A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

by James Shapiro

Hardcover, 2005




HarperCollins (2005), 416 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tortoise
I found this book both fascinating and infuriating.

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.
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LibraryThing member liehtzu
This is a wonderful book, well written in a fast paced style which sacrifices nothing to historical accuracy and in which the author's love of Shakespeare leaps off the pages. It did two things for me. Firstly, it reminded me of how I have neglected Shakespeare for nearly twenty years now - an neglect I intend to remedy starting with his sonnets. Secondly, I'm Irish and a history buff; I'm very familiar with the Elizabethan wars in Ireland and every shoolchild here is reared on the Flight of the Earls. What this book does is join the dots and makes of Shakespeare a creature of the time, the policitcs, the wars and the personalties. I felt I understood the man so much more after reading this book and consequuently had a better grasp of his works. It makes it all so real - and that's a helluva job.… (more)
LibraryThing member wrmjr66
I enjoyed reading this admittedly popular history of one particularly significant year in Shakespeare's career. Shapiro does a good job of pulling together numerous historical sources which allows him to indicate not only what Shakespeare was likely doing, but what other playhouses were performing, what political intrigues were going on, and what foreigners were noticing and commenting on as they visited. Of course, as with any such history, there is much conjecture and much talk about visits that might have occurred, etc. For example, he reports that Edmund Spenser returned from Ireland to London in the first months of 1599. He then speculates about whether he would have seen one of Shakespeare's plays in performance since the Chamberlain's men were playing at court in those months. But such conjectures, true or not, are to be expected and are part of what makes the read fun.… (more)
LibraryThing member John5918
I find this a creative way of writing about history and biography. The author examines a single year in the life of Shakespeare and his environment, and 1599 was certainly a busy year for him and an interesting one for England. It deepened my knowledge not only of Shakespeare himself and contemporary writers, but of Elizabethan London and England. I gained new insights into Ireland, France, Spain and even ancient Rome. It's quite a wholistic way of writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member sarialam
Shapiro's learned but readable 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 35-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.… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Shapiro’s expert scholarship and extraordinary attention to detail both come through in this book. If you thought you knew Shakespeare, you don’t. Every word, every stage direction holds meaning in this microcosmic look at The Bard. You don't usually think about the other contemporary actors of Shakespeare's. This was a thrill to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member MikeFarquhar
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a book I've been meaning to get around to for ages. James Shapiro is a Professor at Columbia University in New York, who has taken what relatively little we know of the life of Shakespeare, and woven it together with the detailed history of 1599 to create a vivid account of one year in his life. Quite apart from Shakespeare, it's a fascinating period in English history, as the Elizabethean Era drew to a close and a sense of uncertainty hanging everywhere, and Shapiro uses Shakespeare to illustrate that perfectly, just as his plays reflected it at the time.
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.
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LibraryThing member saloliver
Shapiro attempts to get round the problem of the dearth of information about Shakespeare's life by using the device of examining one year (1599) in depth to give us some insight both into the man and the subject matter of his plays. It is a good idea and the book is packed with historical facts. However, I found Shapiro's prose style quite hard to read which made it difficult to get into the flow of the book. It reminded me too much of an A Level history textbook in its style. I think you'd have to be very seriously interested in Shakespeare and knowledgeable about his plays in order to appreciate it. I don't suppose I'll ever finish it...… (more)
LibraryThing member vguy
Knockout. Explains how WS got the complexity of viewpoint into his writing; link between him as poet, dramatist, actor, businessman. Surprising amount of hard evidence of his activities which by implication knocks on the head the "other writer" nonsense. Also gives insight into the plays and the stresses of Late Elizabethan England. Lot of names and details but the reader is taken by the hand.… (more)
LibraryThing member lucienspringer
An excellent, accessible and enjoyable book. The author makes a surprising number of persuasive connections between then-current events in Engand and the poetry and plays that are believed to have been written in 1599. I'm not sure whether this year was really the single most important in Shakespeare's career, but I'd happily read a whole series of titles that employ this conceit.… (more)
LibraryThing member AlanWPowers
I read James Shapiro's 1599 three hundred and six years after its subject, the year it came out. It is the best written book on Shakespeare I have read in decades, and since Shakespeare is only known because he wrote so well, Shapiro's is the the most Shakespearean book on Shakespeare. From the first page account of the deconstruction (no, not the French mind-game, but a carpentry event) of The Theater
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.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
I usually avoid abridged books like the plague. One can never know what one has missed, and it is therefore unfair to the author to try to provide a review.

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.
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LibraryThing member Cynfrank
This is the first time I used an audiobook for research. I was very sick and had a bad headache that prevented me from reading. So, I downloaded this book from Audible.com. Not only was I able to do reasearch in that state, but faster, I think. And I think I retained it. In fact there was a revelation in this book that I'm very thankful for. Of course, I'm not revealing what the revelation was.… (more)
LibraryThing member mahallett
i listened to this and the segments were about 12 minutes long. i stop listening about every 5 minutes. i have no pause and my machine starts at the beginning of each segment .
so this was a big problem and the book was hard to listen to and remember.
LibraryThing member eas
Excellently conceived. How events of 1599 impinged and reflected on one another - the year the Globe opened, a 'new beginning' for Shakespeare, the challenge of Ireland, etc, etc.

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.
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LibraryThing member therebelprince
A beautiful read. In "1599", Shapiro tackles one year in the history of the citizens of London. It also happens to be the year William Shakespeare wrote "Henry V", "As You Like It", and "Julius Caesar", and began work on "Hamlet".

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.
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LibraryThing member k6gst
Quite good.
LibraryThing member FredLHolmes
If you're a Shakespeare fan I would HIGHLY recommend this book. It is an entertaining and extremely informative book about a year in the life of the finest writer in the English language. The year Mr. Shapiro analyzes is 1599 in which Shakespeare wrote four plays, including HAMLET. It was a volatile year in England with rebellions and political intrigue going on, and Shakespeare drew on all of that to write his plays. Mr. Shapiro does a wonderful job of showing the linkage between what was happening around Shakespeare and the stories and characters that ended up in his plays. The amount of detail is excellent, and Mr. Shapiro has a knack for making you feel like you're living through those events yourself. This is an especially good read for aspiring writers, as it dispels the myth that writing came easy to Shakespeare, and shows how much WORK went into plays.

I've read several books on the Bard, but this is my favorite so far, and I would highly recommend you read it.
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LibraryThing member AlisonLea
Highly recommended--sheds new light on the year 1599 and the consequences of social history, especially politics, in Shakespeare's works. Helpful in the classroom as well.


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