I imagine a lot of Shakespeare scholars have toyed with the idea of turning their expertise to account with a Bard-book aimed at a broad lay audience -- certainly examples abound (Bloom, Vendler, Greenblatt, Garber, Nuttall, Bate). James Shapiro has hit on a rather neat way to do that here. Focus on a single year -- a year in which Shakespeare was truly hitting his stride (Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and starting Hamlet) and a year moreover rich in incident both for Shakespeare (the construction of the Globe) and for England (Essex's Irish debacle).
From the first paragraphs of the "Prologue" -- a description of the weather in London in December, 1598, leading to the sentence, "As the snow fell, a dozen or so armed men gathered in Shoreditch, in London's northern suburbs," we know we are settling into popular scholarship mode -- quasi-novelistic, lots of scenery, lots of vivid characters. Honest-to-God Shakespeare scholars would probably stop right here, unless they were planning to write a scathing review.
But in those scathing reviews -- and Shapiro got some, along with the Samuel Johnson Prize from BBC 4 -- is there not always that tinge of envy, that pinch of ressentiment that a hard-working scholar may feel towards a brother scholar who has a book published by a non-university press, complete no doubt with handsome advance, ads in the New York Times Book Review, interviews on the radio? Damn it, these scathing reviews always seem to mutter under their breath, why didn't I think of that?
Because this is, you know, a great idea. And Shapiro comes armed with a scholar's knowledge of apparently everything that came into print in 1599. He does have to make things up -- Shakespeare very likely did go back to Stratford at some point in the year, but Shapiro basically has to invent the when and the why of the trip, to say nothing of dreaming up what was on wife Anne's mind. But he knows enough about the period to make it all work.
A sequel of sorts is in the works, apparently, focusing on 1608, the year of King Lear, but Shapiro's next book looks to be not that one, but another consideration of the authorship question -- a topic with no cachet at all among Shakespeare scholars but plenty among that coveted lay audience. Oh, well.