James Shapiro has written numerous books on Shakespeare, such as Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare (which I’ve read) and A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 (which I haven’t). So I had some idea of what I was getting into by taking up The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. But it was still more fun than I expected.
The year 1606 began less than three years after King James (for whom the King James Version of the Bible is named) succeeded Queen Elizabeth as England’s ruler and very quickly made Shakespeare and his fellow troupe members “The King’s Men.”
Shapiro masterfully tells the story not only of Shakespeare’s year but of the momentous events–plot, plague, and persecution among them–that Will had to navigate as he wrote three of his wonderful works in that year–Macbeth (about a Scottish king, not coincidentally), King Lear (about a British king, not coincidentally), and Antony and Cleopatra (about an aging queen and her lover, not coincidentally).
Though I enjoyed Contested Will immensely, I had hesitated to read The Year of Lear because–well, it’s just one year, right? And there’s so much about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras that fascinate me, I thought such a narrow focus would be, well, narrow. Boy, was I wrong.
Shapiro combines historical, textual, theatrical, and personal insights into Shakespeare and his 1606 plays that illuminate not only those plays but the entire canon–and period. I was fascinated by the author’s discussions of the Bard’s injections of “demonic” motifs into Macbeth, for example, in the light of King James’s fascination with demonology (the king even wrote a bestseller, Daemonologie, on the subject!). I learned so much from Shapiro’s comparisons of Shakespeare’s Lear and the source material (the much earlier King Leir). I appreciated how the gunpowder plot (“Remember, remember, the fifth of November”) made Macbeth both a more topical and more dangerous play to write and stage. Shapiro’s discussion of “equivocation” as a controversial theological and political concept shed new light on some of the bard’s lines in Macbeth. And his depiction of how Ben Jonson’s Hymenaei influenced (and didn’t influence) Shakespeare was delightful.
The Year of Lear is an entertaining and engrossing tapestry of England, Shakespeare, and three great plays. Reading it has further educated me (a great and pressing need) and encouraged me to give A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 a look as well.