Dan Jones marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (Viking, $27.95) with a narrative as suspenseful and colorful as any of the dynastic feuds recounted in The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. In the third installment of his riveting saga, Jones, who has also produced and hosted the multi-part docudramas Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty and Secrets of Great British Castles, returns to 1215. While the Magna Carta is held in high esteem today as the model for, among other documents, the American constitution, it was originally a peace treaty between King John and the landed barons fed up with his wars and taxes—and it fell apart within months of its confirmation. To muddy its sterling reputation further, the Carta—an early example of dry, technical legal writing—wasn’t initially one coherent document, but a hodge-podge of charters, “a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king,” Jones notes. Yet somehow those promises were made good, the king was held to his own laws, and Jones once again reminds us why the middle ages are so fascinating.

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9780525428299
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Viking - October 20th, 2015

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780143108955
Availability: Backordered
Published: Penguin Books - November 15th, 2016

The Year of Lear (Simon & Schuster, $30) was also the year of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, tragedies all, and focused on the fate of kings betrayed, betraying, or maddened—fates which necessarily imperiled whole kingdoms. In 1606, the Stuart kingdom was itself an uncertain entity: did James I reign over a united Britain (a word Shakespeare didn’t use until King Lear) or separately over England and Scotland? This was one of the topics in the air both on-stage and off, and James Shapiro enriches his reading of Shakespeare’s late work in the light of historical events. From the new rage for Court Masques to an unusual royal visit, these events included what happened yet was seldom mentioned in dramas of the time—the plague—and what didn’t happen, yet is commemorated still, the infamous Guy Fawkes conspiracy. Discovered before it could wipe out Parliament, the royals, decades’ worth of records, and a hefty chunk of London, the Gunpowder Plot led to widespread arguments over “possession, bewitching, and where evil originates,” and Shapiro traces Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters and other supernatural elements to contemporary tales of exorcism. He also reminds us how shocking King Lear was for its original audience, familiar with an earlier play of the same name—but in which “nobody dies…and all that is lost is restored.” As he did so brilliantly in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Shapiro reads history and literature with the sharp and realistic eye of a detective, forthright about how much information is lost but keen to learn what he can from the remaining clues to the Bard’s life and times.

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 Cover Image
ISBN: 9781416541646
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Simon & Schuster - October 6th, 2015