by Michael Wood (1948-)
This is the companion book to the four-part series run on PBS; the series was very well done. Based on my favorable impression of the work and the manner of Michael Wood as the narrator, I sought out the book.
Wood focuses on the times in which Shakespeare was raised and lived, particularly the religious issues. His family was Catholic, and apparently “recusant”, suffering for their refusal to accept the Protestant rites mandated by the state. Some of his relatives and acquaintances (or friends of friends) were executed for their parts in various subversive actions, such as supporting the Jesuit mission and the Gunpowder plot. William himself seems to have avoided direct accusation, but is said to have received the Catholic last rites when he died.
The book is interesting for bringing in a great deal of documentary evidence, some fairly recently discovered, from Elizabethan archives, including those of the secret police. There were spies and informants everywhere, and censors reviewed all publications. His plays had to be rewritten as the standards became more strict through Elizabeth’s reign.
Wood tries to indicate how Shakespeare’s (inferred) reactions to the societal attitudes and shifts of fashion affected his work. Quite a bit is speculation, but it seems plausible. More than once Wood resists the more sensational speculation of others.
In his epilogue, Wood points out how traditional societies around the world have been lost, and are still being overwhelmed by ‘modernism’; he takes Elizabethan England as the start of the trend. One indication of the greatness of Shakespeare is the fact that after four centuries of modernism overhauling languages and cultures everywhere, his work is still read and appreciated. This makes him unique for the literature of his time, including religious texts. Wood closes with these words:
He brings back to life the world we have lost. This will perhaps become even more apparent in the twenty-first century, as, through globalization, our past accelerates away from us at an ever faster rate. The changes we are now going through may turn out to be even more profound and far-reaching than those experienced by his contemporaries. Like the paintings in the guild chapel with which this story began, humanity’s coded memories are being erased everywhere across the planet. But it is perhaps for this reason that, rather than diminishing in relevance, Shakespeare’s humanity, his language, his humour and his toughness of mind will become all the more valuable to us as our own ‘revolution of the times’ unfolds.