire affair.  Miriam Lutcher Stark pledged her entire library to the university in 1925. Knowing that his library contained a similar Brontë juvenilia piece titled “The Green Dwarf,” Miss Ratchford prompted him to acquire “Something About Arthur” in 1952 when she found it on the market. He did just that. Today both juvenile manuscripts, and Miss Ratchford’s correspondence with Lutcher Stark, can be found in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Last December, another of Charlotte’s juvenilia books sold at auction to Le Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris. This book was the first in the “Glass Town” series, penned in 1826 when Charlotte was 14. It too is believed to have been written for the wooden soldiers.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.