- File Size: 51205 KB
- Print Length: 385 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (October 6, 2015)
- Publication Date: October 6, 2015
- Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00UDCNL7E
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #133,592 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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“Truly magnificent. . . . A work of genius.” (Paul Muldoon TLS Books of the Year)
“A meticulous narrative of a momentous year in the life of the playwright and a masterpiece of intelligent literary criticism.” (Colm Tóibín Observer Books of the Year)
“James Shapiro [is] the liveliest and most accessible of Bardologists. . . . The book is crammed with stimulating research that again and again produces startling connections. . . . It is to be hoped that Mr. Shapiro might be persuaded to write a book for every year of Shakespeare's life: Then we might finally find ourselves face to face with the Sphinx of English literature.” (Simon Callow The Wall Street Journal)
"In The Year of Lear, Shapiro takes a closer look at the political and social turmoil that contributed to the creation of three supreme masterpieces. . . . Exciting and sometimes revelatory." (Michael Dirda The Washington Post)
“Illuminating. . . . Shapiro captures a Shakespeare moved by – and moving – history.” (The New Yorker)
“Shapiro has a marvelous ability to use his formidable scholarship, not to pluck out the heart of Shakespeare’s mysteries, but to put the beating heart of the contemporary back into them. His great gift is to make the plays seem at once more comprehensible and more staggering.” (Fintan O'Toole The New York Review of Books)
"Shapiro's investigation of Shakespeare's professional fortunes is as fascinating as his scrutiny of the plays. . . . [His book] draws on a mountain of reading, yet is persistently original. It takes us onto the streets of Shakespeare's London, and it reminds us of the brutal culture from which his plays sprang." (John Carey The Sunday Times (UK))
“No one writes about Shakespeare as Jim Shapiro does; it's so immediate and alive. . . . His passion for Shakespeare, his excitement and pure joy infect everyone he comes in contact with and absolutely come through in each of his books.” (F. Murray Abraham )
"James Shapiro’s insightful new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, performs a kind of archaeological excavation of the three plays Shakespeare wrote in this year – King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – to reveal the rich matrix of factors that molded their themes and language." (Nick Romeo The Christian Science Monitor)
"Like other Shapiro works, [The Year of Lear] is a brilliant, acessible fusion of meticulously researched historical narrative and keen eyed literary criticism." (Celia Wren Commonweal)
“While many contemporary literary scholars are devoted to deconstructing literature, and many more to only the narrowest lines of inquiry, Shapiro has the knack of piecing together those few scraps and fragments into a coherent — and persuasive — narrative of a writer at work at a specific place and time. . . . A remarkable, completely fresh look at how literature, and history, come to be.” (David Walton Dallas Morning News)
"Probing and original. . . . Shapiro shows how [Shakespeare] was not only for all time, but also very much of his age." (Sameer Rahim Prospect (UK))
"Shakespearean scholar Shapiro links the tumultuous events of 1605 and 1606 to three of the Bard's greatest works. . . . Shapiro's discoveries of long lost sources and missed connections make this a fascinating tale. His well written, scholarly exploration will stand as an influential work that is a joy to read.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
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For instance: Macbeth, which was written shortly after the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, shockingly showed the murder of a Scottish king and its terrible repercussions. But on a more topical level, Shakespeare took advantage of the contemporary trial and execution of Henry Garnet, who composed the “Treatise of Equivocation”—a how-to guide for Jesuits put to the question. In essence, Garnet demonstrated that a prisoner could say one thing to the authorities, while reserving in his mind the real truth, and hence save his soul because God knew the difference. The government was horrified at the repercussions, and Garnet was eventually captured, tried, and executed. But Shakespeare was fascinated, and most of his characters equivocate their way through the play. The Witches equivocated in every utterance, such as telling Macbeth he will be king, but neglecting to tell him he won’t keep the crown. Lady Macbeth equivocated when she covered for her husband’s behavior at the banquet after he saw Banquo’s ghost. Macbeth neglected to tell his wife what the Witches said Banquo would be the father of kings. Macduff’s wife equivocated when telling her son “that Macduff is a ‘traitor’ who ‘swears and lies’ ” because he fled Scotland, leaving them behind. Even the Porter’s speech was full of the word equivocate, which occurred five times in his short diatribe. I had never interpreted the play this way before, but I see that “Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written not for posterity but for contemporaries…”, and it “touches on, and, to a surprising degree, exploits deep cultural anxieties that had now risen to the surface.” Equivocate was the word of the day and every playgoer knew the reference, even if we don’t.
And this, I think, is the overall theme of the book. Shakespeare was a man of his times and became the mouthpiece of current events. After all, newspapers hadn’t been invented yet, so the best way to get news was either from the pulpit or from the theatre. Staying ahead of the royal censor was a skill Shakespeare apparently mastered, for he never seemed to get himself into trouble like many of his contemporaries. At the same time, part of Shakespeare’s genius is that his plays could appeal and seem relevant to successive generations, because he speaks to our deep-set fears and desires, no matter what the setting. Shapiro does a great job getting these themes across, though at times he seems to digress a bit too much and his writing bogs down in his efforts to say everything. But when you see his extensive Bibliographic Essays, it's easy to understand how one can get buried under so much information. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, this is a great resource for scholarly study.
How old-fashioned is this? So-called 'new historicism', which predates the current academic obsessions with race/class/gender and the attendant victimology actually sought/seeks to see literature within its historical context, but often in service to a political agenda, e.g., the 'demonstration' that some great artist was in thrall to contemporary capitalism or colonializing government. This book is mercifully free of such political special pleading and focuses upon history as a backdrop for art, art with the kind of capital A that we can associate with such monuments as King Lear and Macbeth.
The privileging of art over politics is the precise dividing line between old-fashioned (some would say 'authentic because disinterested') scholarship and that which is practiced today. The book's method, however—homing in on a special, unique year of literary art embedded in human history—is even more old-fashioned than the great literary scholarship of the years between the end of the war and the dawning of the late 1960's. If one walks through the stacks of the University of Illinois library one finds a set of dissertations directed by the formidable Shakespearian, T. W. Baldwin. Principally known for his masterpiece, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Less Greek (1944), Baldwin was an expert on all things Shakespeare but particularly his education and the manner in which it prepared him for his literary life. These dissertations by Baldwin's students examined individual years during Shakespeare's time and, presumably, attempted to do something like what James Shapiro is doing in The Year of Lear.
Bottom line: this is a fascinating work of scholarship and very important for our understanding of three of Shakespeare's great tragedies. It is dense with learning and relevant for all Shakespeare scholars but it is lucid and straightforward and completely accessible to all serious readers, even when it gets down to such technical details as the dramatic differences between the quarto version of Lear and the version in the first folio (a perennial subject of serious scholarship).
(P.S. for all Illinois alumni/ae who worked in the distinguished Rare Book Room of the Illinois library: That collection includes Baldwin's books, some 5,800 of them.)
Top international reviews
It takes place alongside 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as one of the best books about Shakespeare, his actors, his life and times.
First, Shapiro presumes the reader is very familiar with Shakespeare's plays. I for one, haven't read them since school, (which has been a while). He doesn't provide any summary of the plays he discusses, which would have been helpful to those readers like me, before delving into the detailed analysis. He discusses mainly King Lear (which is the best and most detailed discussion), Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. He touches on a few other as well. He does provide a very good account of the social climate of the day - the unease between Catholics and Protestants culminating in the GunPowder Plot and while I appreciate the this was the 9/11 of the day, I thought he spent far too much time on it to make his point as well as the Catholic doctrine of equivocation (there were times I thought I was reading alternatively, a history of the GunPowder Plot and a theological discussion of Catholics beliefs at the time); the recurrents bouts of the Plague, the questions of political union between Scotland and England.
He also provides a detailed account of theatre life in general, discussing other play writes and other formats, "Masques" performed at court, and mundane day to day behind the scenes work that went into writing, performing and producing plays. Again, if you are fan of theatre or are interested in the history of theatre you would probably find this quite fascinating but I just got a bit bored after a while.