What accounts for Shakespeare’s transformation from talented poet and playwright to one of the greatest writers who ever lived? In this gripping account, James Shapiro sets out to answer this question, "succeed[ing] where others have fallen short." (Boston Globe)
1599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England. During that year, Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.
James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare’s staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.
About the Author
James Shapiro, aprofessor at Columbia University in New York, is the author of Rival Playwrights, Shakespeare and the Jews, and Oberammergau.
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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare1599
By James Shapiro
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 James Shapiro
All right reserved.
A Battle of Wills
Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 26, 1598, two days before their fateful rendezvous at the Theatre, the Chamberlain's Men made their way through London's dark and chilly streets to Whitehall Palace to perform for the queen. Elizabeth had returned to Whitehall in mid-November in time for her Accession Day celebrations. Whitehall, her only London residence, was also her favorite palace, and she spent a quarter of her reign there, especially around Christmas. Elizabeth's entrance followed traditional protocol: a mile out of town she was received by Lord Mayor Stephen Soame and his brethren, who were dressed in "velvet coats and chains of gold." Elizabeth had come from Richmond Palace, where she had stayed but a month, having been at her palace at Nonsuch before that. Sanitation issues, the difficulties of feeding so many courtiers with limited local supplies, and perhaps restlessness, too, made the Elizabethan court resemble a large-scale touring company that annually wound its way through the royal palaces of Whitehall, Greenwich, Richmond, St. James, Hampton Court, Windsor, Oatlands, and Nonsuch. But in contrast with the single cart that transported an itinerant playing troupe with its props and costumes, a train of several hundred wagons would set off for the next royal residence, transporting all that was needed for the queen and seven hundred or so of her retainers to manage administrative and ceremonial affairs at a new locale.
A century later Whitehall would burn to the ground, leaving "nothing but walls and ruins." Archaeological reconstruction would be pointless, for Whitehall was more than just a jumble of Gothic buildings already out of fashion by Shakespeare's day. It was the epicenter of English power, beginning with the queen and radiating out through her privy councillors and lesser courtiers. A cross between ancient Rome's Senate and Coliseum, Whitehall was where ambassadors were entertained, bears baited, domestic and foreign policy determined, lucrative monopolies dispensed, Accession Day tilts run, and Shrovetide sermons preached. Above all, it was a rumor mill, where each royal gesture was endlessly dissected. When the Chamberlain's Men performed at court, they added one more layer of spectacle.
Whitehall figured strongly enough in Shakespeare's imagination to make a cameo appearance in his late play Henry the Eighth. When a minor courtier describes how after her coronation at Westminster Anne Bullen returned to "York Place," he is sharply corrected: "You must no more call it York Place; that's past, / For since the Cardinal fell, that title's lost." Henry VIII coveted the fine building, evicted Cardinal Wolsey, and rechristened it: " 'Tis now the King's, and called Whitehall." The courtier who so carelessly spoke of "York Place" apologetically explains that "I know it, / But 'tis so lately altered that the old name / Is fresh about me" (4.1.95-99). Whitehall's identity was subject to royal whim, its history easily rewritten. That this exchange follows a hushed discussion of "falling stars" at court makes its political edge that much sharper.
For a writer like Shakespeare, whose plays exhibit a greater fascination with courts than those of any other Elizabethan playwright, visits to Whitehall were inspiring. The palace was a far cry from anything he had ever experienced in his native Stratford-upon-Avon, which extant wills and town records portray as a drab backwater, devoid of high culture. There was little touring theater, few books, hardly any musical instruments, no paintings to speak of, the aesthetic monotony broken only by painted cloths that adorned interiors (like the eight that had hung in Shakespeare's mother's home in Wilmcote). It had not always been this way. Vivid medieval paintings of the Passion and the Last Judgment had once decorated the walls of Stratford's church, but they had been whitewashed by Protestant reformers shortly before Shakespeare was born.
Whitehall had everything Stratford lacked. It housed the greatest collection of international art in the realm, its "spacious rooms" hung "with Persian looms," its treasures "fetched from the richest cities of proud Spain" and beyond. For an Englishman who (like his queen) had never left England's shores, it offered a rare opportunity to see work produced by foreign artisans. A short detour up a staircase into the privy gallery overlooking the tiltyard led Shakespeare into a breathtaking gallery. Its ceiling was covered in gold, and its walls were lined with extraordinary paintings, including a portrait of Moses said to be "a striking likeness." Near it hung a "most beautifully painted picture on glass showing thirty-six incidents of Christ's Passion." But the most eye-catching painting in the passageway was the portrait of young Edward VI. Those approaching it for the first time found that "the head, face and nose appear so long and misformed that they do not seem to represent a human being." Installed on the right side of the painting was an iron bar with a plate attached to it. Visitors were encouraged to extend the bar and view the portrait hrough a small hole or "O" cut in the plate: to their surprise, "the ugly face changed into a well-formed one."
A few years earlier this famous picture had inspired Shakespeare's lines about point of view in Richard the Second: "Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon / Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry / Distinguish form" (2.2.18-20). It may also have inspired a similar reflection in Henry the Fifth about seeing "perspectively" (5.2.321). What the Chorus in this play calls the "Wooden O," the theater itself, operates much like this Whitehall portrait: its lens is capable of giving shape and meaning to the world, but only if playgoers make the necessary imaginative effort.
Leaving this picture gallery, Shakespeare would next have entered the long privy gallery range that led past the Privy Council chamber, where Elizabeth's will was translated into government policy. The Christmas holiday had not disrupted the councillors' labors; seven of them had met there that day, ordering, among other things, that warm clothing be secured for miserably equipped English troops facing a bitter Irish winter. The councillors adjourned in time for that evening's entertainment and resumed their deliberations the following morning.
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What People are Saying About This
“a brilliantly readable and revealing narrative.”
"[P]assionately written study, the product of deep scholarship and acute critical thought... fascinating."
Editor of The Oxford Shakespeare
“Very distinguished...captivating...Shapiro succeeds where others have fallen short.”
“a stunning exhibition of scholarly intelligence by an academic deeply committed to arriving at the truth.”
"Quite brilliant....It gives a whole large picture of his life, times, and achievement. Wonderful."
Poet Laureat (England)
“Shapiro gives us a Shakespeare who chronicles his age, in a biographical form that speaks clearly to our own.”
“Excellent book....superbly illuminating....Shapiro deserves whoops of applause.”
"Mr. Shapiro has given us by his encyclopedic scholarship and lucid narrative a hitherto unknown Shakespeare."
author of From Dawn to Decadence
“As a yarn, this is up there with The Da Vinci Code but in 1599 it’s all true!”
"Shapiro's scrupulous scholarship has given us a Shakespeare both for his time and our own."
General Editor, The Arden Shakespeare
“If Will in the World is essentially an extremely good historical novel, [YLOWS] is history itself”
"As a yarn, this is up there with The Da Vinci Code but in 1599 it's all true!"
“Only an extraordinary scholar could illuminate Shakespeare’s singular genius by demonstrating how much his work owes to Elizabethan cultureandsociety.”
“For Irish readers...by far the best account yet written of the relationship between this island and Shakespeare’s work.”
“an unforgettable illumination of a crucial moment in the life of our greatest writer.”
“deliciously vivid....Shapiro weaves a tantalising narrative.”
“[This] is one of the few genuinely original biographies of Shakespeare.”
“Superb—the product of marathon scholarship, inspired insight, narrative flair, astute surmise and searching intelligence.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book! It's well-written and engaging, placing Shakespeare's writing within the cultural and political events happening while he wrote. Shapiro did a truly astounding amount of research and presents it effortlessly. I read this book for fun, but as an English student and future teacher, I found it intellectually stimulating and will continue to reference it in my studies and career. I recommend it very highly!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.