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The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

Updated: Jan 8

The year is 1606. James VI of Scotland has been James I of England for three years. Shakespeare writes King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra for The King's Men.

Shapiro begins with King Lear and a discussion of the way Shakespeare overhauls the plots of old plays. The specific old play, King Leir, was put up for sale by John Wright at his shop at Christ’s Church door, next to Newgate Market, in July 1605. Shakespeare would have picked up a copy when he returned from Stratford that summer. The play was just right for the times; a story of the fear and uncertainty around royal succession when the death of a childless monarch (Queen Elizabeth in 1603) could so easily have precipitated a civil war.

By 1605 Shakespeare and his company of actors were The King’s Men, the stars of their day. Shakespeare wrote the world-weary roles of Lear, Macbeth and Marc Antony for Richard Burbage, the company’s leading actor, who was now in his late thirties. He wrote the fool in Lear for the sardonic, witty Robert Armin.

Such is the feast of historical detail you will find in The Year of Lear, an approach radically different from Shakespeare commentary that focuses on the timelessness of Shakespeare's work. Shapiro's Shakespeare is bang in the centre of his own time.

When Shakespeare made his bid for a coat of arms, and the rank of gentleman, he made much of his Arden relations. After the Gunpowder Plot, 'he may have regretted that decision for Edward Arden happened to be uncle to two of the leading conspirators '. The Gunpowder Plot is well known to English readers and for you this section of Shapiro’s book may feel a little heavy on explanation. But Shapiro is an American Shakespearian and the importance of the event could be lost on American readers without the long story Shapiro provides.

“It is easy to forget that what sets the Gunpowder Plot apart from subsequent infamous terrorist plots (especially those significant enough to be remembered by their date) is that in this case nothing happened. Which meant that, like one of those great Jacobean dramas, its impact and aftermath didn’t depend on actual violence but rather on making people imagine an unforgettable tragedy.”

The Jesuit priests Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet are probably unfamiliar to both British and American readers, unless you happen to be an English Catholic or a student of Renaissance literature. Shapiro tells their stories with all his customary attention to detail.

Henry Garnet was accused of masterminding the Gunpowder Plot. He was tortured, subjected to a staged trial and brutally executed. Neither the authorities nor the public could believe such a terrible act had been contemplated by disaffected English subjects. It must have been the work of an evil foreign power. This was the mood of London in early 1606.

But what truly damned Henry Garnet in the eyes of his prosecutors was that he wrote a tract on ‘equivocation’; instructions to Catholics on how to stand up to interrogation by replying in ways that were technically correct but played with words. In 1606 ‘equivocation’ suddenly changed from meaning 'ambiguity' to a byword for saying one thing while thinking another. Now people could lie under oath and not damn their souls. The consequences for Jacobean justice were horrific.

Equivocation is the theme of that strange comedy scene with the drunken porter in Macbeth. It is what Macbeth means when he says, “I’ll pull in resolution, and begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.” Shakespeare makes the most of his public's fascination with this fiendish concept of being able to lie and tell the truth at the same time.

Shapiro explores the way facts of history and public feeling are reflected in the theatre and he spends a lot of time on each fact that he brings to your attention. The trick to enjoying it is to remind yourself that no-one’s testing you. Recently, when somebody asked me how many plays Shakespeare had written I took a wild guess. Why would I remember that when I can tell you what the Jesuitical concept of equivocation was and why it so alarmed the jurors of Jacobean England!

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