Review: ‘1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear’

King Lear has often been hailed as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Literary historian James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has therefore chosen wisely in writing a book that examines Shakespeare’s life in the year he wrote it. 1606 follows Shapiro’s highly acclaimed 1599, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006, exploring the year in which Shakespeare finished Henry V and wrote both Julius Caesar and As You Like It. King Lear fans will certainly not be disappointed by 1606, but there is a lot more to be gained from Shapiro’s work than merely another way of looking at King Lear. 1606 was a hugely productive year for Shakespeare, in which he wrote not only King Lear but also Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra, two plays Shapiro examines in a similar amount of detail. In these plays, Shakespeare would develop themes he had first begun to explore in King Lear, from madness to political leadership. As Shapiro says, these ‘three tragedies form a trilogy of sorts that collectively reflect their fraught cultural moment’, representative of a turning point in Shakespeare’s writing. 1606 was also the year in which Shakespeare became a King’s Man, a Jacobean writer rather than an Elizabethan, and the year in which, Shapiro claims, Shakespeare’s reputation grew to the point where it became synonymous with great playwriting.

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1606 is ingeniously structured, treating events chronologically under thematic categories. Shapiro certainly has a reputation to live up to with his book: the author of both 1599 and Contested Will, he is now acknowledged as an authority on Shakespeare. Yet his authoritative voice never becomes domineering, never alienating the reader, instead allowing them the sense of a privileged insight into both Shakespeare’s mind and his world. Shapiro constantly manages to present Shakespeare’s universe – a universe we might think we know – in a new light. He vividly describes how plague directly affected members of Shakespeare’s own household. Meanwhile he interweaves these intimate details with larger societal events, such as how the repercussions of the Gunpowder Plot reverberated into 1606, with debates over the unification of Scotland and England taking place. All the events we associate with Shakespeare are there, but Shapiro does not see their repercussions as concretely quantifiable, instead affecting Shakespeare’s psychology in ways we cannot fully understand. He shows how these events were not something separable from Shakespeare’s everyday life. Shapiro’s work is constituted of years of researching details which are often overlooked when approaching Shakespeare, yet he also manages to conserve a sense of mystery. He does not try to pretend that we can be certain about Shakespeare’s political or religious leanings, for example, commenting wryly that autobiographies of Shakespeare tend to tell us more about the writers’ lives than about Shakespeare’s own.

The fact that Shapiro tries to root King Lear in its literary and historical context, when its reputation arises from its very ability to transcend, to be performed at any time and yet continue to have resonance, reveals something striking. Maybe King Lear speaks to us not because of its timelessness, but because of its timeliness. In its turmoil, confusion and suffering, the period in which this play was produced should not be hard to understand from our vantage point in the twenty-first century. This may have been a good year for Shakespeare creatively, but it was not so for the country. Shapiro comments that at many points during the year 1606, people must have felt ‘overwhelmed’ by ‘growing disaffection’ with the new monarch and accompanying nostalgia for Elizabeth I, the overturning of an old order with the creation of a new flag and the founding of the first permanent colony in America, by another outbreak of plague and reports of demonic possession. King Lear, when first performed, served as a commentary on the year in which it had been written, a reminder that the future was yet to be written. King Lear could be seen as one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, ending with the King and his daughter dead, their bodies being carried off the stage as Kent asks ‘Is this the promised end?’ and Edgar returns ‘Or image of that horror?’ The play itself is an image of the horror many felt to be approaching after the tumult of 1606.

Countless historians and writers have tried to examine King Lear’s creation by placing it within the context of Shakespeare’s other writings. There is certainly something to be said for doing so. But Shapiro, fulfilling his role as literary historian, succeeds in situating King Lear, along with Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra, within their wider historical context in a way that is both illuminating – drawing Shakespeare from the shadows just a little more – and hugely captivating. He does so in a way that never borders on the reductive, and instead manages to show how a mere 365 days can have a resounding impact on a writer’s life and work. He deftly weaves the literary context with the historical, constantly reminding us that this was only a ‘slice of the writer’s life’, but an important one nonetheless. When Shakespeare started writing King Lear, he inhabited a very different world from the one in which he would finish his play, and the one in which he would begin writing Macbeth. Shapiro, through his clarity of writing and ingenious structuring of the book, draws the reader into both these worlds. The audience is transported through the changes that would take place during this one year in Shakespeare’s life, as we journey through 1606 alongside him.

Tilly Nevin

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear’ is published by Faber and Faber, RRP £20.00.

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