Cherwell

William Shakespeare and the year of Lear

Although it has been a decade since James Shapiro’s prize-winning 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, it seems the author himself has been content to move at a slower pace. His latest book takes us seven years forward, to the creation of the three plays of 1606: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

Dates remain at the centre of 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Shapiro finds this is not only as a remarkably productive year for Shakespeare but also marks his transformation into a Jacobean author. We usually consider Shakespeare to be an Elizabethan, but, as Shapiro reminds us, “the last decade of his life was spent as a King’s Man under James.” The great success of this book is to demonstrate again and again the importance of these unstable contexts to Shakespeare’s output. In his characteristically lively style, Shapiro deftly navigates the reader through the pivotal moments of the nation’s transition to Stuart rule and their infl uence on the plays of the period.

The seismic event of the time was the November 1605 with Guy Fawkes’ discovery in the basements below Parliament. Even though the plot had been foiled, the ensuing trials and executions continued to pour salt into the national sore. For Shapiro, the “shrewdest of them must… have realised that even if nothing had been physically destroyed, something had inescapably changed in their world.” Shakespeare was such an observer; the plays which follow the Gunpowder Plot, notably Macbeth, probe the questions surrounding the plot more deeply. Is evil on such a scale the result of demonic possession? Or the product of more human forces, ‘Another Hell above the Ground’?

There are times when Shapiro seems a little too keen to suggest an all-seeing, all-knowing playwright. At one point, as military preparations are being made to put down the furtive uprising in late-1605, we are told that, “Few in England would have known the roads, towns and terrain” of the Midlands as well as Shakespeare. Whilst I am willing to concede that “as a strolling player and a native of Warwickshire” he knew the Midlands well, to suggest that he might be privileged in this knowledge seems a little farfetched. Shakespeare was not alone in having to tramp the roads in search of work; many young women regularly moved to take up places in houses before marrying. A similar argument could be made for tradesmen, MPs or country gentry.

This is a minor criticism but one that reveals Shapiro’s vision of Shakespeare as a “reader of his culture.” The genius of Shakespeare in 1606 lies in his ability to sense the shifts and concerns of his time. To my mind, such an argument brings about the best chapter in the book, when Shapiro discusses the ways in which Shakespeare rewrote a newly published play, ‘King Leir’.

Just as Shakespeare reworked old plays, so Shapiro has deftly revived the idea behind 1599. We can only hope that he might next turn his attention to a new year, possibly 1610-1, the year which gave birth to The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale and Cymberline. Then we might safely say of the bard, as Edgar in King Lear: ‘Thy life’s a miracle’