Shakespeare: A year in the life

September 2023

Key Points

  • How a book focusing on a single year in the life of Shakespeare reinvented the art of biography
  • This original approach helped US academic James Shapiro triumph in the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction ‘Winner of Winners’
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare gives us a picture of an entrepreneurial company man

James Shapiro in the Bethesda Terrace Arcade, Central Park, New York City. Photography by Pascal Perich.

This article originally featured in Baillie Gifford’s Autumn 2023 issue of Trust magazine.

For centuries we thought of Shakespeare as a man out of time, scribbling away for posterity in his isolated attic. James Shapiro has changed that. The New Yorker stripped away romantic mystifications and misunderstandings to give us Shakespeare the hard-nosed entrepreneur and company man.

The extent of the makeover helped Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare win this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize Winner of Winners award as the best work of non-fiction of the past 25 years. The judges described it as “an ingenious fusion of history, politics, and literary criticism”. The 2006 book restored the man from Stratford to his commercial and artistic time and place.


The Bard as businessman

“They don’t teach it in schools, but Shakespeare was a phenomenal businessman who saw opportunities that others did not, responding to technological advances in theatre and stage design,” Shapiro explains from his office at Columbia University in New York.

Determined to give a human face to timeless genius, Shapiro’s idea was to extrapolate a rounded picture from the “core sample” of a single breakthrough year. He chose the year the playwright hit his stride, producing Julius Caesar, Henry V and As You Like It and starting work on Hamlet.

Shapiro’s Shakespeare is a sponge, absorbing the news, gossip and intellectual hot topics and stirring them in to flavour his works-in-progress. The Earl of Essex’s campaign against Irish rebels, the threat of a Spanish invasion, a bust-up with the company’s top clown – they’re all reflected in those plays.

For Shapiro to tell such a readable story meant playing to his strength: “Sniffing out where the good stuff is in the archives, like a pig with truffles.”

For example, he revealed how Henry V’s rousing St Crispin’s Day speech, one of the most famous of all, partly rips off the rhetoric of a sermon glorifying Essex’s brutal and ill-fated campaign. Until Shapiro, no one in 400 years had unearthed the sermon and spotted the similarities in language. Nor had anyone placed Shakespeare in the room where the famous preacher spoke.


Gambling on the Globe

The building of the Globe Theatre also contributed to this make-or-break year. In an age when theatre companies were like medieval tradesmen’s guilds, his company, the Chamberlain’s Men, followed the joint-stock or shareholder model being pioneered by English merchants to underwrite ocean-going risk. It built its state-of-the-art “wooden O”, as the playwright nicknamed its oak-built circular design, squarely on the turf of its rival, the Rose.

“It was a risky move in a plague-ridden city but a successful one, as they drove out their competition,” Shapiro says.

“Making Shakespeare part-owner of the company and the playhouse, instead of the gig worker he had been, freed up his creativity and gave him the financial security and incentive to be creative.”

Much of the originality of 1599 lies in its projection of how Shakespeare made sense of a rapidly changing early modern world, bristling with religious and political angst, and how he brought his often illiterate audiences along for the ride.


Exploring the enigma

But who was he? Living in an unselfconscious age, Shakespeare kept no diary and nobody thought to preserve a mere actor-playwright’s letters. What we know comes from mentions in dry official records. On to this blank canvas, generations of scholars have projected their theories, from the ingenious to the unhinged.

Shapiro’s storytelling goes beyond reconstructing Shakespeare’s political prompts to his more banal – maybe more interesting – daily doings.

“I was trying to humanise Shakespeare, make him into an actual human being who has to get home from London to Stratford and back. How many days did it take? Who would accompany him? Where would he have gotten a horse? Those are the kind of questions that obsessed me.”


Not your average academic

Just as the Will Shakespeare of 1599 differs from the detached genius of legend, so Shapiro is unlike any caricature of a professor of early-modern literature who’s spent 30 years in dust-crusted archives. He’s proud of that.

“Like most scholars, I spent a lot of time at conferences, rubbing elbows with other tweedy academics. I stopped doing that 20 years ago when I saw opportunities, much like Shakespeare did in the late 1580s when he saw a career path most likely to lead to security and creative freedom.

“I wasn’t eager to write for 250 or 500 other academics, but to reach a larger audience you have to write not about what you are obsessed with but about what other people want to know, even if they’re not sure they want to know it.”

His first encounter with the subject of seven of his books had been disastrous: “We did Romeo and Juliet when I was 14, and I hated it. I didn’t even get the dirty bits my classmates sniggered at. I swore I’d never study Shakespeare again.”

It was discovering the plays in performance as a student backpacker to London and Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1970s and 80s that nurtured his obsession. Every summer he would take cheap transatlantic flights to steep himself in the plays.

Much as he enjoys his teaching duties, he spends a good deal of time spreading the lessons of the poetry and plays in rehearsal rooms, schools and prisons and at prestigious business and political gatherings.


Shakespeare our contemporary

Shapiro's Bard is very much alive – and politically active. In his most recent book, Shakespeare in a Divided America (2020), Shapiro charts the many ways in which the plays have influenced US history. For example, he shows how Macbeth and other tragedies comforted Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, while inflating the heroic fantasies of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. The cracked actor saw himself as Brutus to the president’s Julius Caesar.

That play crops up again when a distinctly Trump-like tyrant was ‘murdered’ in a 2017 New York production, provoking a new skirmish in the US’s seething culture wars.

It was one contemporary example, Shapiro says, of how the author “continues to influence how we make sense of the world”. Through his ingenious recreation of a single year, his prize-winning achievement has been to help us make better sense of Shakespeare.

Comedy of errors

Myths and misunderstandings slain by Shapiro:

He worked alone: No, Shakespeare collaborated on at least six of the plays ascribed to him, both early and late ones.

He made up lots of stories: No again. Out of 38 plays, only A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are entirely original.

He didn’t write the plays at all: Shapiro’s Contested Will (2010) elegantly demolishes the cranky theories that Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or many others, wrote ‘Shakespeare’.

A string of hits made him rich: No, playwrights earned peanuts. A share in management allowed him to retire early. After that, he got into property and hoarding barley.

The Tempest, Act V, Scene I: “Sweet lord, you play me false.” Spoken by Miranda to Ferdinand. © Bridgeman/Getty Images

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