In his literary research, he focuses primarily on the life and work of William Shakespeare, a playwright whose theatre plays have made him immortal. In a powerful and engaging way, he connects the more general context with concrete and interesting examples. He can provide smart, detailed, and elegant arguments, but he never forgets that for all the complexities and details, writing about history is story-telling as well.
In the field of research on William Shakespeare, his publication 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) was particularly important. And the year 1599 was not James’ random choice. On the historical background of Elizabethan England, he describes how during this year Shakespeare invested in the Globe Theater and he wrote four of his plays in the evenings: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As you like it, and Hamlet. Thanks to the opportunity to get familiar with the backstage of these world-famous plays, we can deepen our understanding of how and why a talented dramatist and poet turned into one of the greatest authors in the history of literature. We will learn what Shakespeare read in 1599, what plays he saw and who were his co-workers. The book was also published this year in Czech by the Argo publishing house, translated by Kateřina Hilská as 1599: Rok v životě Williama Shakespera.
Another of his books, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare (2010), has also been well-received and has become an important contribution to the struggle for Shakespeare's identity and authorship. James explains the motives and reasons for the lies that called the authorship of Shakespeare´s dramas into question.
James regularly publishes reviews and essays in major journals and magazines such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, or the London Review of Books.
He also presented two documentaries for BBC – Shakespeare: The King's Man and The Mysterious Mr. Webster. He teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has received numerous awards, such as the Baillie Gifford Prize or Audie Award for History / Biography.