An intimate history of Shakespeare, following him through a single year--1599--that changed not only his fortunes but the course of literature. How was Shakespeare transformed from being a talented poet and playwright to become one of the greatest writers who ever lived? In this one exhilarating year we follow what he reads and writes, what he sees, and whom he works with as he invests in the new Globe Theatre and creates four of his most famous plays--Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet. Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare's staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599: sending off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathering an Armada threat from Spain, gambling on the fledgling East India Company, and waiting to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.--From publisher description.
On the one hand, it's well-written on a sentence level, contains a wealth of detail about the context Shakespeare was writing in, and does an excellent job of connecting that context to the texts.
On the other, it seemed sloppy to me in several ways. For one thing, it is far more willing to speculate on the interior life of historical figures than I'm comfortable with, and since its citation takes the form of a bibliographical essay rather than specific endnotes, it's not always possible to figure out where its speculations are coming from. For another, I noticed occasional bits of carelessness in its discussion of the Shakespearean text (which I'm more familiar with than its historical context -- part of the reason I was interested in reading the book in the first place). For example, when discussing the metaphorical use of the word "brother" in Henry V, it talks about how Henry refers to "his aristocratic kinsmen" Bedford and Gloucester as brothers, without making note of the fact that they are quite literally his brothers.
All of this means I'm not quite willing to trust the book, even though it is as I said fascinating.
As well as being a significant year in the history of England, 1599 Shapiro makes a strong argument for 1599 being the fulcrum point on which Shakespeare's reputation tunred; it was the year the Globe was built, the year he insisted on - and won - changes to long-standing traditions in English theatre (effectively allowing it to become a more serious medium), the year he wrote Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. Shapiro has the skill of taking history and giving it the force of a novel, but he doesn't cross the line into fictionalisation - when he's not sure of something, or is making an educated guess, he tells you.
The result is a book that sucks you into both the life of both Shakespeare and Elizabethean England for a year and works both as an excellent history, and as a novel-like story.
at night to prepare for the construction of the Globe miles south and across the river, this book reads like gripping narrative in parts.
When I saw James Shapiro at the Shakespeare Association of America, he told me he had spent three years revising it. So here is an ideal model for scholars, one unlikely to be followed under the pressures for publication. Research and write for years, then revise for three more.
This was a very clear, understandable, narrative of a single year in Shakespeare's long career. The format works well. There are plenty of discussions of what is going on in England at this time, and how it directly affected Mr. Shakespeare's plays.
I ignored the entire last CD. It comprised excerpts from plays written in 1599. Strange. Wouldn't it had been better used for material that made it to the cutting floor?
But actually, this audio version was enough book for me.
so this was a big problem and the book was hard to listen to and remember.
I say etc, etc because I only got half way through the book before myself giving up the challenge. A little too errudite after Anthony Holden's William Shakespeare and Terry Jones' Chaucer!
Must try again later.
Despite the book's title, "1599" spreads its time equally between Elizabeth and her citizens, and the Bard himself. As Shapiro openly states, we know so little about what exactly led Shakespeare to write his plays, and about specific events in his life, that anything is by necessity conjecture - but he'd still rather stick to what is probable, not just possible. As such, he covers the complex political and social landscape brought about by Elizabeth and Essex, the Irish and the Spaniards, the changes in theatregoers and theatre laws, and other concerns that hit London and Stratford. He posits areas and concerns that may have affected Shakespeare as he wrote four such monumental works, while also seeking to explain the mindset of an Elizabethan during this shifting era.
What Shapiro has written is a book that first of all, educates about the living, breathing public mass of Londoners (people who, after all, were far more complex than any film stereotype); second, negates many of the needless conjectures determined to give every event in Shakespeare's plays some needlessly grandiose or tragic origin (all of which seek to undermine the fact that he was writing for a specific theatre and crowd, and working as a creative, not just working through some Freudian issues); and third, most importantly, sees Shakespeare as a human. We can never know what it was like to be such a genius during an era when history, linguistics, and politics rose up like never before. But we can ask questions about Shakespeare's personal stake in the theatre, about his reactions to other literary and political movements, about his reasons for taking age-old stories, myths, and plays, and reworking them into feats of ever-growing depth. A very enjoyable read, although I couldn't help wishing Shapiro could write a volume for every year of Shakespeare's professional life.
I've read several books on the Bard, but this is my favorite so far, and I would highly recommend you read it.