The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

the year of lear“Let every man be master of his time.”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.

Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse
Photo: Johan Persson

As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.

The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.

This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth For me, the definitive production - and available on DVD!
Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth
For me, the definitive production – and available on DVD!

Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra Wow! I wish I'd seen that one!
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Wow! I wish I’d seen that one!

However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.

A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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24 thoughts on “The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

  1. I am no fan of Shakespeare but I would love to see Macbeth with Ian McKellen! And look at Patrick Stewart’s hair!! Isn’t it peculiar. I bet he was quite pleased when it all fell out.

  2. Now, why am I not surprised to see Derek Jacobi here… 😉 – A fine review, as ever, FictionFan. And I know exactly what you mean about a book that seems to a mix of things, rather than having one or the other focus, if I may put it that way. That said, I am a history sort of person, so I might find this really interesting.

    • Haha! Purely coincidence! Nothing to do with him being one of my favourite men… 😉 Thanks, Margot! Yes, I didn’t want to put people off this one because for the most part I found it interesting, but it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it was trying to be, somehow…

  3. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth? How on earth did I miss that?!!! Sounds amazing.
    Love Derek Jacobi!!!! Love him as Cadfael and in Doctor Who.
    This book intrigues me. But you mentioned his writing is “Readable.” Sigh. Not stellar then?

    • It is amazing! And available in DVD, though I wish I’d had the chance to see it live. And yes, Derek Jacobi is fantastic – he also did a lot of audio versions of Sherlock Homes stories which are brilliant. Yes, I have mixed feelings about the book – I found some bits lost my interest quite a bit though other parts were good. I would recommend it, but not a glowing recommendation…

  4. This one doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, FF, but you’ve done a good job reviewing it, keeping the balance between pros and cons, telling us just enough to pique the interest. I think the intense year I undertook the study of Shakespeare in college was more than enough for me, though!

    • I love some of the Shakespeare plays but others don’t do much for me. But on the whole I prefer to watch them than learn about them – as always school and Uni managed to destroy the magic of a few of them. But I liked the way this one put them in historical context – ‘cos as you know, I’m a bit of a history geek!

  5. I do like the sound of this one although it’s a shame you felt that it maybe didn’t focus tightly enough around the plays – interesting to hear that Shakespeare was (perhaps) trying to make a point about the union between England & Scotland, even funnier that there is no consensus on what that point was 😉

    • Ha! Yes! Isn’t it odd how that question never seems to go away?! I guess he must have been trying to keep in with both the King and the people who were against the Union – poor man! It must have been like trying to write reviews without offending anyone… 😉

  6. It sounds like it was really a history of the year but with the golden name of Shakespeare pinned to the title to encourage people to buy it. It sounds like an interesting read but I’m not sure how much is really new here. Great review, by the way!

    • I think he did an earlier one about 1599, though I didn’t read it – but it seems to have got much better reviews, so I think he maybe thought he could duplicate the success of it. I liked the idea of looking in depth at a short period of history, but it all felt a bit messy somehow. Thank you! 🙂

  7. I like Shakespeare. One school where I taught involved all of the students from like 3rd class all the way up to 8th (there were only K-8.) The children always enjoyed presented it. Some of them moved on to a school of performing arts and are doing well. Parents were quite impressed.

    • I was lucky – I had a great drama teacher who made Shakespeare come to life, and I was also friends with the sister of a young actor (who went on to become one of our greats) so we spent a lot of time at the theatre in our teens seeing brilliant productions of some of the plays. I don’t think reading them has the same effect as seeing them…

  8. Interesting review, thank you for that. Shapiro has done a few that seem a bit on a similar theme now, so I’m wondering if there are similar issues with all of them. I’d rather have more on the plays, so I will come to the books when I come to them with more realistic expectations.

    • I get the impression that this one is getting reviewed more negatively than his earlier book on 1599. I’m wondering if this one is a bit of an attempt to cash in on the success of that one, which I haven’t read. I’d have been happy either for more focus on the plays, or just straight history, but this didn’t quite satisfy me on either. Still a reasonably good read though…

    • Oh, but she’s an artiste, so she has to spell it funny, it’s compulsory! You’ll have to change your name… Vinci?

      I prefer watching him to reading him – easier! *laughs* I think that may be the worst wig in the world! And yet he’s still c&a…

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