March Books 14) 1599

14) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, by James Shapiro

The last book I read about the events of a single year in a single country was a bit of a disappointment. This is not. Shapiro has done a brilliant job of painting a picture of London in 1599, the year that Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and started on Hamlet, going through as many surviving books and documents from that year as possible, mooring his narrative quite firmly in what facts we have, frank about the extent to which he is speculating when he does.

For those who are not London residents (maybe even for those who are) the first interesting page is the very first, with a map of London in 1599. My own business in the city these days tends to be concentrated around Whitehall and Westminster, so there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance at seeing them so far outside the old city limits. And while I knew that the Tower roughly marked one end of the City, I didn’t realise that St Paul’s marked pretty much the other end. Even by Pepys’ day, sixty years later, a lot of the West End had been built over. Shakespeare’s generation must have been the last for whom Lincoln’s Inn Fields really were fields.

To my surprise, Ireland also looms heavily in the story. At school we were taught a bit about the Nine Years’ War of 1594 to 1603, which led to the Flight of the Earls 400 years ago this coming September. (I bet English schoolchildren are not taught about it at all.) But to get it from the English perspective is very interesting.  Here you had a seemingly unending overseas conflict pitting English soldiers against bitter and successful insurgents, to the point that the government as a whole was becoming deeply discredited by its failure to win and the waste of money and soldiers. So, no resonances with the situation of 400 years later at all then.

The book also brought home to me how little I know Shakespeare. I “did” Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet at school, and I guess I have picked up a certain knowledge of a few others by seeing them on stage and screen since (Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, er, that’s it). Also I used to spend tedious amounts of time arguing the authorship question with Oxfordian wingnuts on hlas. Now I want to go out and buy the complete BBC Shakespeare DVD collection. But then I saw the price. Maybe I’ll try and borrow them from the in-laws.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner.