Baillie Gifford Winner of Winners Prize for Non-Fiction WINNER

James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare wins the Winner of Winners Award


1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro is tonight, Thursday 27 April, named winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction ‘Winner of Winners’ Award. The winner was announced by Chair of Judges, Jason Cowley, at a ceremony hosted at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction Winner of Winners Award marks the 25th anniversary of the UK’s premier non-fiction book prize by crowning the best work of non-fiction from the last 25 years of the prize. As the winner Shapiro will receive £25,000.

The winner was chosen by a judging panel comprising of: New Statesman editor-in-chief, Jason Cowley (chair); academic, critic and broadcaster, Shahidha Bari; journalist, author and academic, Sarah Churchwell; and biographer and critic Frances Wilson. Their selection was made from a shortlist of 6 books, taken from the previous 24 prizewinning books.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, the prize in collaboration with Waterstones called on booksellers who are around the same age as the prize to champion the shortlisted works.

In the course of 1599, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It in quick succession, and produced the first draft of his greatest play, Hamlet. In his winning book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Shapiro shows how The Bard progressed from his tale of two star-crossed lovers to Hamlet. Shapiro finds one question the most pressing: how did Shakespeare become Shakespeare – one of the greatest writers who ever lived?

James Shapiro is Professor of English at Columbia University, where he teaches Shakespeare. His earlier books have received international acclaim, including 1606: The Year of Lear, which won the James Tait Black Prize; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize; and Shakespeare in a Divided America, selected as one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times. Shapiro is also the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play, Shakespeare and the Jews, and Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, and edited the Library of America anthology, Shakespeare in America. His reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewTimes Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and other publications. He has served on the board of directors of The Royal Shakespeare Company, and advises productions for the Public Theatre in New York and other companies. Shapiro was a collaborator on The King and the Playwright, a series he hosted for the BBC and also hosted the BBC The Mysterious Mr. Webster. In 2011 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is currently serving as a Booker Prize judge.

Jason Cowley, Chair of judges, says:
‘1599 is a remarkable and compelling book. A history of four masterpieces and of so much more, it produces a life of Shakespeare, about whom so little is known, through a ingenious fusion of history, politics, and literary criticism. The result is a poised and original re-imagination of biography. Shapiro returns Shakespeare to the stage of his own world, and in so doing he transforms our understanding – not only of the great works but also of the social atmosphere of his times. Erudite, accessible and formally bold, it will appeal to anyone interested in history, politics, literature and good writing.’

Toby Mundy, Prize director, says:

‘This has been an heroic, epic undertaking by our judges. They’ve had to grapple with some of the most brilliant non-fiction books written in English in the last quarter century and have done so with astonishing seriousness and engagement. It’s wonderful to think that, thanks to these judges, a new generation of readers can discover James Shapiro’s timeless classic.’

Peter Singlehurst, Partner at Baillie Gifford, says:

‘The strapline for the Baillie Gifford Prize is ‘all the best stories are true’. But it is not necessarily their factfulness that makes these books so special, it is the stories about people, ordinary and extraordinary. Choosing one book seems an impossible task and we thank the judges for taking on the unenviable responsibility. Many congratulation to James Shapiro.”

Sir Leonard Blavatnik, Head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, says:

‘For twenty-five years, the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction has recognized immensely talented authors. We congratulate James Shapiro on this exceptional achievement. We are proud to be the long-time sponsor of the podcasts showcasing the short-listed books and their authors, as well as the annual celebratory gala in London when the winners are announced.’

Eve, the 25 year-old Waterstones bookseller championing 1599, says:

‘1599 is a truly enthralling and intimate account of a year in Shakespeare’s life. Shapiro explores both the internal complexities and external stimuli that influenced four of Shakespeare’s most significant works: Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. This book is essential reading for anyone who has an interest in Shakespeare.’

The other titles on this year’s shortlist were:

Author / translator (Nationality) Title (Imprint) – Year of win
Craig Brown (UK) One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate, HarperCollins) – 2020
Wade Davis (Canada) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (The Bodley Head, Vintage, Penguin Random House UK) – 2012
Barbara Demick (US) Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (Granta) – 2010
Patrick Radden Keefe (US) Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – 2021
Margaret MacMillan (Canada) Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World (formerly Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed The World) (John Murray Press, Hachette) – 2002