A Review of James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606


I thoroughly enjoyed this intense study of the year 1606 in the life and career of William Shakespeare, though I thought that an equally appropriate subtitle for the book would have been “England in 1606.” I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare is a secondary character in this biography – only that he and his nation should share the top billing. In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro follows Shakespeare through the creation and performance of these three plays, while also taking long detours through that year in English history.

No matter how much I study Shakespeare, my mind places him directly in the courtly-love years. This may be a side effect of the fact that like so many graduates of American schools, my first lessons in Shakespeare involve Romeo and Juliet. I associate Shakespeare with duels and duennas and men who wear tights – not with other, more modern endeavors like, well, terrorism. Shapiro’s book devotes several chapters to the Gunpowder Plot, which I certainly knew about before but did not closely associate with Shakespeare. To me, Shakespeare is the Elizabethan poet and playwright he is usually said to be (the conflation of “Shakespearean” and “Elizabethan” in the sonnet-naming industry does not help), not the Jacobean one that he became when Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. I had heard the legend – apocryphal, according to Shapiro – that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth as a way of sucking up to King James, who was apparently descended from Banquo, whose son flees in Macbeth and much later returns to rule. It’s true that parts of Macbeth are meant to appeal to King James’ Scottish patriotism – that weird parade if kings and mirrors – but Macbeth, to which this book devotes several chapters, has much more complicated roots.

Unfortunately I read this book too long ago (early-mid November) to write about it in detail, and most of what you might want to know is in the historical record and thereby googleable – so what I’ll do instead is tell you the parts of the book that are still with me, more than a month after I read it. First and most chillingly, I was reading the chapters about the Gunpowder Plot on Friday, November 13, when the Paris attacks and manhunt were being covered 24/7 on CNN, and the takeaway from that experience for me is how little has changed since 1605. The modern investigators move more quickly and have instant access to information and communication devices that their Jacobean counterparts did not, but the fugitives have access to this technology too. For that reason, while the scale of the 2015 manhunt was much faster than the one in 1605-06, unfolding over hours instead of months, the pursuers and the pursued in both incidents moved at similar speeds relative to each other. Reading about the 1606 manhunt after watching the Paris manhunt play out on TV, I felt very much that I was witnessing similar events. It helped that both attacks were religiously motivated, with the Gunpowder Plot aimed at the Protestant king and Parliament by a team of Catholics and the Paris attacks soon attributed to ISIS – and even with the role played by xenophobia in both incidents, with Guy Fawkes singled out as the primary scapegoat for the Gunpowder Plot because he was dark and swarthy-looking and had a foreign-sounding name (“Guido”), when in fact he was a relatively minor player in planning and orchestrating the attack. I wonder if modern Brits worry about the message they’re sending on Guy Fawkes Day, happily burning an effigy of a pawn in an incident led by high-ranking Catholics, including priests – the way we cringe over Columbus Day and Eurocentric retellings of the story of the first Thanksgiving? And if they don’t, then why the hell not?

Second, this book impressed me with the connections it makes between larger events in England and the texts of Shakespeare’s plays. I know that this mode of scholarship is frowned upon in some circles, but Shapiro more or less convinced me. One of King James’ pet projects was that of union – of, essentially, creating a united “Great Britain” made up of England, Scotland, and Ireland – and the three plays Shakespeare wrote that year concern themes of unity and disunity. These themes are most obviously present in King Lear, but Shapiro points them out in all three 1606 plays. Shapiro reads Macbeth as almost a detail-for-detail allegory for the Gunpowder Plot, with all the references to “equivocation,” which fascinated me as much as they amused me. I knew from years of teaching Macbeth that “equivocation” means phrasing one’s ideas in such a way that they can mean two things. Examples are all over the place in Macbeth, including the conversation with Lady Macduff and her son – statements like “a man who swears and lies,” which can be read as two different behaviors (swearing and lying) or as one act – swearing an oath to tell the truth and then telling a lie. In the play, this phrase is actually used to define “equivocation,” which was widely believed in Shakespeare’s day to be – no joke – “a Jesuit mind trick.” Many Protestants in the Reformation years truly believed that Jesuits received extensive training in how to speak with two meanings, and Shapiro’s book even delves into incidents that made it to the English courts that seem reminiscent of children telling lies while having their fingers crossed behind their backs. While I can speak from experience that Jesuits can be persuasive – at least in their exigesis of Light in August and The Portrait of a Lady – the idea that equivocation was a “magical power” kind of made me snort. Did no one prior to the founding of the Jesuit order in 1534 ever say one thing and mean another? Not even, I don’t know, Judas Iscariot? Not even Machiavelli or Potiphar’s wife or that Chinese empress who was always demanding cunnilingus? Caligula, maybe – or Richard III? One of those enemies of Dante’s that he consigned to hell? Attributing the invention of dishonesty to the Jesuits probably did more to elevate them in the minds of their enemies than anything the Jesuits themselves said or did – but that’s human history, I guess.

Finally, this book impressed me by pointing out the ways that the three plays Shakespeare wrote in 1606 are focused on aging and on the movement toward death. Shakespeare wasn’t “old” in 1606 – he was 42 – but there is no question that he was thinking about things like the passing of time and the creation of one’s legacy. Mortality is an obvious theme in Lear but less so in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, but Shapiro does an admirable job of shining a light on this theme in these plays and making it seem as obvious as it is in Lear.

This book is accessible to non-academic readers and detailed enough to engage readers who already have some background in the subject. I enjoyed it thoroughly – I love books in which history and literary scholarship are woven together. I recommend it highly.

This entry was posted in Authors, James Shapiro, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Literary Studies, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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