Shapiro Awarded Across the Pond
Written by Bwog Staff
On June 13th, Professor of English and Comparative Literature James Shapiro won the BBC 4 Samuel Johnson Prize for his work, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Shapiro’s tome, a partial biography, details the 35-year old Bard as he works on As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Herewith, the Bwog plays Boswell to Professor Shapiro, who spoke over the phone from Vermont.
Bwog: What was winning the Prize like?
Professor James Shapiro: The award ceremony, there’s nothing really like it in the States. It’s more like the Academy Awards, by which I mean you’re sitting around with cameras a few feet from your face, ready to register excitement or disappointment. It was something I’ve never seen, that is to say, a literary awards dinner on primetime.
9 o’clock on a Thursday night. The BBC.
And you were not told beforehand whether you had won?
It came as a complete surprise.
How has your book been received in England versus the way it was in America?
I’m an American, and I write for a lot of literary periodicals here, so it was surprising to me that my book was better received in the UK and Ireland than in the States. Not to say it wasn’t well received here—it was—but the response there was spectacular.
I read somewhere that the title of your book is different on each side of the Atlantic. Here, it’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, whereas over there, it’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.
Yes, this was a choice on the part of the American and English publishers. The reason behind it is that the English have a sense of what the year 1599 means—that’s a date that resonates. I suppose if I’d written a book called 1776, or 1865, or 1944, then it would be fine over here.
I think that American readers didn’t care quite as much as readers in the UK about, say, what the English did in Ireland that year or about the East Indian Company. And publishers, who invest a lot of money in a book, have a say.
What are your plans this summer?
I am in rain-soaked Vermont, watching my son run around here. I do a lot of gardening and stonewall-building. I’m in the process of beginning the next book, which is on the Shakespeare authorship controversy.
What made you want to write about that?
Well, as I went around on a book tour the last six months or so, everywhere I tried to speak about 1599, and everyone asked whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. And I’m not talking about cranky people, these were serious questions.
It seems to me that scholars who just brush off these people haven’t done a good job dealing with what people want to know. And I want to know why some interesting people—Sigmund Freud, Malcolm X, Henry James—why they thought [Shakespeare’s plays and poetry] were written by somebody else.
Why do you think?
It could be notions of class—Shakespeare was not educated in a university—or, Americans just love conspiracy theory.
Do you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him?
Even if I did say that, people would say I have a vested interest in saying that, and that there’s a second level of conspiracy, you know, people paying me to say that. But yes, despite those reservations, I know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I’m more interested in why people question that.
Right, though there still would probably be people who question your motives.
Well, I also know the secret handshake of those who are in on the conspiracy.