Cover image for A year in the life of William Shakespeare, 1599
A year in the life of William Shakespeare, 1599

As you like it.

Julius Caesar.

Henry V.

Shapiro, James, 1955-
Personal Author:
1st U.S. ed.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
Physical Description:
xix, 394 p. : ill. (some col.), map ; 24 cm.
Series Title:
A year in the life of William Shakespeare, 1599
General Note:
Map on lining papers.


Material Type
Item Barcode
Call Number
Book V00001849960 822.33 SHA

On Order



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.

Author Notes

James Shapiro was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 11, 1955. He earned a B.A. and Master's degrees at Columbia University, and his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. His work in teaching includes Dartmouth College, Goucher College, Colombia University, and Fulbright lecturer at Bar-llan University and Tel-Aviv University. He served as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe Theatre in London. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Huntington Library, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. He has written for numerous periodicals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Book Review. His more recent books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, for which he won the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2006 Theatre Book Prize. His book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, won the 2011 George Freedley Memorial Award. In 2016, his book entitled 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear won the James Tait Black Prizes for biography.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The year 1599 was an extraordinary one for England. The great poet Edmund Spenser came in a huff from Ireland, urging that the natives there be put down (starvation was the means he urged). The Earl of Essex led an army across the Irish Sea to pacify the rebels; he spent thousands, knighted hundreds, and achieved a flimsy truce. The queen's censors waxed vigilant; the second printing of a best-selling history, mildly critical of royalty, became kindling for a bonfire of satires suggesting that Elizabeth, 66, was declining and speculating on who, or what, would succeed her. Arguably most important, the East India Company was formed, betokening the emergence of capitalism just as Essex's Irish fiasco put paid to the age of chivalry. Meanwhile, the Chamberlain's Men erected a new theater, the Globe, with the hastily disassembled materials of their old one. They presented Henry V, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It by their resident dramatist, who also wrote the first version of Hamlet. Those four plays marked changes in Shakespeare's style, intent, and vision that Shapiro eloquently, convincingly links to England's contemporary great events. This book is a masterpiece, simply a masterpiece. --Ray Olson Copyright 2005 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Agent, Anne Edelstein. (Oct. 18) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This book is not your typical biography. Shapiro (English & comparative literature, Columbia Univ.; Shakespeare and the Jews) offers a critical examination of four plays Shakespeare wrote in the seminal year of 1599-Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet-and of the events that influenced the Bard at the time of their writing. As Shapiro critically evaluates the plays, he indicates how Shakespeare developed as a writer and how he used the events of the year, such as the English invasion of Ireland and increased government censorship, to shape and influence his plays. Unlike recent biographies of the Bard, this work gives the reader a realistic sense of the multilayered and complex political, social, and literary pressures that influenced Shakespeare as a citizen of England, as a business partner in the Globe Theatre, and as a writer. Also included are bibliographic essays for each chapter. Recommended for public libraries with an interest in Shakespeare and for academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/05.]-Shana C. Fair, Ohio Univ. Lib., Zanesville (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599 Chapter One 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. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599 . Copyright © by James Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599 by James Shapiro All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.