A Year in the Life of Shakespeare

Review: James Shapiro, ‘The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606’

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare / AP
December 20, 2015

 The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro is, like the London square drawn on its cover, tumultuous, dark and teeming with life. In the cover art, unruly crowds throng the streets, prodded and chased by authorities struggling to maintain order. In the foreground, a horse drags a traitor bound to a wicker sled toward the focus of the public’s attention: a gallows, where a man is being hung. Nearby, another man is being quartered; an executioner throws his leg, severed at the thigh, into a fire pit for cremation.

I dwell on the book’s cover art for two reasons. First, because The Year of Lear is unusually well-illustrated from start to finish, from the jacket—with gold foil details and ye olde printing press lettering—to the glossy insert with portraits of the book’s major players. (It is one of those rare books that is worth the surcharge to buy in hardcover.) Second, I mention the cover art because it distills the book down to one poignant, violent image.

This is no mean feat. The Year of Lear, for its seemingly limited scope, is an epic. Shapiro, a Columbia professor and governor at the Folger Shakespeare Library, has written a book brimming with detail about 17th century England, if not necessarily about Shakespeare.

One problem with books that aim to shed light on the Bard, Shapiro explains, is that Shakespeare "kept such a low profile, preferring to remain in the shadows." He was a relatively quiet presence at court, holding the mirror up to nature by performing traditional plays while self-promoters like Ben Jonson cashed in with lavish, sycophantic masques that are all but forgotten today. Nor do Shakespeare’s contemporaries help us understand the man. While they honored him as a gentleman and great playwright, no one considered him important enough to warrant substantial biographical treatment. They didn’t even preserve all his plays, so we will never know how the greatest writer in the English language adapted a tale by Cervantes, the greatest writer in the Spanish language.

The dearth of original source material about Shakespeare has led to rampant and tantalizing speculation about his life, one recent example being the media frenzy about Shakespeare’s supposed substance abuse. These flights of fancy "inevitably end up revealing more about" speculators than the Bard, Shapiro points out. Many of the things we would like to know about Shakespeare, including basic biographical matters like his religion and political views, are lost to history.

Of course, that does not mean historical scholarship about Shakespeare is futile, only that scholars must be creative in their research and circumspect in their claims. Shapiro shows how such work can be done by comparing the language and subject matter of Shakespeare’s plays to contemporary sources and events. The similarities and patterns that emerge give us clues about the events that commanded his attention.

The dominant event of 1606, which fills five out of 13 chapters in the book, was the Gunpowder Plot by English gentry to blow up King James and install 9-year-old Princess Elizabeth as a Catholic queen. Technically, the plot was hatched in 1604 and thwarted in November 1605, but fallout from the event, including the sensational trial and brutal execution of the plotters, stretched well into 1606.

It is evident the news was on Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote Macbeth, a play that asks its audience to imagine a bloody plot against the life of a Scottish king, inspired by possibly diabolical forces. Macduff’s threat to the regicidal Macbeth at play’s end ("We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are / Painted upon a pole") is borrowed from the official account of the treason trials for the gunpowder plotters, which described them as those "rarest sorts of monsters." Hearing this phrase used on-stage "must have come as a jolt to crowds at the Globe in 1606," Shapiro writes, "one of those rare moments in Shakespeare’s work … that neatly elides past and present and sharpens the topicality of the play."

Shapiro argues that the famous porter scene, which befuddles and amuses modern audiences, is a transparent commentary on one of the trial’s subplots. It came to light in 1606 that one of the gunpowder conspirators was a Jesuit, who were seen by many Anglicans as Catholic spies working for the destruction of England. (These fears were exaggerated, including in this instance: Henry Garnet, the Jesuit in question, was one of only three in the country at the time. And while Garnet knew about the plot in advance, he disapproved of it as an action likely to make life worse for English Catholics, as in fact it did.) Worse still, a pamphlet on "equivocation," the art of deceiving interrogators without technically committing the sin of lying, was found in Garnets’ priest hole. This discovery was almost too much for a public riled up by news of a Catholic plot against its king—could there be Jesuit spies in their midst, deceiving them at this very instant?

In this context, the porter’s monologue about an imaginary arrival at the gates of Hell gains new meaning:

Faith, here’s an equivocator that could

swear in both the scales against either scale, who

committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet

could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,


Shakespeare was again "brilliantly reflecting the fears and aspirations of the time" by writing about the Jacobean equivalent of a hot-button issue. He was exploiting the public’s fascination with the Gunpowder Plot by staging a somewhat similar plot on the stage, to great commercial success. At the risk of profaning the Scottish play, it was the Jacobean equivalent of Homeland.

The other two plays Shakespeare wrote in 1606, it turns out, were no less topical, and Shapiro’s discussion of them is no less informative and accessible. King Lear, a play about the consequences of a divided kingdom, would have contributed to the conversation about King James’s plan for the union of England and Scotland. Antony and Cleopatra, with its imperious, ageless queen, would have contributed to the reappraisal of the legacy of Queen Elizabeth I ongoing at the time.

The Year of Lear shows that Shakespeare was not aloof from current events, even if his own views are mysterious and lost to history. By shedding light on the parochial fears, temptations, and contretemps of Shakespeare’s time, the book helps readers appreciate the magnitude of his triumph. Shakespeare could treat issues of immediate relevance to his contemporaries, but still transcend his small, bleak corner of the world to speak to us.

Published under: Book reviews