A book about a pivotal year in William Shakespeare’s life has been named the Baillie Gifford Winner of Winners in a special announcement to mark the 25th anniversary of the prestigious nonfiction prize.
James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare originally won the award in 2006, when it was known as the Samuel Johnson prize. He has been honoured again at a ceremony at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, and will receive £25,000. The chair of judges, the New Statesman’s editor-in-chief Jason Cowley, said it was a “poised and original reimagination of biography”.
In 1599, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and produced the first draft of Hamlet. In his book, Shapiro, who is professor of English at Columbia University, looks at how the political and social context of the time influenced the work.
Cowley was joined on the panel by Shahidha Bari and Sarah Churchwell, both authors and academics, and biographer Frances Wilson. Churchwell said Shapiro’s book had made her “look at four major plays in totally different ways; that is an extraordinary achievement”.
1599 was chosen from a shortlist of six that also included Craig Brown’s 2020 winner One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, Wade Davis’s Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, which won the prize in 2012, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, which won in 2010, 2021 winner Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe and Margaret MacMillan’s 2002 winner Paris 1919, which was originally published under the name Peacemakers.
The prize has been won by 16 men, including one person of colour, and eight women in its history. This gender balance was reflected in the shortlist for the Winner of Winners. Churchwell said the fact that Shapiro was a white man writing about a white author wasn’t something that the judging panel would hold against it, given that it was “a remarkable book”. But she said the judges did discuss the prize’s historical bias – which reflected the landscape of nonfiction publishing – saying the “vast majority of the [previously winning] books were by white men about western themes and subjects”.
“Over time the prize has been reflecting that changing sense of values and perspectives,” she added. “There have been many more women who have won in recent years; it’s still an overwhelmingly white cohort of winners.”
Churchwell said each book had to be judged on its merits, but added: “We also had to recognise there were structural inequalities, in bookselling, in publishing, over the last 25 years that were being reflected.”
In 2022 the prize was won by author and academic Katherine Rundell for Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, who was up against four other women and one man on the shortlist.
Earlier this year, the Women’s Prize Trust announced it would be launching a nonfiction award to sit alongside its long-running fiction prize, after research found that female nonfiction writers are less likely to be reviewed or win prizes than their male counterparts.