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The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 Paperback – October 18, 2016
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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The temptation for someone reviewing a readable and revelatory work like The Year of Lear is to babble on about the amazing secrets its author has uncovered. . . . [The book] is irresistible—a banquet of wisdom.” (Jane Smiley The New York Times Book Review)
“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)
About the Author
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of several books, including 1599 and Contested Will, and is the recipient of many awards and fellowships. Shapiro is a Governor of the Folger Shakespeare Library. He lives in New York with his wife and son.
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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.
At the time, Shakespeare had been rather out of the picture for writing plays. The death of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the last of the Tudors, might have been a dampening influence on Shakespeare’s writing and producing new plays.
But in 1606 came King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. What Shapiro does in “The Year of Lea6r” is provide a convincing portrait of how the plays fit into the context of the social and political events happening at the time. It’s quite a feat of scholarship, because Britain’s most famous playwright left behind precious little documentation of his life, other than his plays.
Shakespeare would likely have been writing “King Lear” in late 1605, when the news of the Gunpowder Plot – the plan to blow up the royal family and Parliament on Nov. 5 – rocked the country. The trials of the conspirators continued in early 1606, and Shapiro shows how the plot affected Shakespeare’s writing of the great tragedy of Lear. He also includes a delightful discussion of the theme of “nothing” as a powerful factor in the play. (Little did I know that “Something Good,” sung in “The Sound of Music” by Maria, and includes the lines “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could” is likely borrowed right out of King Lear; that’s my observation, by the way, not Shapiro’s).
The Gunpowder Plot also touched rather close to Shakespeare’s home in Stratford. A number of the conspirators were from Warwickshire, and had hoped to stage an uprising at the time Parliament and the king were killed. Many of them were actually captured just a few miles from Shakespeare’s home town.
Other significant events of 1606 that would have been influencing Shakespeare with all three plays were the desire by King James for union between England and Scotland, a desire that would be frustrated for another century; the always simmering religious controversy, bubbled to the surface by the Gunpowder Plot which was often called the “Jesuit Treason;” various cases of suspected witchcraft (James I had written a book on the subject); and recurring outbreaks of the plague.
Of particular interest is the word “equivocation,” a relatively new word in Shakespeare’s day used over and over again in “Macbeth.” How it was understood in Shakespeare’s day is as a means devised by Jesuit priests to help hidden Catholics in England essentially lie their way to safety. In fact, a loyalty oath was devised to make equivocation impossible; one of the people who initially refused to take the oath was Susanna, one of Shakespeare’s two daughters.
Shapiro knows his Shakespeare. He’s the author of “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” (2009), about the year 1599; “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” (2010); and “Shakespeare and the Jews” (1986; reprinted in 2016). He also served as editor of “Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now” (2014).
“The Year of Lear” is a masterful account of how Shakespeare wrote the three tragedies, including two of his most important works – “King Lear” and “Macbeth.” And it is a masterful account of how his contemporary context shaped what he wrote, how he wrote, and why he wrote.
Shapiro's understanding of Jacobean history and culture are impressive, and his writing is clear and jargon-free. His inquiry is so specialized that only scholars in Elizabethan-Jacobean studies can assess the originality and accuracy of his premise, but the book is a worthwhile and satisfying experience for the general reader with an appreciation of Shakespeare and / or an interest in English history.