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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 Paperback – June 13, 2006
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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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James Shapiro focuses on one year in Shakespeare's life -- 1599. And what a year it was for Shakespeare -- highlighted by the building of the Globe Theater, in which he had an ownership stake, and the writing of four plays: "Henry the Fifth", "Julius Caesar", "As You Like It", and "Hamlet".
One of Shapiro's themes is that Shakespeare was a man of his times. To demonstrate that Shapiro profiles in rich detail the London and England of 1599 and the concerns that dominated public consciousness: the half-cocked invasion of Ireland by ill-supplied and under-trained troops (many of them impressed) led by Lord Essex; a feared Spanish invasion by yet another Armada ("the Invisible Armada"); political censorship and its chilling effect; and uncertainties as to succession as Queen Elizabeth aged and her reign approached its end. And then Shapiro shows how these public concerns were reflected in the plays that Shakespeare wrote that year.
As interesting as I found the history, I was more intrigued by Shapiro's discussion of the four plays of 1599. I am in the middle of a two-year project of reading all of Shakespeare's plays in chronological order, and I have recently read "Henry the Fifth", "Julius Caesar", and "As You Like It". In another week or so I will read "Hamlet" (for the first time since high school). My understanding of the first three plays was enriched considerably by Shapiro's discussion of them, and now I will have a few new things to look for when I read "Hamlet". I suspect, however, that the most valuable aspect of his discussion of "Hamlet" may be the various revisions and versions. (Shakespeare's first draft, which he finished near the end of 1599, was far too long to be performed, and since the eighteenth century the play has existed in "multiple, hybrid versions.") As for the other three plays, anyone who reads them seriously should find profitable what Shapiro has to say about them and how they represented the breaking of new ground, both for Shakespeare and for English theater.
A third aspect of the book concerns Shakespeare himself. Contrary to some authors looking for a sensationalist angle, a fair amount is known about him (including that he wrote most if not all of the plays commonly attributed to him), yet there are many frustrating lacunae in the biographical details. Complicating matters is that Shakespeare was rather reclusive and reticent about himself. Hence, those writing about him must fill in the gaps. I sense that Shapiro is better, "truer", at filling in the gaps than many. One of the personal traits driven home for me was how much Shakespeare was a man of business and how ambitious he was of social status.
Finally, Shapiro knows and imparts quite a lot about English theater of the era. Just one of his points: Shakespeare was writing for a very sophisticated and knowledgeable audience, inasmuch as it is "likely that over a third of London's adult population saw a play every month."
Whether you are interested in Shakespeare's London and times, or in the four plays of 1599, or Shakespeare himself, Shapiro's book should be rewarding.
Most recent customer reviews
excellent for political background and politics