James Shapiro

He is the author of:

Shakespeare in America (ed.)

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play

Shakespeare and the Jews

Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare

THE YEAR OF LEAR (forthcoming, October 2015)

BOOKLIST (starred review): In a difficult year for England, Shapiro recognizes a fruitful time for the country’s greatest playwright—William Shakespeare. Indeed, the very difficulties of 1606 incubated the imaginative vigor manifest in the three masterpieces the Bard completed in that year—King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth. The tensions of 1606 arose in part from the push by the new monarch, King James, to unite his Scottish homeland with England, a push raising vexing questions about national identity and about how a divided royalty can strain that identity. Shakespeare embeds these questions in the realpolitik of Lear, so signaling the self-transformation that made a premier Elizabethan dramatist into an iconic Jacobean. Readers detect further evidence of this transformation in Antony and Cleopatra, where the pacific Octavius looks remarkably like the irenic James. True, the peace-loving James became stern after he was almost killed in the blast planned by those who hatched the Gunpowder Plot. But a resourceful Jacobean poet could infuse the fiery royal rhetoric that prosecutors turned against the plotters into King Lear’s climactic outburst on the heath. Even the epidemic of plague closing theaters for much of 1606 inspired Shakespeare, who memorialized the tragedy in elegiac lines in Macbeth. An impressively fine-grained Shakespearean inquiry.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: Shakespeare expert Shapiro (Contested Will) delivers a fascinating account of the events of 1606 and how they may have influenced three tragedies the Bard is thought to have written that year or soon afterwards. He starts by acknowledging that writers, including Shapiro himself, have traditionally treated Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright instead of a Jacobean one, though some of his greatest plays are from the latter era. Shapiro goes on to trace the Shakespearean implications of a year that included the trial (and execution) of Guy Fawkes for the Gunpowder Plot, plague, European royals visiting England, and family drama. It’s an inherently fraught task—“I’m painfully aware that many of the things I’d like to know about him... cannot be recovered”—but Shapiro convincingly demonstrates how closely contemporary events are reflected in the plays. The parties in Antony and Cleopatra that leave Pompey drunk “have no source in Plutarch,” so the reports of such events during the visit of Danish King Christian seem a likelier source. The other tragedies explored here—Macbeth and, of course, the titular King Lear—show similar contemporary influences on both plot and theme. Shapiro is as compelling when documenting historical events as when analyzing Shakespeare’s text, and his sizable bibliographic essay provides ample fodder for readers wanting to dive deeper into his research.

KIRKUS REVIEWS (starred review): Shakespearean scholar Shapiro (English/​Columbia Univ.; Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 2010, etc.) links the tumultuous events of 1605 and 1606 to three of the Bard's greatest works. The author examines King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all written in 1606. For readers seeking the nitty-gritty of historical connections and sources, Shapiro does not disappoint. Adjusting to the new Scottish king, James I, Elizabethan playwrights had to forego being English for British. Unfortunately, the union of crowns wasn't official without the consent of Parliament. It was a sensitive issue both in England and Scotland, and artists presenting plays had to tread carefully. The plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and a rumor of the king's murder created a fraught atmosphere. The recurring plague transformed Shakespeare's company, his competition, and the audiences to which they played, requiring further alteration to his plays. Shakespeare knew to disguise any events that spoke of broken kingdoms—not only in Lear, but also in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. He used the latest buzzwords—e.g., "equivocation" and "allegiance"—to expose the darkness in men's (and women's) hearts. King James was fixated on demonology, and Shakespeare used Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures to describe demonic possession and to reflect on social ills and the reasons people commit evil acts. Shakespeare adapted Lear from an older play staged 10 years before, and he strongly leaned on Plutarch's biography for Antony, often using dialogue verbatim. He also used Plutarch's account of a soothsayer in Macbeth, although his main source was Holinshed's Chronicles. Shapiro points out the connections of Shakespeare's plays to his own earlier work but also to whatever was at hand. Shapiro's discoveries of long-lost sources and missed connections make this a fascinating tale. His well-written, scholarly exploration will stand as an influential work that is a joy to read.

(Simon & Schuster, 2015)

(Faber & Faber, 2015)


SHAKESPEARE IN AMERICA: A LITERARY ANTHOLOGY FROM THE REVOLUTION TO NOW, ed. by James Shapiro with a foreword by President Bill Clinton

The history of Shakespeare in America is also the history of America itself. From our beginnings as a nation, Shakespeare has been a central, inescapable part of our literary heritage, a figure so widely revered that, as Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, there was “hardly a pioneer’s hut” without a volume or two. Shakespeare in America reveals how, for over two centuries, the plays have been a prism through which crucial American issues—revolution, slavery, war, social justice—were refracted, debated, and understood. Shapiro traces the rich and suprising story of how Americans made Shakespeare their own through a wide range of genres—poetry, fiction, essays, plays, memoirs, songs, speeches, letters, movie reviews, and comedy routines—and a remarkable roster of American writers: from Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, and Henry James to James Agee, John Berryman, Pauline Kael, Isaac Asimov, Adrienne Rich, and Jane Smiley. American statesmen and presidents from John Adams to Bill Clinton (in a foreword written for this volume) offer their own testimonies to Shakespeare’s profound and enduring influence. The anthology also tracks the multitude of ways in which American theater and film have been indelibly marked by Shakespeare: actors from Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth to John Barrymore, Paul Robeson, and Marlon Brando reinterpret Shakespeare for each new era; the legendary productions of New York’s Yiddish theater are evoked in Cynthia Ozick’s story “Actors”; in the Depression years, Orson Welles revolutionizes Shakespearean performance with his landmark productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar; the creators of Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story write Shakespeare into the history of the classic American musical theater; and Joseph Papp, renewing a once flourishing popular taste for the plays, establishes a New York tradition with Shakespeare in the Park.

"'Shakespeare in America'...offers amazing variety--genres, authors, styles, and contexts--all placed in conversation with each other. The result is a wide-ranging of America's ongoing relationship with Shakespeare, uses and abuses alike."
--Virginia Vaughan, Times Literary Supplement

"This is one of the more brilliantly conceived and edited books in the entire recent history of the indispensable ‘Library of America.’"
--The Buffalo News

"There are discoveries and surprises along the way, like Lord Buckley’s beat-era “Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies,” an extended riff on Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“I came here to lay Caesar out, Not to hip you to him”), and “Shakespeares of 1922,” a vaudeville sketch by Lorenz Hart and Morrie Ryskind. But for many readers the real eye opener will be the heated love affair, richly documented by Professor Shapiro, between ordinary Americans and the most exalted writer in the English language."
--William Grimes, The New York Times

"'Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now'…is a fascinating survey of the writer's importance to our culture and his influence on literature, politics, entertainment and more."
--Tampa Bay Times

"You will not want to miss a captivating volume just out from the Library of America titled 'Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now,' skillfully edited by James Shapiro."
--James M. Keller, Santa Fe New Mexican

"Shakespeare’s imprint on our culture and literature remains, as this anthology so amply demonstrates. A review of it can only answer one question: Does it accurately reflect the value that Shakespeare’s plays have held in the hearts and minds of Americans throughout our history? Yes, it does. We have treasured them always and everywhere. They’re truly a part of America."
--Bryan Woolley, Dallas Morning News

“The Library of America has brought out a volume dedicated, unusually, to the influence on America of a non-American figure. . . . The collection is delightfully varied. . . . It makes an implicit argument for a distinctly American Shakespeare.”
–Noah Millman, The New York Times Book Review

"Shakespeare in America" is an entertaining, thought-provoking miscellany, one that speaks as much to the American spirit of reinvention and assimilation as it does to the influence of one Elizabethan playwright and poet on the way we think and act and speak."
--James D. Watts, Jr., Tulsa World

"There is 'something of great constancy' behind the dozens of sparkling mometos assembled by Shapiro....like other volumes in the Library of America series, this one is a pleasure to hold and to be behold."
--Christopher Flannery, Claremont Review of Books

“I think Americans will be fascinated to learn of our deep and early connection to the Bard, how he inspired presidents and incited mobs, and how vivid the legacy of one Englishman’s imagination still sits within the consciousness of our country. Like Shakespeare’s own plays, this anthology is full of enthralling stories and weird coincidences, and it’s a treasure.”
—Meryl Streep

“P. T. Barnum loved Shakespeare so much he tried to buy the Bard’s house and bring it to America. James Shapiro has shown why he didn’t need to. Americans have always had their Shakespeare, and in this wonderful volume, they will have him still.”
—Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library

“This brilliant anthology, hilarious, heartbreaking, and thrilling, shows that Shakespeare is more than our greatest writer; in America, he has also been a battleground. With Shakespeare we have fought about race, anti-Semitism, and gender equality; we have debated class struggle and national independence. With Shakespeare we have forged our national identity. He has made us who we are.”
— Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director, The Public Theater


First aired in April 2012 as a BBC4 3-hour documentary: “The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History." Directed by Steven Clarke. Short-listed for the Grierson Award for the Best Historical Documentary, 2012. Now available as a DVD for North American viewers.

“Were I to offer an introductory course in the Bard, one could not ask to do much better than SHAKESPEARE: THE KING'S MAN. [Shapiro’s] smart, sharp and succinct analysis of sixteen plays or so a true joy to experience--he presents them all in a particularly inspired manner, oftentimes highlighted by fantastic live performance footage that manage to expertly capture much of the themes, feel and mood of many of these admittedly tough-to-grasp later plays composed by the King's Man. Indeed, Shapiro's insight into the history of the time and his vast knowledge of the supposed history of the man behind the play himself is thorough and thoughtful to a fault--consistently engaging and never veering too far from the various topics under discussion, with some illuminating location visits and conversations with other historians; the focus always remains firmly set on the second half of Shakespeare's career and the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the plays themselves. And, who could honestly ask for a better overview?” (Pat Cerasaro, Broadwayworld.com)

"'Shakespeare: The King’s Man' was an absolute delight from start to finish. I’m a fan of Shakespeare, but admittedly don’t know a whole lot about the plays he wrote during his time as “the King’s Man,” when he and company became the “King’s Players,” officially working at the King’s pleasure. This fascinating documentary will appeal to both seasoned historians and general audiences. Scholar James Shapiro deftly guides the viewer through the turbulence of life in the Jacobean court. From the Gunpowder Plot to the writing of the King James Bible, Shaprio illustrates how Shakespeare was influenced by James and how James was influenced by Shakespeare…..This is a great addition to any DVD collection as it appeals to both general and specialized audiences." --Anglotopia.net

American edition: Simon and Schuster, 2010

A New York Times "Notable Book" for 2010


For two hundred years after Shakespeare's death, no one thought to argue that somebody else had written his plays. Since then dozens of rival candidates - including Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford - have been proposed as their true author. "Contested Will" unravels the mystery of when and why so many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote the plays (among them such leading writers and artists as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Orson Welles, and Sir Derek Jacobi). If "Contested Will" does not end the authorship question once and for all, it will nonetheless irrevocably change the nature of the debate by confronting what's really contested: are the plays and poems of Shakespeare autobiographical, and if so, do they hold the key to the question of who wrote them?

UK edition: Faber & Faber

WINNER OF THE SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE (Best non-fiction book published in Britain) Also awarded: THE THEATRE BOOK PRIZE