A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - 1599 by James Shapiro 2005. Read in October 2010.
In the amazing year of 1599 William Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. This is certainly worth a whole book and Shapiro’s is absolutely fascinating. I was hooked by the third page of the Preface on which he writes: “…we know a great deal about Shakespeare’s career as a writer (more than enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic that he wrote his plays himself)” (page xiii). Shapiro wrote a book about this too and a review will be coming eventually. He also wrote in the Preface: “…as much as we might want Shakespeare to have been like us, he wasn’t” (page xv). What a disappointment! But that makes the book to follow even more enticing. He promises also to tell us “how, at age thirty-five, Shakespeare went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived” and “how deeply Shakespeare’s work emerged from an engagement with his times” (page xvii).
He keeps his promise. Dividing the book into four parts to match the four seasons he connects the plays to the war with Ireland, to Elizabeth’s advancing age, to the building of the Globe, to the change in the meaning of the word “popularity” from a kind of democracy to being in popular favor; Shakespeare was one of the first to use it in this second sense.
Shapiro shows how Shakespeare reveals the religious and political conflicts of the time, the changing social reality of the people and the developing importance of the theater.
The final part of the book deals in some depth with Hamlet, most of which was written in 1599 although it was first performed in 1600.
In the Epilogue we learn that after this incredible period Shakespeare wrote few plays for awhile, concentrating on poetry, but what he produced in 1599 proved that he “understood his age perfectly, and the depth and profundity of that understanding, which continued to draw contemporaries to his plays, has ensured that we still read him and see these plays performed today…” (page 333).
This book is a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in Shakespeare, English history or the connection between creativity and the societies from which it emerges.