I know one is not expected to tell the story of where her copy of the book comes from in a professional review but this is something I especially like in the books from my shelves. When I open one of them, on the first page available there’s always a pencil note (or an ex-libris sticker) reminding me where and when I got the copy, when I read it.
As for this book, which is one of the latest ones I read, I bought it in London in December 2010, just outside the Old Vic, while I was trying to spend the few minutes left before entering the theatre and reaching my seat. It was too embarassing to stand there inside alone among the chattering crowd in the lounge, so I decided to go out again and got to the bookshop just across the road where I couldn't resist the charms books always have on me. I bought 3 ones.
After that, I went back to the theatre carrying a little plastic bag (not very elegant I know) containing my new treasures and felt less lonely among the crowd.
Time to write about the book, now! First of all, when I bought it, I thought it was a novel, I don't know why, but that was what I expected. The first sentence in the blurb misled me:
"An intimate history of Shakespeare following him through a single year that changed not only his fortunes but the course of literature."I guessed it was a fictionalised biographical work. But misled I was, indeed!
Professor James Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University in New York, writes an illuminating essay both on Shakespeare's staggering achievement and what the Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599. The resulting account is so gripping and so convincingly narrated to sound like a real historical adventure novel. Anyhow, it is a real academic research work, thoroughly documented.
I can't say it can become a pleasant informative reading if you are accostumed with the language history and you like historical essays. But get ready to what it is: a product of deep scholarship. If this is what you are looking for, this book is perfect for you. It will be the perfect addiction to any Shakespeare addict, fan or scholar.
How did Shakespeare go from being a talented poet and playwright to become one of the greatest writers who ever lived? In this one exhilarating year we follow what he reads and writes, what he saw and who he worked with as he invests in the new Globe theatre and creates four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As you like it and Hamlet.
We follow him at court:
" ... Shakespeare and his fellow players had been invited to play at court far more than other companies combined - fifteen times in the past three years ... They were keenly aware of how important the support of the Queen, the Privy Council, and the Lord Chamberlain was - all the more so, given the uncertainty about how much longer Elizabeth would reign".
We sympathize with his frustrations:
" Just because Shakespeare was able to write plays that appeal to adiences across a wide social spectrum didn't mean that he wasn't frustrated by the limits this imposed on what he could write".
We face with him one of greatest tragic events in his life happened just three years earlier (1596), the death of his only son, Hamnet:
"It could not have been easy for Anne Shakespeare to contact her itinerant (the theatres in London had been closed for the plague) husband to convey the news of Hamnet's illness and death - it would have taken a messenger from Stratford four or five days at least just find Shakespeare - so it's unlikely that he learned of his son's demise in time to return home for his funeral"
This book focuses on Shakespeare's life on this single year, 1599, but it is also an incredible picture of the time in which he lived, a very interesting portrayal of London and the Londoners of the last years of Elizabeth's reign, its society, economy, politics and, of course, the intrigues and historical events of the Tudor era (the Tudor state had to crush an Irish rebellion and see off another armada threat from Spain).
It is often said that we know very little about Shakespeare. The truth is that reading this rich, detailed account you get the impression that we know a lot instead thanks to the mass of documentary evidence mentioned.
As a Shakespeare lover, I'm glad I bought it, happy I managed to get through it, proud to keep it on my shelves.