The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro - Simon & Schuster (2016)
I am always hesitant to read literary works as windows into the authorial psyche. I find arguments for the sexual and political inclinations of authors based on textual evidence to be dubious at best, and they are often manipulated to confirm a conclusion established by the critic long before the examination even began. If, for example, one wants to prove that a particular author was a closeted homosexual, one tends to discard all evidence to the contrary and to read artistic productions as reflections of the artist himself. This kind of reading turns even the most imaginative piece into a sort of thinly-veiled autobiography, and in my opinion, underestimates the power of the creative intellect. Having written countless short stories and character meditations myself, I know it is possible to write about people other than myself—about people who are not merely vessels for my own desires and neurosis. One of the enduring hallmarks of the creative intellect is its ability to inhabit psyches that differ greatly from one another, and from that of the gestating furnace. Therefore I think it can be damaging and reductive to impose an author’s life upon his body of work.
When I first read the description on the back cover of James Shapiro’s fabulous book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, I had some concerns. The blurb suggests that,
James Shapiro shows us how attuned Shakespeare was to the cultural and political conflicts of the times, and how the tragedies of the day—and some that struck more perilously close to home—were transformed into the theatrical masterpieces we know today.
The kind of literary deduction proposed by this statement filled me with alarm. But the book came highly recommended, and I was intrigued by the concept of a biography that focuses on a single year in its subject’s life—a year during which a belated burst of energy gave birth to such layered productions as King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. So I decided to give it a read.
Within the first few chapters I realized that my fears would be unconfirmed. Shapiro seems to be just as sensitive to autobiographical over-reading as I am. In fact, he is careful to underscore his own limitations in the introduction to his book. Writes Shapiro,
Having spent much of the past quarter century researching and writing about Shakespeare’s life, I’m painfully aware that many of the things I’d like to know about him—what his political views and religious beliefs were; whom he loved; how good a father, husband, and friend he was; what he did with his time when he wasn’t writing or acting—cannot be recovered. The possibility of writing that sort of biography died by the late seventeenth century, when the last of those who knew Shakespeare personally took their stories and secrets with them to the grave. Modern biographers who nonetheless speculate on such matters, or in the absence of archival evidence read the plays and poems as transparently autobiographical, inevitably end up revealing more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare.
James Shapiro spends very little time discussing Shakespeare’s family and relationships. There simply is not enough surviving evidence to prove how Shakespeare felt about his wife, his peers, or the newly crowned King James. Thus, Shapiro wisely chooses to focus instead on how the plays of 1606 provide a gateway through which to consider the wider cultural anxieties of the time. The strength of Shakespeare’s legacy has long been attributed to his talents for poking and prodding the human psyche—for locating the fear beneath the fear. This is why many critics describe his productions as ‘timeless’; because the true subject—the one that is never articulated—can be found in every era and location; it is part of our biological composition. Writes Shapiro,
The year 1606 would turn out to be a good one for Shakespeare and an awful one for England. This was no coincidence. Shakespeare, so gifted at understanding what preoccupied and troubled his audiences, was lucky to have begun his career during the increasingly fractured years of Elizabeth’s decline. His early work had delved especially deeply into the political and religious cracks that were exposed as a century of Tudor rule neared its end. But it would take some time for him to speak with the same acuity about the cultural fault lines emerging under the new and unfamiliar reign of the King of Scots. In the [final months of 1605], their contours were already becoming more sharply defined for him, and his steadier grasp of the forces shaping this extraordinary time would result in one his most inspired years.
Some years seem to contain an almost surreal degree of misfortune (is anyone else feeling like 2016 might be one of them?). In November of the previous year, a group of Catholic sympathizers planned a mass assassination of the king and all the members of parliament by planting kegs of gunpowder beneath the epicenter of government. In the Summer of 1606 a record number of Londoners died in what turned out to be one of the deadliest plague seasons in recorded history. The tensions between English and Scottish, Catholic and Protestant were exacerbated under the leadership of James, who sought to incorporate them all under the symbolic image of his crown. In light of these fears—both rational and irrational—we begin to see just how contextualized King Lear and Macbeth truly were. The first—mediating on the disastrous outcome of a decision to divide a united kingdom, and the second—the imagined assassination of a Scottish King. The combination of Early Modern English and allegorical characters can make it difficult for modern audiences to understand what it must have felt like for King James to watch a play like Macbeth. Thus, it is only in studying the contexts in which they were written that we can begin to detect the differences between Shakespeare’s plays published before and after the ascension of King James. Writes Shapiro,
Even as the buried shards of religious division once again rose to the surface, so too did political ones when King James again pressed parliament to secure a Union of Scotland and England. To James, this outcome had seemed inevitable: as the Kind of Scots who had inherited the English throne, he embodied in his own person the union of the kingdoms. But for his subjects on both sides of the border the increasingly bitter debate over Union raised troubling questions about what it really meant to be English or Scottish, or for that matter British, creating identity crises where none had been before. This too was grist for Shakespeare’s mill. Under Elizabeth he had written English history plays; in 1606 under James he would shift his attention to British ones in both King Lear and Macbeth.
One of the common threads that links King Lear and Macbeth is a complex and inconclusive discussion of evil and human accountability. We are drawn like moths to title characters who both excite and repulse us. Are Lear and Macbeth perpetrators or victims? What role does the demonic play in the degeneration of their lives? To what degree can an individual influence the progression of fate? After the Gunpowder Plot—an event which was spoken about at the time in the same baffled vocabulary as the commentaries on 9/11—the need to dissect and discover the source of evil became something of a national obsession. Writes Shapiro,
The Fifth of November, that “confection of all villainy,” gave those issues fresh relevance, for it had prompted not only Shakespeare but also everyone else in the land to confront questions they had never been forced to grapple with so deeply or desperately: How can ordinary people attempt such horrible and unthinkable crimes? In doing so, what kind of lies or stories must they tell themselves and others? Does this evil come from satanic forces or from within us? What binds us together—be it a family or a marriage or a country—and what can destroy these bonds? Recognizing the hunger for a play that probed the very questions that now haunted his world, Shakespeare began to read and think about Macbeth.
In his meticulous examination of a single year in Shakespeare’s productive life, James Shapiro shows what a narrow perspective can do for literary analysis. There is much to be learned when we resist the urge to draw a line connecting every play The Bard wrote and instead explore a particular moment and the circumstances surrounding the production of a single play. I have read countless ‘definitive accounts’ on Shakespeare’s life, but Shapiro’s book contributed more to my understanding of Macbeth and King Lear than any of the thousand-page tomes. And it isn’t as if he is lacking information. Shapiro has been a professor of English Literature at Columbia and a renowned Shakespeare scholar since the 1980s. If he wanted to write another birth-to-death biography, he would have. In fact, it is Shapiro’s decision to carve a piece out of the middle of Shakespeare’s life and examine it in semi-isolated detail that I find so impressive. It could not have been easy to insist on fencing such an endless and fertile field of primary and secondary material. Perhaps it is this kind of willpower that has led Shapiro to so many accomplishments. Besides his position at Columbia, he has also taught as a Fulbright lecturer in Israel, served as the Sam Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe Theater in London, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011. Shapiro has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. In 2006, he won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare—a book that in many ways anticipated The Year of Lear. Shapiro has also written numerous periodicals for such publications as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times Book Review, and The Daily Telegraph.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is by no means an introductory text. If you aren’t already familiar with Shakespeare, you will not be able to make the most of what James Shapiro has to offer. The Year of Lear is written for the Shakespeare fanatic who wants to go a little deeper, who wants to reinsert Shakespeare into the social and political contexts which he sought to articulate. It is a refreshing argument against seeing Shakespeare as some sort of timeless cultural anomaly, and it is an acknowledgment that he might have been influenced by the changes taking place around him. Shapiro probably says it best when he writes,
…to draw Shakespeare out of the shadows demands considerable effort and imaginative labor, for we need to travel back in time four centuries and immerse ourselves in the hopes and fears of that moment; but the rewards are no less great, for that richness, in turn, allows us to see afresh the tragedies he forged in this tumultuous year.