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1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

by James Shapiro

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1,443298,933 (3.96)55
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)

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Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
Quite good. ( )
  k6gst | Mar 5, 2020 |
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. ( )
  FredLHolmes | Sep 9, 2019 |
The common problem when writing about Shakespeare is that biographical information is hard to come by, and it’s dangerous to read his plays and assume that he’s putting all of himself in there. James Shapiro gets around this challenge by writing about a pivotal year in Shakespeare’s—and England’s—life. In 1599, the succession to the throne of England was still uncertain, there were rebellions in Ireland and threats of armadas from Spain, and the East India Company was just getting started. Shakespeare, meanwhile, used events such as this to inform his writing four of his major plays: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.

Shapiro explains not only the historical background of the plays but also the theatre-going environment, showing the reader what Elizabethan audiences would get out of certain plot choices or casting decisions or even certain lines. And he demonstrates just how challenging the plays were for the audiences, particularly As You Like It and Hamlet, which did new things with the pastoral romantic comedy and the revenge play, respectively.

I found this book most interesting when it talked more about the actual plays and the theatre, rather than straight history, as interesting and appropriate as it was. This is probably the first time I’ve been remotely tempted to read As You Like It, because I tend to favour Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and it’s all because of this book. I also found it interesting to read about the different editions of Hamlet and how modern editions (at least at the time this book was published, in 2005) conflate two printings of Hamlet in what ends up being far less coherent than Shakespeare intended. I’ll have to check my own copy of Hamlet to see what the editors did with that one.

This book contains a small set of colour plates in the middle and black-and-white sketches throughout the text, and a bibliographical essay that may be helpful to readers wanting to know more about a specific chapter or topic. I’d recommend this for people who like to read about the theatre or a different slant on English history. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Oct 11, 2018 |
I adore this book. It's a deep dive into a particular year in Tudor history -- the year in which Shakespeare wrote As You Like It and Hamlet. But it isn't just a book about Shakespeare; there's a lot of political and cultural history here, too. Well-written and fascinating, hard to put down. I'm really looking forward to checking out the follow-up, The Year of Lear. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
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