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.
The year 1599 was crucial in the Bard's artistic evolution as well as in the historical upheavals he lived through. That year's output Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and (debatably) Hamlet not only spans a shift in artistic direction and theatrical taste, but also echoes the intrigues of Queen Elizabeth's court and the downfall of her favorite, the Earl of Essex. Like other Shakespeare biographers, Columbia professor Shapiro notes the importance of mundane events in Shakespeare's art, starting here with the construction of the Globe Theatre and the departure of Will Kemp, the company's popular comic actor. Having a stable venue and repertory gave Shakespeare the space to write and experiment during the turmoil created by Essex's unsuccessful military ventures in Ireland, a threatened invasion by a second Spanish Armada and, finally, Essex's disastrous return to court. Shapiro is in a minority in arguing for Shakespeare initially composing Hamlet at the same time Essex was plotting a coup; there's little textual or documentary evidence for that dating. Still, Shapiro's shrewd discussion of what is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, particularly its multiple versions, rounds out this accessible yet erudite work. 8 pages of color illus., 22 b&w illus. not seen by PW.
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