1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

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William Shakespeare was on a pretty hot streak in 1605-06, writing King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra – not a bad midfield trio. Quite a lot was going on in the background: Guy Fawkes had attempted to blow up the House of Lords and King James along with it; the monarch himself was desperate to unify Scotland and England (Parliament not so much); and to top it all, the Plague was in town. (The Gunpowder Plot in particular had a cataclysmic effect on Catholic-Protestant relations. It had a pretty bad effect on the conspirators too, who died horribly in very public executions). James Shapiro demonstrates that a fair bit of all this found its way into the plays, even if he occasionally stretches his case: having ticked off a few academics for making suppositions, Shapiro does much the same himself in other areas. But these are quibbles: he is great at providing context. Frustratingly, the house where Shakespeare lodged in this period – on the corner of Silver Street and the brilliantly-named Muggle Street – no longer exists. Nor do the streets themselves, the victims of (in chronological order) the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and urban planners. But Shakespeare came up with all this in what is now an underground car park. Around about bay 18, to be not exact. Shapiro is a scholar – his earlier 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare was excellent – but at a couple of points, his research for 1606 overwhelms the narrative. The concept of equivocation was vitally important to Catholics and to those who sought to persecute them, but I’m not sure we need a whole chapter on it. Ditto the idea of demonic possession and witchcraft, which is again explored at what seems like unnecessary length – even if it does have some obvious relevance to Macbeth. Perhaps it’s personal taste: I was riveted by his account of the Plague, and that went on a bit too. Shapiro’s epilogue is masterly, bringing together the various elements of his account and adding some useful thoughts on the endings that Lear has been lumbered with – as tastes change – over the centuries. For all its few faults, 1606 is a welcome look at genius.

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