Nicholas Shakespeare

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Nicholas Shakespeare

Born (1957-03-03) 3 March 1957 (age 62)
Worcester, Worcestershire, England, UK
Alma materMagdalene College, Cambridge
RelativesGeoffrey Shakespeare (great-uncle)[1] [2]

Nicholas William Richmond Shakespeare FRSL (born 3 March 1957) is a British novelist and biographer, described by the Wall Street Journal as "one of the best English novelists of our time".


Born in Worcester, England to diplomat John William Richmond Shakespeare and his wife Lalage Ann, daughter of the travel writer and journalist S. P. B. Mais,[3] Shakespeare grew up in the Far East and in South America, including Brazil, where his father worked at the British Embassy between 1966 and 1969. John Shakespeare was later chargé d'affaires at Buenos Aires,[4] before serving as Ambassador to Peru from 1983 to 1987, and Ambassador to Morocco from 1987 to 1990. Nicholas was educated at the Dragon School preparatory school in Oxford, then at Winchester College [5] 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 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 2007), 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 made several extended biographies for television: on Evelyn Waugh, Mario Vargas Llosa,[6] Bruce Chatwin,[7] Martha Gellhorn, and Dirk Bogarde.[8] The Dancer Upstairs was made into a feature film of the same name in 2002,[9] 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, The Times Literary Supplement and The Monthly, among other publications.

Shakespeare's novels, which have been translated into 22 languages, place ordinary people against a background of significant events, as with The Dancer Upstairs, which deals with Abimael Guzmán, leader of Peru's Shining Path; 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 January 2012, according to journalists, Nicholas Shakespeare's writings were mistakenly confused for William Shakespeare's by French presidential candidate François Hollande[10] 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 2013, Shakespeare published a critically acclaimed account of his aunt, Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It was read by him as the Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, and was commended for combining scholarship with personal history to reveal the experience of the Occupation in a fresh light.

In 2015, Shakespeare published his collected stories, Stories from Other Places. The central novella, Oddfellows, was based on a little-known jihadi attack in the Australian outback 100 years ago. On 1 January 1915, two Afghan camel drivers answered the Turkish sultan's call for a holy war against the British Empire, and attacked a picnic train of 1200 men women and children in the iron-ore town of Broken Hill, killing four. The incident was the only known act of hostility on Australian soil in World War One. The other stories in the collection are set in Argentina, Bombay, Tasmania, Canada, Bolivia and Switzerland. The Sunday Telegraph described them as "honed miniatures" and the Australian critic Peter Craven in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: "I do not expect to read a more formidable piece of short fiction this year."

In 2016, Shakespeare was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He used his time there to complete the historical narrative Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister (2017). This was widely praised both by historians (Keith Thomas, Norman Stone, Peter Frankopan, Andrew Roberts, Simon Greene) and by literary critics (Ian McEwan, Allan Massie, John Simpson, Anthony Lane) for its combination of scholarship, readability and journalistic skills, and for shedding fresh light on the disastrous Norway Campaign of April 1940 – an "Arctic Dardanelles" for which Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty had been chief promoter and architect. It was observed that Shakespeare brought a novelist's sensibility to his historical research. His questioning of the received narrative led to his concentration on the emotional state of mind of Churchill, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in order to explain several hitherto uncharacteristic but significant actions. Shakespeare's Chamberlain was revealed to have been not such a dull and stubborn dupe as Churchill described him in his 1948 memoirs, The Gathering Storm, but rather a brilliant mimic, a cigar smoker, and a ruthless pioneer of "the dark arts we now take for granted", arranging for the Intelligence services to spy on his political enemies; as well, he appears to have got on very well with Churchill. The reason for Churchill's baffling obsession with Narvik was, in Shakespeare's version, explained by the fact that his favourite nephew, the journalist Giles Romilly, was a prisoner of the Nazis there – effectively the first civilian POW of the war. The mysterious reluctance of Lord Halifax to accept the Prime Ministership, despite being the favourite of Chamberlain, the King, and Conservative and Labour MPs, was, according to Shakespeare, rooted in his infatuation with Lord Curzon's youngest daughter, Lady Alexandra "Baba" Metcalfe. Among new archival material that Shakespeare discovered (in the Salisbury family archives at Hatfield House) was the "Lindsay Memorandum", a three-page type-written document which Captain Martin Lindsay, immediately back from Norway, presented to the Labour leader Clement Attlee on 8 May 1940, and which tilted Labour to demand a division of the House of Commons during the procedural debate on the Whitsun recess. It was this division which paved the way for Churchill's unanticipated accession three days later, on Friday 10 May. Shakespeare's account was described as "magnificent" by the TLS, as "a superb achievement" by Ian McEwan, as "the most exciting book I have read in years" by Keith Thomas, and by John Simpson as "far and away the best account of the moment which changed our national life and the world". It was nominated as a Book of the Year in the Economist, the Guardian, the Observer, the Scotsman, the Daily Telegraph (as No. 2 of "the Best 50 Books of 2017"), and the Australian, where Peter Craven wrote: "Shakespeare has written a book that will captivate readers and fill professional historians with envy at how far he outclasses them."

Charity work[edit]

Shakespeare has worked with charities such as Oxfam, for which he has written several times, and the Anita Goulden Trust, of which he has been the patron since 2000; the charity, which helps children in the Peruvian city of Piura, was set up following an article that Shakespeare wrote for the Daily Telegraph magazine, which raised more than £350,000.

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.[11] 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 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",[12] which was published in Intelligent Life, and "How The Dead Live",[13] which was published in New Statesman.


  • 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: Adventures at the End of the World (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)
  • Oddfellows on the Battle of Broken Hill (Random House, 2015)[14]
  • Six Minutes in May. How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister (Harvill Secker, 2017)


  1. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage 2003, vol. 3, p. 3578
  2. ^ "From the bookshelf: 'Six minutes in May' and 'Anatomy of a campaign'". The Strategist. 10 March 2018. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  3. ^ Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage 2003, vol. 3, p. 3578
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2014.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2014.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Arena 2001, BAFTA "Best Arts Documentary Award", RTS "Best Documentary Award"
  9. ^
  10. ^ Samuel, Henry (26 January 2012). "French presidential front-runner François Hollande in Shakespeare gaffe". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
  11. ^ Oxfam: Ox-Tales. Archived 20 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "Beyond the Killing Fields", Intelligent Life, January/February 2013
  13. ^ "Cambodia: How the dead live", New Statesman, 21 February 2013
  14. ^ Oddfellows, Random House

External links[edit]