when chivalry died

I just finished James Shapiro’s very enjoyable book entitled A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which is about the year when Henry the Fifth, Julius Ceasar, As You Like it, and Hamlet were written. It’s packed with interesting contextual information, such as this pair of facts:

1. In the year 1599, the Earl of Essex took an army to Ireland to suppress a revolt and also (his own goal) to restore English chivalry. He knighted hundreds of his followers, more than doubling the total number of Englishmen who held titles; challenged the Irish rebel Tyrone to single combat; held great heraldric feasts; and explicitly called for a revival of the nobility and its virtues. By the end of the year, he was under house arrest and awaiting execution. Essex’s feudalism was fundamentally incompatible with the unitary, professionalized, plenipotentary state that Elizabeth managed.

2. The same year, London merchants organized the East India Company and sent an expedition to Asia, thereby launching the British Empire. The Company and its expedition were run by the bourgeoisie; nobles were excluded from management.

You can never tell from reading the words of Shakespeare’s characters what he thought about anything. But Shapiro suspects that he was basically reactionary, in the sense that he preferred the disappearing world of chivalry to the new one of bourgeois trade and industry. Shakespeare could think his way into the minds of characters, both good and bad, who were martial, heroic, grandiloquent, and noble. He could conjure scenes of pomp, ceremony, and heraldry. He also presented some bourgeois scenes, for example in The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. But his bourgeois characters were far less memorable and developed than Hamlet, Lear, and their kingly company.

At first it seems surprising that a revolutionary writer should have held reactionary historical views. But Shakespeare was most innovative in his ability to represent the inner lives of diverse people. It was his breakthrough to show the private thinking of great public figures–to supply complex and ambiguous motives for acts of state. Perhaps to represent the interior lives of private people was not yet possible in 1599; bourgeois culture had first to develop.