1606 was a particularly tumultuous year. Queen Elizabeth had died childless and unmarried in 1603, succeeded on the throne by the young King of Scotland James I, son of her executed rival Mary, Queen of Scots. The shift in tone, approach and power after the long reign of Elizabeth was dramatic, and the subsequent failed attempt by a small group of Catholic conspirators in November of 1605 to destroy the Parliament and the King in one explosive discharge of gunpowder, shook the foundations of the nation to its core.
These twin seismic shocks - a new King and a new political reckoning, coupled with the inevitable fallout and bloody aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, directly impacted on the direction, focus and content of English theatre, helping drive one of William Shakespeare's most prolific and brilliant years into history.
The Year of Lear looks in detail at 1606, a year that saw Shakespeare pen Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, three of his most timely, searing and political dramas.
James Shapiro follows a similar pattern and approach to his previous work A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, weaving together political, social, economic, literary and philosophical threads into a deft and focused whole.
Shapiro alternates from delving into the events that dominated 1606, into how they impact and influence English theatre and literature in general, and more specifically how these were absorbed by William Shakespeare, player, shareholder and playwright of The King's Men.
|Cover illustration details - depicting the execution, |
drawing & quartering of the Gunpowder Plotters. Note the
man tossing body parts into boiling pitch.
The trials and interrogations of the Gunpowder plotters and in particular the interrogation and trial of the Jesuit Robert Southwell and the subsequent dissection of the Jesuitical concept of equivocation (use of unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone) is deeply intriguing, particularly in light of Shakespeare's subsequent use of the concept in both Lear and Macbeth. The opening scene of the witches greeting Macbeth is an equivocation that sets everything in tragic motion:
First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
The nature of power, succession and how a kingdom can teeter into chaos dominates the themes of Lear, bringing the differences and potential dangers faced by the new regime into sharp focus. The themes of murder, intrigue, tragedy and bloody raw political power highlight both Macbeth and Lear, with the added vagaries of witchcraft. The focus on the devastating impact that the Gunpowder plot and subsequent trial had on all aspects of Jacobite society permeates the year, and resonates throughout all the subsequent works. Antony & Cleopatra in turn - a play with it's shades of Elizabeth and Essex, was unlikely if not impossible to see the light of day during the Elizabethan era - highlighting the fraught cultural shift with the new regime.
It was no accident that Shakespeare wrote these seminal, highly political tragic dramas in 1606.
Shapiro's writing is inspired, rich and evocative. The book is highly readable, written with flair, intelligence and a huge perceptible fascination for his subject matter. It is one of the very best books of 2015 and is highly recommended for anyone wishing some insight into the Bard, his works or the era.