Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the “Generative Dance” of his Research

Perhaps the most interesting thing about James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of Shakespeare is the kind of scholarship that it represents.  Drawing upon dozens—likely hundreds—of sources, Shapiro presents a credible depiction of Shakespeare’s life in 1599.  Rather than limiting himself to sources that are exclusively about Shakespeare or his plays, Shapiro gathers a mountain of data about Elizabethan England.  He consults collections of public records that shed light either on Shakespeare’s own life or the life of his contemporaries, not just to identify the historical inspiration and significance of his plays, but to give us an idea of what living in London as a playwright in 1599 would have been all about.  This, to me, is a fascinating use of documentary evidence that few have successfully undertaken.

Before I go on, I should note that I’m currently working on a directed study in which I am being thoroughly steeped in the objects and principles of knowledge management.  It is in light of this particular theoretical context that I read Shapiro and think, “he’s really on to something here.”   In their seminal article “Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance Between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing”, Cook & Brown present a framework in which “knowledge”—the body of skills, abilities, expertise, information, understanding, comprehension and wisdom that we possess—and “knowing”—the act of applying knowledge in practice—interact to generate new knowledge.  Drawing upon Michael Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge, Cook & Brown present a set of distinct forms of knowledge—tacit, explicit, individual and group.  They then advance the notion of “productive inquiry”, in which these different forms of knowledge can be employed as tools in an activity—such as riding a bicycle, or writing a book about an Elizabethan dramatist—to generate new knowledge, in forms that perhaps were not possessed before.  It is the interaction between knowledge and knowing that produces new knowledge, that represent a “generative dance”.

Let’s return for a moment to Polanyi’s tacit and explicit knowledge.  The sources Shapiro is working with are, by their nature, explicit, since he is working with documents.  The book itself is explicit, since it too is a document, and the knowledge it contains is fully and formally expressed.  The activity of taking documentary evidence from multiple sources, interpreting each piece of evidence in the context of the other sources, and finally synthesizing all of it into a book, represents more epistemic work than is represented than in either the book or the sources by themselves.  The activity itself is what Cook & Brown describe as “knowing”, or the “epistemology of practice”.  The notions of recognizing context and of interpretation, however, suggest that there’s even more going on here than meets the eye.  In this activity, Shapiro is merging these disparate bits of explicit knowledge to develop a hologram of Shakespeare’s 1599.  This hologram is tacit—it is an image he holds in his mind that grows more and more sophisticated the more historical relational evidence he finds.  Not all of the patterns and connections he uncovers are even expressible until he begins the synthesis, the act of writing his book.  Throughout this process, then, new knowledge is constantly being created—both tacit and explicit.

Let’s also consider for a moment Cook & Brown’s “individual” and “group” knowledge.  Shapiro’s mental hologram can be safely classified as individual knowledge.  And each piece of evidence from a single source is also individual knowledge (though, certainly, some of Shapiro’s sources might represent popular stories or widely known facts, and thus group knowledge).  The nature of Shapiro’s work, however, the collective merging of disparate sources, problematizes the individual/group distinction.  What arises from his scholarship is neither group knowledge (i.e. knowledge shared among a group of people) or individual knowledge (i.e. knowledge possessed by an individual), but some sort of hybrid that is not so easily understood.

From a digital humanist perspective, we can think of Shapiro’s scholarship (and have) as a relational database.  All of the data and the documentary evidence gets plugged into the database, and connections no one even realized existed are then discovered.  We might have many people adding data to the database, sharing bits of personal knowledge.  And everyone with access to the database can potentially discover new connections and patterns, and in doing so create new knowledge.  Would such a collective be considered group knowledge?  Would individual discoveries be individual knowledge?  Would the perception of connections be tacit or explicit?  It is not altogether clear because there are interactions occurring at a meta-level, interactions between data, interactions between sources, interactions between users/readers and the sources and the patterns of interacting sources.  What is clear is that this interactive “dance” is constantly generating additional context, new forms of knowledge, new ways of knowing.


Cook, S. D. N., and Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing, Organization Science 10(4), 381-400.

Shapiro, J. (2006).  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  New York: Harper Perrennial.  394p.

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