In 1599 England was engaged in the usual bloody turmoil with Ireland, sending off an army under the Earl of Essex to put down a rebellion led by Tyrone. The Spanish were threatening to try their luck with another Armada. At court, there was much speculation as to who would succeed the childless Queen Elizabeth, now sixty-seven and starting to look towards the end of her long reign. It was, as James Shapiro says, a pivotal year.
For Shakespeare, it was pivotal in a private sense, since this was the year he attained the age of thirty-five, the age at which Dante started The Divine Comedy, and, as it turned out, the mid-point in Shakespeare’s own career as a playwright. Before 1599 he would have been considered