Born to a diplomat, Nicholas Shakespeare grew up in the Far East and in South America. He was educated at the Dragon School preparatory school in Oxford, then at Winchester College and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He worked as a journalist for BBC television and then on The Times as assistant arts and literary editor. From 1988 to 1991 he was literary editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.
Shakespeare's time in South America is represented in two novels, The Vision of Elena Silves (1989, Somerset Maugham Award, Betty Trask Award) and The Dancer Upstairs (1995, American Library Association Award). Other less well-known works from this period are The Men Who Would Be King (1984), Londoners (1986) and The High Flyer (1993, long-listed for the Booker Prize).
In 1999, Shakespeare published his biography of Bruce Chatwin to widespread critical acclaim. This was followed by the novel Snowleg (2004, long-listed for the Booker Prize, Dublin IMPAC Award) a "place" book, In Tasmania (2004, winner of the Tasmania Book Prize 2006), Secrets of the Sea (2007, short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer's prize) and Inheritance (2010, long-listed for Dublin IMPAC Award). In 2010, he published Under the Sun, the letters of Bruce Chatwin, which he co-edited with Elizabeth Chatwin.
Nicholas Shakespeare has also made several extended biographies for television: on Evelyn Waugh, Mario Vargas Llosa, Bruce Chatwin, Martha Gellhorn, and Dirk Bogarde. The Dancer Upstairs was made into a feature film in 2002, for which Shakespeare wrote the screenplay and which John Malkovich directed. Shakespeare was nominated as one of Granta's Best of British Young Novelists in 1993. He has written articles for Granta, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement among other publications.
Shakespeare's novels, which have been translated into 20 languages, place ordinary people against a background of significant events, as with The Dancer Upstairs, which deals with Abimael Guzmán, leader of Peru's Sendero Luminoso; and Snowleg, set partly during the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic.
In 1999, Shakespeare was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In 2010 Shakespeare was invited by the Anglo-Argentine Society to give the prestigious Borges Lecture in London.
In 2009, Shakespeare donated the short story "The Death of Marat" to Oxfam's Ox-Tales project, four collections of UK stories written by 38 authors. Shakespeare's contribution was published in the Earth collection. He also contributed a story, "The Return of the Native", to OxTravels, a travel anthology that was produced to raise money for Oxfam's work.
In January 2012, according to journalists, Nicholas Shakespeare's writings were mistakenly confused for William Shakespeare's by French presidential candidate François Hollande when he said: "Let me quote Shakespeare, 'they failed because they did not start with a dream'" ("Je me permets de citer Shakespeare, ils ont échoué parce qu'ils n'ont pas commencé par le rêve.")
In October 2012, Shakespeare travelled to Cambodia with photographer Emma Hardy to visit Oxfam's work. He wrote two articles about the trip, "Beyond The Killing Fields" , which was published in Intelligent Life, and "How The Dead Live" , which was published in The New Statesman. The trip was part of an Oxfam campaign on the impact of Land Grabs  on the world's poorest people. At The World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty that took place in April 2013, The World Bank committed itself to a new UN standard on how land is governed .
In September 13, 2014, Shakespeare visited Russia, Kolomna. He took part in the fest "Antonovka apple and showed film based on his the most successful and popular book "The dancer upstairs". 
Since 2000, Shakespeare has been Patron of the Anita Goulden Trust, helping children in the Peruvian city of Piura. The UK-based charity was set up following an article that Shakespeare wrote for the Daily Telegraph magazine, which raised more than £350,000.
- The Men Who Would Be King: A Look at Royalty in Exile (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984)
- Londoners (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986)
- The Vision of Elena Silves (Harvill, 1989)
- The High Flyer (Harvill, 1993)
- The Dancer Upstairs (Harvill, 1995)
- Bruce Chatwin (Harvill, 1999)
- Snowleg (Harvill, 2004)
- In Tasmania (Harvill, 2004)
- Secrets of the Sea (Harvill, 2007)
- Inheritance (Harvill, 2010)
- Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, selector and editor with Elizabeth Chatwin (Cape, 2010)
- Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France (Harper Collins, 2014)
- (Arena 2001, BAFTA "Best Arts Documentary Award", RTS "Best Documentary Award")
- Oxfam: Ox-Tales.[dead link]
- Samuel, Henry (26 January 2012). "French presidential front-runner François Hollande in Shakespeare gaffe". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
- Contemporary Writers entry from the British Council
- Bold Type Magazine information from Random House
- Fantastic Fiction entry
- Nicholas Shakespeare at Random House Australia
- Nicholas Shakespeare at the Internet Movie Database
- Susan Wyndham, "Interview: Nicholas Shakespeare", The Sydney Morning Herald, Entertainment Blog, August 12, 2007.