I lived with this book for about a month. Everywhere I went the book went with me. I would read and re-read passages on the tube in the mornings and evenings; I read snippets during brief breaks at work and every evening I would ruffle through a few more pages before going to bed. 1599 is that rare beast - the erudite, informative history book with the narrative drive of a beautiful novel.
Beginning with an account of how an armed group of actors made their way through a snowy London night and stole the timbers of a nearby theatre, taking them back to the site of the Globe, the book goes on to set the scene for the year 1599, a year in which a great deal of unsettling events were taking place. Queen Elizabeth was nearing the end of her reign and the old issues of succession occupied the court, tied in as they were with questions of whether England would remain a Protestant country or revert to Catholicism. Rebellions in Ireland drained the royal coffers and diverted the attentions of one of Elizabeth's more awkwardly charismatic favourites, the Earl of Essex. Also across the seas Spain appeared to be assembling troops and ships for another attempt at invasion. An air of uncertainty held the country in a rather queasy grip and, feeding off these weeks and months of uncertainty, William Shakespeare penned the plays (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As you Like it and Hamlet) that saw him transformed from a highly talented playwright into the greatest writer in our history. Several books have explained, fairly enough, how Shakespeare's work transcends the age in which he was writing, but Shapiro does the reverse, showing how the events around him formed key elements in his plays and helped to shape his development as a creative force.
During the course of 1599 Shakespeare began to transform the world of Elizabethan theatre, replacing much of the bawdy goings-on common to the stage with dramatic works that made intense demands on the audience. Light entertainment was making way for thought-provoking drama and new uses of language. Each successive play pushed the boundaries a little further, culminating in the creation of Hamlet, one of the most complex portrayals of an individual ever accomplished. Also by reflecting the times in which he lived into different locations and periods of history he could, in plays such as Julius Caesar and As You Like it, make perceptive but safe (one didn't want to antagonise the queen after all) comments on the events at the Elizabethan court and the country at large. Great art and social commentary going hand in hand.
This is a fascinating book, of interest to anyone with a love of Shakespeare, drama and the theatre, or indeed Elizabethan history. To some extent we are all shaped by the times in which we live, but to interpret and use those times to create truly great art is, indeed, a mark of genius.