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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 Paperback – June 13, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 86 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Instead of relying on the meagre evidence about Shakespeare's personal life, Shapiro's biography examines how public events left their mark on the four plays-"Henry V," "Julius Caesar," "As You Like It," and "Hamlet"-that Shakespeare wrote during 1599, the year in which the thirty-five-year-old playwright "went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived." The approach proves illuminating for the overtly political plays. Lines in "Henry V" allude to a rebellion in Ireland that Elizabeth I had recently sent the Earl of Essex to suppress. Chapters on "As You Like It" and "Hamlet" revert to more conventional textual analysis, interlarded with biographical speculations and digressions; for instance, Rosalind's journey to Arden may derive from Shakespeare's annual trip to Stratford to see his wife and daughters, and the "limbs with travel tired" of the twenty-seventh sonnet perhaps reflect the poor condition of English highways.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (June 13, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060088745
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060088743
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christopher W. Coffman on October 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This wonderful book will be a classic. It combines specific new historical information discovered by Shapiro's original research--yes, new information can still be found on Shakespeare!--with an insightful reading of the great plays he wrote just before, during, and immediately after his annus mirabilis 1599.

For those who enjoy juicy, well-researched historical detail on the Bard's life and times (such as Frank Kermode's -The Age of Shakespeare-), Shapiro goes to the next level in this book. He depicts Shakespeare's life as he lived it during one momentous year, 1599, a decision that is not arbitrary. Shapiro's close focus on that year succeeds in illuminating much about Shakespeare's imagination that was previously obscure. And what a year it was--producing the break-through plays Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.

Shapiro describes how the year began as Shakespeare and his co-investors surreptitiously and hurriedly worked to save their financial investment by dismantling a theatre building on a site where they had lost their lease, in order to rebuild it as The Globe on the south side of the Thames. Shapiro then explains better than I have read anywhere else the nature of Shakespeare's relationship with the Court of Queen Elizabeth, and how his performances before the Queen and his understanding of the royal taste affected his decisions when he wrote his plays.

Shapiro provides fresh insight into how Shakespeare's financial prospects and artistic choices that year were interwoven with the rising, and then the plummeting, fate of Robert Devereaux, the tragic Earl of Essex.
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Format: Hardcover
Two rather obvious conclusions leap off the pages of just about every book ever written about William Shakespeare: That his plays reflect the turbulent times in which he lived, and that very little is known for certain about his life.

James Shapiro, a much respected Shakespeare scholar and professor at Columbia University, has applied his enormous fund of Shakespearean knowledge and his zeal for historical research to these home truths in a novel way. He narrows his focus down to a single year in Shakespeare's life and teases out of the four plays that occupied the Bard in that year a number of stimulating conclusions.

As a feat of sheer scholarly research, Shapiro's book is a mind-boggling performance -- his bibliography runs to 41 pages --- and his conclusions, while obviously personal and open to debate, will make readers go back to those four plays equipped with new tools for decoding them.

In 1599 Shakespeare finished "Henry the Fifth," wrote "Julius Caesar" and "As You Like It," and shaped his first version of "Hamlet" --- four truly great plays. He was also involved in the construction of the Globe Theater (of which he was part owner) and busy acting on its stage. Offstage noises in his life (though very much onstage for most Englishmen) were the ill-fated English expedition to subdue a rebellion in Ireland, the threat of invasion from a second Spanish Armada, a host of intrigues and plots at the court of Queen Elizabeth, England's attempt to shoulder its way into the lucrative East Indies trade, and even his own domestic affairs back home in Stratford.

Dealing with all this gives Shapiro's book a divided focus.
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Format: Paperback
In this insightful and innovative book, Shapiro adopts the reverse approach to the usual. Instead of analysing the plays to find the man, he explores the life to illuminate the plays. The result is a revelation of both.

A Prologue describes the building of the Globe from timbers secretly transported across the Thames by Shakespeare and Co. from The Theatre (on which the lease had expired). Then Shapiro trains his lens on 1599, dividing it into its four "seasons". Maintaining dynamic readability throughout, each season deals with a set of preoccupations at national, professional, and personal levels:

1. Winter - Shakespeare's artistic differences with his comic star, Will Kemp; the run-up to Essex's Ireland campaign, with mobilisation and departure - as well as pacifism.

2. Spring - logistics of building the Globe; censorship, book-burning and history; the appropriation of religious holidays for politcal purposes.

3. Summer - paranoia in London with rumours of a second Armada invasion); Shakespeare's anguish at an unauthorised, cobbled-together edition of his poems; sincerity, fakery, and learning the true nature of love.

4. Autumn - the decline of chivalric values and rise of empire via merchant-adventurers and the East India Company; the impact of Montaigne's essays on soliloquies; and finally, an elucidation of how the various versions of "Hamlet" reveal Shakespeare's changing view of this most problematic play.

Shapiro correlates these topics with the themes and language of Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet (the four dramas Shakespeare wrote in 1599). He also provides us with details so unexpected as to be poignant - for example, Shakespeare changing horses while riding home to Stratford.
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