The Best Book I Read This Month: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro

It was a slow reading month--I only made it through 2 1/2 books, far below my usual one book per week average. Fortunately, it was a good month for nonfiction. The best book I read--and completed--this month was something that's been sitting on my TBR shelf for ages: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro.

What I loved about this book was that it took an historical approach to Shakespeare's work--a stark contrast to the literary approach I'm used to. In school, we always read Shakespeare's plays in isolation, as works of literature. We analyzed his use of language, his development of characters and plot, his use of symbolism.

Shapiro does very little of that. Instead, he places Shakespeare's work in historical context. He walks us through the year 1599, when Shakespeare wrote and his troupe performed Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Shapiro organized the book so that we follow the seasons, and with each season there is a new play to explore. Each play is discussed in the context of what was happening in Elizabethan England at the time. This is not William Shakespeare, Literary Master; it's William Shakespeare, Political Commentator--and I find that approach far more interesting and convincing than the literary analysis I learned in school. Shapiro notes, for example, how England's Irish troubles influenced Henry V; how assassination attempts--real and rumored--on Elizabeth influenced Julius Caesar; how an act of plagiarism influenced As You Like It; and how England's recent religious history found its way into Hamlet.

Shapiro certainly doesn't ignore Shakespeare's use of language or exploration of character. He integrates discussion of both into his historical exploration of Shakespeare's work, which I think gives more credence to his interpretations because they are not presented in isolation. (As an aside, one of my gripes with the literary analysis I had to do in school was the question of how we were supposed to know what was in an author's mind when a particular scene was written. I mean, maybe the curtains are red because that's the author's favorite color, not because the author intended to create a symbol of blood!)

At any rate, Shapiro's book is definitely one that should be on any Shakespeare fan's shelf.

Note: Clicking on the book cover will take you to the book's Amazon page.