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
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: One of the more delightful harbingers of next year's quatercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare's death is the appearance of a new book by James Shapiro, the liveliest and most accessible of Bardologists, who -- apart from performing the inestimable service, in "Contested Will" (2010), of seeing off for good the ineffably tedious gang of Shakespeare-authorship conspiracists -- has previously offered a fine and sassy study of the momentous year of 1599….In "The Year of Lear," Mr. Shapiro focuses on 1606, the fertile twelvemonth in which Shakespeare finished not only "Lear" but also "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." It is, like its predecessor, a work of scrupulous scholarship…The book is crammed with stimulating research that again and again produces startling connections….Mr. Shapiro has once again brought Shakespeare's world to precise and pertinent life; the bright light he shines into obscure corners gives us the illusion that we can almost glimpse the dramatist himself, but he immediately slips away again. It is to be hoped that Mr. Shapiro might be persuaded to write a book for every year of Shakespeare's life: Then we might finally find ourselves face to face with the Sphinx of English literature. (Simon Callow)
THE SUNDAY TIMES: In his prize-winning book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, he searched for traces of real-life events in the plays written that year. His new book shifts the inquiry to Shakespeare's annus mirabilis of 1606 when, after a seemingly fallow period, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra burst upon the world. Despite the intricate tangles of evidence he assembles, he manages, as in 1599, to present his argument in a series of vivid, sometimes harrowing, narratives…..Shapiro's investigation of Shakespeare's professional fortunes is as fascinating as his scrutiny of the plays….[His book] draws on a mountain of reading, yet is persistently original. It takes us onto the streets of Shakespeare's London, and it reminds us of the brutal culture from which his plays sprang. (John Carey)
THE OBSERVER: [In] 1599, a prize-winning account of Shakespeare’s annus mirabilis...Shapiro demonstrated that, by paying attention to the interaction of play text and historical context, we could make important discoveries about Shakespeare’s creative process. But 1599 is not the only high point in Shakespeare’s CV…there’s 1605/06, famous for the gunpowder plot and its bloody aftermath, a moment when historical drama and dramatic history seem to compete with each other in extremes of threat, conspiracy and terror. This has become Shapiro’s latest subject, a darker sequel to his 1599….Shapiro’s dark, enthralling, and brilliant narrative includes a nice aside in which he reveals that the age-old thespian fuss about “the Scottish play” was actually a Victorian invention, the work of the incomparable Max Beerbohm. (Robert McCrum)
THE SPECTATOR: 1606 was not just, rhymingly, the year of Lear; it was also the year of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. And Shapiro shows how all these disparate national anxieties come roaring into the work. 1606, in the tradition of the author’s breakthrough book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, zeroes in on its particular historical moment to explain, in detail, how this worked. In doing so he illuminates the plays and shows how intensely particular in origin these universal dramas are. The Shakespeare Shapiro painstakingly and subtly presents here is a virtuoso remix artist, a textual sponge, a magpie, a master-orchestrator of the Zeitgeist….Shapiro pays attention to the feel of day-to-day life, too, not just to literary influence and top-level history….In the fine tradition of early modern historicism, Shapiro is at pains to emphasise how intensely literary were the politics of the time…‘Political theatre’ is a dismissive buzz-phrase nowadays: but for the Jacobean court, politics was theatrical and theatre was political. Interpretation was everything. All the world, as this terrifically interesting book shows, really was a stage. (Sam Leith)
THE GUARDIAN: The chief theme of Shapiro’s 1606 is precisely Shakespeare’s profound engagement with that “troubled national mood”. In this year he produced three of his greatest tragedies – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra….It is an incredible burst of sustained creative labour, and Shapiro shows how powerfully these plays addressed the political and social upheavals of the time: they “collectively reflect their fraught cultural moment”…. Shapiro demonstrates once again his skill in shaping quantities of research into a brisk and enjoyable narrative. The material is extremely condensed but does not seem so. One could describe certain passages as tending to the “novelistic” – a dread word in some academic circles – but animating the historical data is very different from obscuring it with madeup conversations in unevidenced locations. There is, throughout, an attentively interrogative mood. Ever since his first book, Shakespeare and the Jews (1997), Shapiro has stressed his resistance to the anecdotal, myth-making tendencies of history, which are such a temptation for the biographer working in the early modern era, where so little remains. Such stories “retain their currency”, he wrote in that book, “because they tell us what we want to hear, even if at some level we know them to be untrue”. (Charles Nicholl)
THE INDEPENDENT: In 1606 Shakespeare “pens three of his greatest plays: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. As Shapiro shows in exhaustive yet exhilarating depth, these works reflect the dark and anxious public mood which dominated a year which began in the shadow of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, and ended with an outbreak of plague in London, whose victims included Shakespeare’s own landlady….Shapiro has….a vigorous, burning appetite for historical information and an equally burning desire to impart it….What Shapiro knows better than most is that the devil is in the details.” (Lucasta Miller)
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: William Shakespeare’s most famous works are something like a chain of islands in an evaporating sea. The plays were originally submerged in a distinct cultural moment, awash in contemporary politics, scandals, and topical allusions. The prominence of these once-current events has receded over the past 400 years. But traces of their vanished influences are still visible in the plays themselves, smoothed and shaped by the liquid ambience of the times. James Shapiro’s insightful new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, performs a kind of archaeological excavation of the three plays Shakespeare wrote in this year – "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra" – to reveal the rich matrix of factors that molded their themes and language…. Shapiro is equally adept at illuminating the ways in which "King Lear" and "Antony and Cleopatra" are entangled with the political and religious currents of their times. Harold Bloom, probably the loudest if not always the most insightful of Shakespeare idolaters, has dismissed the sort of historically contextualized readings of the plays that Shapiro offers….Shapiro shows precisely what social and cultural energies are and how they influence even – perhaps especially – the most extraordinary minds and hearts.
EVENING STANDARD: James Shapiro’s ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ (which scooped the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006) was the kind of blisteringly good book you push onto as many loved ones as will listen….He returns to the same technique for his follow-up, this time focusing on a second prolific year of playwriting when Shakespeare churned out Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra….[A]s with 1599, this is a book I would recommend to everyone and (apologies to friends and family) won’t stop rabbiting on about at dinners for weeks to come. How about one last year to make up a trilogy? 1611, perhaps, the year of three romances: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest? Here’s hoping. (William Moore)
THE TIMES (LONDON): James Shapiro bestrides the Shakespearean world like a colossus, in the happier sense of the phrase….Shapiro's research credentials are impeccable, but he's also one of the field's great communicators. Shakespeare and the Jews is one of the most readable works of original scholarship to have emerged in recent years; Contested Will is a popular primer on the persistence of conspiracist authorship theories, a subject on which Shapiro is an engaging public speaker. However, if you've read one of his books, it will likely be 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (2005). An eloquent, accessible stroll through the year in which Shakespeare drafted Hamlet, the prizewinning 1599 proved to publishers that serious Shakespeare could be a bestseller. This book, 1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear is his long-awaited follow-up….“To draw Shakespeare out of the shadows demands considerable effort and imaginative labour". Fortunately, Shapiro has never lacked for either. ‘1606’ remains a work of rich detail. (Kate Maltby)
THE SCOTSMAN: At the beginning of this excellent and ingenious book, James Shapiro makes a very smart observation: "Try imagining a version of Shakespeare In Love that ends with a cameo appearance of the Scottish king rather than the Virgin Queen"..... As he did with ‘1599’... Shapiro takes the historical context, rigorously researched and uncondescendingly presented, and allows the greater significance in terms of Shakespeare's life and work to shimmer around it…. Shapiro rekindles interest in the plays with every page, and I could imagine him writing something fascinating about every year, month and day of Shakespeare's life. (Stuart Kelly)
IRISH TIMES: [A]s James Shapiro explores in his informative and exciting new book, 1606 was a significant, epoch-defining time that formed the background to two of Shakespeare greatest tragedies, King Lear and Macbeth, as well as Antony and Cleopatra.…[T]he great strength of Shapiro’s book is that he is able to combine acute literary criticism with substantial historical knowledge so reader always know why something is relevant and how a particular detail works in a play. He is at his best when writing about equivocation, the Jesuit defence of sly verbal trickery when confronted by a hostile enemy. (Andrew Hadfield)
TLS: 1606 is at its best in the chapters on Macbeth, where the interpenetration of age and stage is both immediate and insidious. Shapiro gives an authoritative account of the Gunpowder Plot, but his most potent insight is the paradoxical one that it galvanized contemporaries by eliciting horrible images of what might have happened but did not. Apocalyptic, sulphurous, diabolical: such was the destruction of the Lords and the royal family that never took place. The affinity between the Plot’s conjuration of unreal horrors and the illusory work of the theatre is clear. With Shapiro’s arguments behind us, we can see why what happens in Macbeth feels like a waking nightmare….James Shapiro does not treat 1606 as a box in which plays were composed and stacked. He is always alert to process, to how the tragedies that he looks at were conditioned by the turbulence through which they were written and at how their meanings shifted as they were overtaken by events….[L]ucidly inclusive, well written and critically reliable. (John Kerrigan)
PROSPECT MAGAZINE: Biographies of William Shakespeare tend to be unsatisfying because the playwright left so few traces of his personality in the records. Another, more fruitful, approach taken by scholar James Shapiro in this probing and original book is to examine the turbulent political events he lived through and how he responded to them in his work….Shapiro shows how he was not only for all time, but also very much of his age. (Sameer Rahim)
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.