2006 Samuel Johnson Prize
Synopses & Reviews
1599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England.
Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.
James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare's staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.
"The year 1599 was crucial in the Bard's artistic evolution as well as in the historical upheavals he lived through. That year's output Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and (debatably) Hamlet not only spans a shift in artistic direction and theatrical taste, but also echoes the intrigues of Queen Elizabeth's court and the downfall of her favorite, the Earl of Essex. Like other Shakespeare biographers, Columbia professor Shapiro notes the importance of mundane events in Shakespeare's art, starting here with the construction of the Globe Theatre and the departure of Will Kemp, the company's popular comic actor. Having a stable venue and repertory gave Shakespeare the space to write and experiment during the turmoil created by Essex's unsuccessful military ventures in Ireland, a threatened invasion by a second Spanish Armada and, finally, Essex's disastrous return to court. Shapiro is in a minority in arguing for Shakespeare initially composing Hamlet at the same time Essex was plotting a coup; there's little textual or documentary evidence for that dating. Still, Shapiro's shrewd discussion of what is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, particularly its multiple versions, rounds out this accessible yet erudite work. 8 pages of color illus., 22 b&w illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Anne Edelstein. (Oct. 18)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Those four plays marked changes in Shakespeare's style, intent, and vision that Shapiro eloquently, convincingly links to England's contemporary great events. This book is a masterpiece, simply a masterpiece." Booklist (Starred Review)
"A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare widens and deepens our understanding of four seminal plays and the mind that gave them to the world." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[I]ntriguing....Sure to be hated by Harold Bloom and others who view any attempt to locate the Bard in history as blasphemy against the religion of Pure Art, but open-minded readers will be stimulated and enriched by Shapiro's contextual approach." Kirkus Reviews
"Shapiro does a fine job showing how this historic change gave birth to Hamlet, with its inwardness and psychologizing, and to the row of great tragedies that followed." John Simon, The New York Times Book Review
"As a feat of sheer scholarly research, Shapiro's book is a mind-boggling performance....This is not a book for the casual reader, but those with a genuine interest in Shakespeare and his times will find it endlessly rewarding." BookReporter.com
"Shapiro goes too far into detail, at times turning the book into a military history....Shapiro is at his best when he explores the high-wire act that Shakespeare performed in a society riven by fear and dread." The Christian Science Monitor
"James Shapiro throws an unusually searching light across Shakespeare's creative genius and makes him come truly alive." The Economist
"Only an extraordinary scholar could illuminate Shakespeare's singular genius by demonstrating how much his work owes to Elizabethan culture and society." Chicago Tribune
One of the most admired lecturers at Columbia University takes a single year of Shakespeare's life and interweaves history, biography, and literary criticism in a way that has never been done before.
About the Author
James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University in New York, is the author of Rival Playwrights, Shakespeare and the Jews, and Oberammergau.