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Two Years in the Life of William Shakespeare

“He was not of an age, but for all time.” – Ben Jonson

James S. Shapiro Book Covers

To what extent did the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, influence the writing of Hamlet? Does King Lear—a play obsessed with paternal failure and fraught familial relationships—reflect Shakespeare’s own midlife crisis? James S. Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, contextualizes the historical record to provide a revelatory new understanding of the life and work of William Shakespeare.

In the award-winning biography 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, we are granted access to the lost world of Elizabethan London; a world characterized by rebellion, fear of invasion, religious division, and anxiety about who will succeed Elizabeth to the throne. In this single tumultuous year, Shakespeare composed a staggering series of artistic triumphs: the Roman tragedy Julius Caesar; the pastoral comedy As You Like It; the historical epic Henry V; and the darkly brooding masterpiece Hamlet. These literary milestones coincide with Shakespeare’s quest for a coat-of-arms and the quasi-legal construction of the Globe Theater, assembled from the timbers of a defunct playhouse.

Shapiro’s recently released follow-up, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, elucidates a period of Shakespeare’s life that is truly ominous in its setting. London is on high alert following the Gunpowder Plot (a foiled attempt to blow up Parliament), plague has returned to the city, and newly enacted witchcraft laws deepen the ever-present fear of demonic influence. The 42-year-old Shakespeare exploited these contemporary events in the three plays composed that year, and explored his darkest preoccupations: regicide (Macbeth), doomed love (Antony and Cleopatra), and the terror of “nothingness” (King Lear). Shapiro’s textual and historical analysis demonstrates that Shakespeare was not only a transcendent creative artist, but the very spirit of his age.