If you're looking for a standard biography of Shakespeare then this definitely isn't it: Shapiro eschews the usual methods of writing a life and instead concentrates on a single year in Shakespeare's life.
He examines what was happening politically and culturally and how those events both manifest in the plays Shakespeare was writing that year, and also how they might have affected his future work. As he admits himself, this is mostly speculation and cannot ever be confirmed, but it's an imaginiative and original approach which works excellently.
Shapiro examines the 4 plays written in 1599 (Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet) and relates them to both Shakespeare's (assumed) thinking and external events. He re-reads the plays themselves in light of this and makes some excellent points. But this isn't a 'lit crit' book: it also delves into religion, Shakespeare's possible relationship with his wife and family back in Stratford, the Elizabethan theatrical world, and Elizabethan politics.
The one major gap for me was an exploration of the sonnets written around this time, and the (possible) implications for Shakespeare's personal life. There's nothing here about his emotional life (which admittedly would be pure speculation - but then a lot of this book is). That small caveat aside, this is an excellent, well-written, and entertaining book, as rewarding, I would guess, for the non-specialist as the specialist.
I am not an English specialist nor an historian but I do have a working knowledge of Shakespeare's major plays and Tudor England and I feel that you need this to appreciate this book properly. I wish that I had known all the plays which he describes here in more detail as I would have got more out of the book but my acquaintance with "Hamlet" and even more sketchily with "Julius Caesar" were sufficient.
The author is trying to give a feel for one year through the history of the time and then looking at the plays to see how the events and politics of the time are reflected in the content. The year he has chosen is 1599 which was the year of the Earl of Essex's rebellion against Queen Elizabeth and a time when power and succession were much in the forefront of the minds of political thinkers. Shakespeare himself was part of the building of the Globe Theatre and obviously working hard, wanting his plays to be acceptable and popular. The author combines history, biography and literary criticism to give us a textured view of this year and what it meant to the people at the time and to Shakespeare himself.
I found the book hard going at first because it dumped a lot of information but I persevered and became engrossed in the story. I feel that I was left with a better understanding of the times and especially the plays and how they linked together. This is obviously a well researched book but the author has a clear narrative and understanding of what he wants to say and uses evidence appropriately.
I've studied Shakespeare to graduate level, taught his plays in schools, and yet never felt I'd gained the depth, breadth, and incredible nuances available about his works that Shapiro offers in this book, 1599.
Other reviewers have mentioned the historico-political scene in 1599 (ageing queen, disastrous military expedition in Ireland and subsequent fall of Essex, fear of a second Spanish armada), but I found the exploration of literary contexts the more enlightening.
For example, Shapiro writes about Shakespeare's poetry in the context of the publication of "The Passionate Pilgrim", an anthology published without his approval that not only included five unpublished sonnets, but also selections from older works like "Venus and Adonis", the songs from "Love's Labour's Lost" (which were intentionally bad poetry), and even some works by other poets (though unattributed) like Christopher Marlowe. Shapiro closely compares some of these poems with later revisions as a way of showing Shakespeare's craftsmanship, and then proceeds to look at "As You Like It" in terms of its commentary on pastoral, on good poetry, and on mature love.
Similarly, he takes a brief look at the newly popular genre of the essay, and how these personal musings in written form could translate into powerful soliloquys on stage, particularly with reference to the early drafts of "Hamlet", and then broadens this technique to show how it affected drama in general.
"The plays that Shakespeare worked on in 1599," Shapiro writes, "all show signs of a struggle to move beyond [a] dynamic [of a clear-cut morality tradition -- good v bad], to forge a new kind of drama by resisting the tendency to handle conflict in conventional ways."
He goes on to suggest that this is what Shakespeare was trying to achieve in "Hamlet"; that the rotten place of Denmark was so complicated ... so full of shades of grey ... that Hamlet wasn't simply over-intellectualizing or suffering from an Oedipal complex (as have been traditional ways of trying to understand the protagonist). Instead. the whole genre of the revenge play was being transformed, locating the conflict of the play within the protagonist, and therefore, exploring ethical dilemmas that were extremely challenging (as were how one might stage a play when the conflict was internal).
Perhaps scholars can poke holes in all that Shapiro concludes in such instances, but the very fact that he draws together everything in the political world, in the literary world, in the dramatic world, and even Shakespeare's own private world, he has succeeded in broadening/deepening my appreciation of many aspects of Shakespeare's works, and for that, I think it's a very satisfying and "meaty" read.
Outstanding book. Probably the most informative single volume I've ever read about Shakespeare as a writer and a man. Scholarly yet written simply and clearly. Takes you close to Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Extremely insightful. Starts with the daring removal of the Curtain's timbers from Shoreditch to Bankside on a freezing December day in 1598 - the same timbers that then were resurrected into the Globe. Shapiro spent 10 years researching this book, in the process reading everything he could guess that Shakespeare might have read in that year (based on records of the Stationers' Company - the state censor of the day). the book has breadth and depth, on a wide range of relevant topics. Without trying to 'reconstruct' overmuch, it takes you into the language and the lived fears and tensions of a pivotal moment, not only for Shakespeare but in the history of England. Can't recommend this too highly.
This is a detailed take on the life, times and works of William Shakespeare, which, originally and to its eternal credit, focuses on one year of a productive life, the year in which he wrote "Hamlet", amongst other things. Shakespeare is put into his artistic, religious and historical context.
While the research put into this book is prodigious, it does not weigh the book down; it is perfectly accessible to the layman, and provides an interesting counterpoint to Bill Bryson's recent effort. Both authors are unafraid to admit the paucity of the source materials available and are perfectly happy to acknowledge the impossibility of any form of academic certainty. How refreshing.
Takes a year in Shakespeare's life and puts into a politico-social context. Scholarly, but immensely readable, this covers the year 1599 when Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays. A tremendous amount of research has gone into this work by the author.