1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro, Faber & Faber, 448 pp, £20, 978-0571235780
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear is James Shapiro’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. 1606 focuses on a seminal year in Shakespeare’s creative life, which saw the staging of King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In a scholarly but accessible writing style, Shapiro examines the social and political events that helped shape these three magisterial dramatic works. Despite the title of the book being year-specific, Shapiro in fact does not confine his study to events of 1606; he also considers how the history of the previous ten years in Britain impacted upon this one extraordinary period in the life of Shakespeare and the British nation.
Although the English monarch with whom Shakespeare is most associated is Elizabeth I, Shapiro argues that her successor, James I, is of equal importance to the Shakespearian oeuvre. As he has observed, James’s decision to make Shakespeare and his fellow players the official regal players was one of the most momentous developments in Shakespeare’s life. “After 19 May 1603 Shakespeare and eight others were to be known as the King’s Men, authorised to perform not only at court but throughout the realm, if they wished to tour.”
During James’s reign, England saw the Gunpowder Plot nearly destroying her parliament and many of her leading political figures, the debate over a British union divided public opinion (just as the kingdom in King Lear was divided) and the plague returned to ravage the country. These tumultuous events, Shapiro argues, were mined to great effect by Shakespeare and are implicitly referenced in the plays that were created in 1606. During the reign of Elizabeth, Shakespeare had concentrated on English political history, but following the accession of James and the Gunpowder Plot, the strife and politics of Britain would become the focus of Shakespearian drama.
The Gunpowder Plot severely affected the British people’s ideas about evil as they were left to ponder what drove those conspirators to attempt to commit such an atrocious act of what the modern world would call terrorism. In a very illuminating analysis of King Lear, Shapiro considers how that work downplays the concept of supernatural evil and privileges the idea that human beings and the natural world can create their own versions of the diabolical: “In what is arguably the most explicit piece of social criticism in all of his work, Shakespeare has Lear conclude that violence deception and hypocrisy in the kingdom are endemic.”
Macbeth (aka the Scottish Play) is the drama of Shakespeare’s that most obviously relates to the events of November 5th, since it focuses on the killing of a Scottish king and it is also perhaps Shakespeare’s most profound meditation on the nature of evil. Shapiro devotes a chapter to closely analysing the social and political allusions that are stitched into the text. “When audiences first saw Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the spring of 1606, they may have been surprised that they didn’t get to witness the play’s central action, on which everything turns, the murder of King Duncan.” Shapiro speculates that Shakespeare did not wish to show the regicide of a Scottish king as it would have touched a nerve in the British consciousness at a very sensitive time.
Shapiro sees Macbeth as a study of hell on earth that is created as much by human and natural interventions as it is by the more reassuringly anti-human power of the witches: “The nightmarish tragedy that Shakespeare creates in Macbeth is all the more terrifying for taking place, to borrow [Francis] Bacon’s words, in ‘another hell above the ground’.”
In one of the most stimulating moments of close-textual analysis in this study, Shapiro discusses the notion of Macbeth existing in a version of hell via consideration of one of the oddest scenes in Shakespeare’s dramas: the moment immediately following Duncan’s death when a hung over porter struggles to open the gates of the castle and repeatedly asks what minions of hell are outside. “Through this conceit Shakespeare offers us, in the most down-to-earth scene in the play, the closest thing to an evocation of hell itself. As he had in Lear, Shakespeare invokes the supernatural whilst steering clear of the moral certitude that staging the demonic typically invites.” Shapiro’s comparative analysis of King Lear and Macbeth reveals those plays to be very much steeped in political anxieties of that time in British history even as they also represent themes and characters that can justly be regarded as being of universal importance.
Antony and Cleopatra is examined as a work that tries to comment upon the passing of the Tudor dynasty in Britain and the beginning of the new reign of James I. When the play was first staged, James was trying to cement is status as the rightful heir and true successor to the throne of England. To this end, he had exhumed Elizabeth in 1606 from her burial place beside her grandfather, Henry VII, and placed her alongside her sister Mary. The reason was that he wished to be buried beside Henry VII as symbol of continuity between two eras of the British monarchy.
Antony and Cleopatra, while set in ancient Rome, would also have resonated with an English audience of the seventeenth century, dealing as it does with the end of an old era of Roman heroes and their replacement by a far more ordinary and quite banal group of soldiers and statesmen. As Shapiro argues quite convincingly: “Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy of nostalgia, a political work that obliquely … expresses a longing for an Elizabethan past that, despite its many flaws, appeared in retrospect to be far greater than the present political world.”
In 1606, James Shapiro has written a stimulating and most enjoyable work of scholarly rigour. The attention to historical and textual detail is impressive. The insights will be of interest to students and scholars of both literature and history. The Shakespearian experts will find it a very rewarding text and those who might only have a casual relationship with the Bard will not feel excluded and will be deeply illuminated.