In keeping with the World Shakespeare Festival that's currently in full swing, I chose appropriate reading matter in James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
. Instead of trying to create a detailed biography that would involve a lot of guesswork, the book instead chooses to give a brief history of what was going on in Elizabethan England, and how it shows up in topical references in Shakespeare's plays. Shapiro chose 1599 as there was a lot going on in England, with Essex's campaign in Ireland and the threat of another Spanish Armada on Londoners' minds at the time; and because that year saw Shakespeare write Henry V
, Julius Caesar
, As You Like It
and the first draft of Hamlet
(all plays that I'll be revisiting this summer, which made it a good time for me to read the book.) If you study the plays you always get these little notes about the possible nods to contemporary issues, but doing it the other way round is a lot more satisfying, and I found this another interesting read - although it's probably best suited to dedicated Shakespeare fans; for people with a more casual interest Shapiro's Contested Will
probably remains the more interesting book.