1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear Book Review

hand holding 1606 William Shakespeare and the year of lear by James Shapiro

James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear examines one of the most productive creative bursts of Shakespeare’s whole theatrical career. This fateful year lead not only to the writing and staging of King Lear, but also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Not only do these plays fall within just over one year of heightened creative production on Shakespeare’s part, but they also reflect the turbulent political and social climate of the early reign of James I. In 1606, Shapiro demonstrates just how closely this short but dramatic period imprinted upon Shakespeare and how these works hold up a mirror to the events of 1606.

A time of terror

If Shapiro’s 1599 was an annus mirabilis, then 1606 is its darker, enthralling sequel. Opening with the glamorous scene of a court masque in the first week of January 1606, Shapiro begins by painting us a picture of a different Shakespeare from the one of the Elizabethan golden age. At the age of 42, Shakespeare was no longer an enthusiastic actor-turned-playwright but an established name in both theatrical and prestigious circles.

As a member of the King’s Men, Shakespeare was a royal servant and subsequently was exposed to the royal court, placing him in close proximity to those directly involved with the political events of the time. Shapiro eloquently explores how this closeness to the political landscape heavily marks Shakespeare’s works of 1606. From regicide and anarchy to civil disarray and religious tension, 1606 unlocks the secrets within MacbethAntony and Cleopatra and of course King Lear that echo the dramatic timeframe in which they were written and staged.

Remember, remember

The year of 1605 is remembered throughout British history as the near-apocalyptic day when the terrorist plot to kill James I and his parliament was uncovered. For those of you unfamiliar with the celebration of Bonfire Night here in Great Britain, every year on the 5th November we celebrate the prevention of the Gunpowder plot – the plan designed to kill the parliament of the newly crowned King James I. It all came about when a man called Guy Fawkes was discovered casually guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, ready to blow parliament – and with it the king – to smithereens.

On learning of the plot’s discovery, many of the conspirators escaped London in hope of enlisting support. A manhunt and trail of bloody murders ensued, including eight of the conspirators being hung, drawn and quartered in January 1606. Each year on the 5th November, bonfires are lit on which a fake ‘Guy’ is burnt to ‘death’. Charming, I know. At the time, this murderous plot had a domino effect, transforming 1606 into a time of conspiracy, horror and terror as the conspirators were hunted down and any rumours of treason vigorously investigated.

In Shapiro’s view, there are few who would have been impacted by the Gunpowder plot and its following violence more than Shakespeare. 1606 reveals how the most famous English playwright was intricately linked to many of the plot’s creators. Those that Shakespeare grew up with and presumably knew intimately were questioned, prosecuted, and in some cased hung for their crimes. While his home town was the location to which many of those that escaped London fled to.

The questions and fears that the Gunpowder plot raised, as Shapiro shows, is echoed in Lear, showing a disturbing picture of an ancient Britain divided under uncertain kingship. Macbeth too addresses its direct cultural moment, dramatising the topical concept of equivocation and James I’s darkest obsession – witchcraft. The dark magic portrayed in Macbeth is coupled with explorations of regal paranoia, regicide and its repercussions – fitting for a time when Britain’s own king was ruling over a kingdom still dealing with the after-effects of the Gunpowder plot. But the references within these plays to the particular events of 1605-1606 go beyond the political upheavals for the high and mighty.

Too close for comfort

Anyone who has studied or just simply read will know how loaded Shakespeare’s work is. Classical, biblical and contemporary references abound the texts, many of the allusions us modern folk would completely overlook today without someone pointing it out. In 1606, Shapiro skillfully pulls out many of the chilling and disturbing references within King LearMacbeth and Antony and Cleopatra to the contemporary fears of his day – worries over equivocation and the culture of suspicion it stirred up, the Gunpowder plot and religious prosecution and of course the dark shadow of the Black Death.

As well as exploring the turbulence of high Jacobean society, what I loved about 1606 is that Shapiro also looked at the environment in which Shakespeare’s original audience would have viewed his work in the flesh. Plays in Elizabethan and Jacobean society were what cinema is to us now – it was the habitual entertainment of both the court and the commoners alike. Shapiro vividly brings 1606 to life by showing how the politically charged atmosphere would have played on the emotions of lowly playgoer.

Passing the severed heads of traitors, Londoners walking to the Globe on Southbank in early 1606 would have viewed the regicide and bloodiness in Macbeth with completely different eyes than we do now. References to equivocation and discerning the truth would also have touched of audience members whose own communities were affected by the persecution of suspected Catholics. It makes you wonder whether Shakespeare’s audience in 1606 would have felt the on-stage action was too close for comfort.

It’s not all about Shakespeare

While Shapiro’s 1606 is impressive in its breadth and analysis, it’s important to remember that Shakespeare was not the be-all-and-end-all of Jacobean society. Without a doubt, he was a talented and well-known playwriter, but he wasn’t alone. Nor was he the most well-liked.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Shakespeare fan. I’ve studied the majority of his plays, read all 154 of his sonnets, and even gone to The Globe to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream live. But even for me, at times it feels as if we can’t seem to get enough of him. Our cultural fascination with Shakespeare and putting him on a pedestal is the result of 400 years of him ascending in our cultural memory. You can’t think of the English literary canon without thinking of good ol’ Will. Back in his own time, Shakespeare was not such a big fish. While Shapiro’s analysis of 1606 and Shakespeare’s place in it is impressive and certainly worthy of attention, at times I felt Shapiro over-estimated how much we can draw from his works, and how much can be read between the lines.

Shakespeare is not a sponge

Considering how little we know about Shakespeare as an actual living, breathing person, Shapiro seems to loop anything and everything back to him. It seems as if everything which happened in 1606 influenced Shakspeare’s writing, but surely this cannot be the case, at least not directly. Some of the references within the three plays might purely have been a coincidence or the result of common phrasing of the time as opposed to Shakespeare deliberately choosing to reference something topical.

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge what a small world Jacobean society was. This is one thing Shapiro succeeds in highlighting by showing how interconnected Shakespeare’s England really was, especially the circles in which he operated. If you want to see this for yourself, there’s a great website called Six Degrees of Francis Bacon which shows how prominent figures in Jacobean society were connected.

This interconnectedness makes it even more intriguing and mysterious how much of enigma the real Shakespeare is. It certainly plays a part in our continuing fascination with him as no matter how much more we study the cultural period of his life, the gap between his work and personal life seem to remain intact. We know very little of Shakspeare as an individual, with his own biases, interests and weaknesses. Yet despite his shadowy figure, Shapiro succeeds in showing how close political events did encroach onto his personal life.

The Conclusion

From the horrifying Black Death taking the life of his landlady, to his own daughter being caught up in the prosecution of suspected Catholics. Over and over again, Shapiro expertly reimagines the realities of Jacobean society and how much of the turbulence and tragedies of the time were never far away from Shakespeare’s door and left very few untouched.

Are you a Shakespeare fan? I would love to know what your favourite play is, mine is A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I’m a sucker for the romantic comedies, although I do love a good tragedy). Let me know what your favourite Shakespeare play is in the comments below. If you’re looking for books to add to your To-Read list, I’ve got a couple of titles in mind in my Books section.

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