I've been reading quite a lot since August. So I thought I'd share one or two of the books I've particularly enjoyed. I've just finished reading 1606. It follows the year in Shakespeare's life in which King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra were written and performed.
Shapiro links these three plays to there historical context by identifying them as Jacobean dramas that could only have been written during King James 1st reign rather than Elizabeth's. For example in King Lear, Shakespeare tackles a central issue of James's early reign as king, that of an act of union between England and Scotland. One of the main themes of the play is the problems of dividing a kingdom. This important policy that James was passionately advocating incurred huge opposition in parliament. Macbeth on the other hand draws directly from the attempt - only a few months earlier in November 1605 - by a radical faction of Roman Catholic noblemen who attempted to assassinate King James and destroy the houses of parliament and the democratic structures of England in an attempt to create a new type of government and to reinstate a Roman Catholic monarchy. I'm being incredibly simplistic in this summary. The book draws on a wide social and cultural range full of interesting historical and literary details. As well as Shakespeare's personal and public life is woven throughout the book. Also Shapiro is aware of the contemporary threats being made to our own institutions by Islamic extremists.
I don't feel I can really move on without a brief mention of Shapiro's fabulous earlier literary biography of another year in Shakespeare's life, that of 1599. this history tended to focus much more on the day to day details of Shakespeare's professional life. It is set after all at an earlier stage in his career during a period of extraordinary creative output. The later book in contrast focuses on his first Jacobean dramas much closer to the end of his career where Shakespeare found the transition of writing from the Elizabethan court to the new and establishing Jacobean court quite difficult. His creative output at this stage in his life had slowed down somewhat.
I've been reading this social history of Britain since the first volume - Austerity Britain was published in 2010. Part 1 of the third volume is as lively and exhilarating a read as that first volume. However it's a lighter less intense reading experience than the first two volumes. There isn't, for example, the intense and challenging chapters on town planning or government economic strategy that we find in Austerity Britain or Family Britain. And perhaps there seems more emphasis on the developing youth culture, the growing significance of television and the birth of a popular celebrity culture. Despite this absence though it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
I don't know when I'll get round to the final part of volume three that will mark the midway point in this epic popular social history. But part one has left me eager for more. And that is another fabulous front cover photograph. Don't you think?
One of the features of this collection of Sappho's poetry that I've enjoyed is the commentary on each poem or fragment and the way this is laid out in the book.
I feel so removed and detached from her work that the commentary has become indispensable reading. It doesn't cover every aspect of the poem or fragment but rather concentrates on specific points of cultural and literary difficulty.
I started reading the collection when Iona told me she was studying Sappho for her degree and I wondered if I could help out at all. So I tried reading the poetry alongside her.
However I recall Iona talking about the poetry over lunch one day where she left me rather stumped with her insights and knowledge of the poetry and history of the time.
I've also spent some time reading the T. S. Eliot prize 2015 short listed poetry collections. It was not particularly easy reading collection after collection in what was for me a rather too short period of time - about 3 weeks over Christmas. But I particularly enjoyed Don Paterson's 40 Sonnets and the winner's - Sarah Howe's Loop of Jade. I did read Citizen An American Lyric by Claudia Rankin practically in one sitting. It was a dazzling and powerful experience. But hoped the prize would go to someone less established.
I also read Clive James's translation of Dante's Inferno. I was going through quite a difficult time as I was reading it. The children had returned to Nottingham after the new year, David Bowie had died and there were difficult personal circumstances we were having to deal with at the time.
At times it felt like I was walking through my own hell. It's not an easy read at all. especially as so much of what Dante writes is bound up with 14th century Florentine politics and public life. Again what helped was Penguin's own edition of the poem that contains a commentary on each book. I used both books to help me. It did take a long time to read.
Each of the images I've posted here is a link to amazon. So if you felt like clicking through you can order copies of these books from this blog.