It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write a new book review, so today I’m excited to share The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro.
In case you haven’t been reading the blog long, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare-a-holic, just to warn you. I’ve written a bit about why I think Shakespeare matters and I’ve also written my thoughts about his plays and adaptations of his plays. Today I don’t have any Shakespeare to bring to you, but I did just finish listening to Shapiro’s interesting book about how one year in England’s history shaped some of Shakespeare’s best-known works.
In 1606, Shakespeare, who was already an incredibly prolific writer, wrote three of his greatest tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. What’s amazing is that for someone who has shaped our culture so much, we know relatively little about Shakespeare’s life. There have been countless books and articles written about the Bard, his hometown, the few historical documents we have, and all aspects of his personal life. Despite all of this research, he remains mysterious.
Many times, authors try to extrapolate Shakespeare’s life from his work. We know that when he was writing Hamlet, he had just suffered the loss of his son Hamnet. It’s easy for scholars to say that the grief he must have experienced as a parent led to the greatness of Hamlet. Other scholars hypothesize that he must have been in love when he wrote his great comedies and sonnets. While I think that is probably somewhat true, Shapiro cautions that this is a tricky path to walk. There’s truly no way to know what Shakespeare was thinking and feeling.
Shapiro’s approach is to look at the historical context of Shakespeare’s writing and try and imagine how the current events of the time period affected the great plays we still have today. He does an excellent job of explaining the history of the period, especially the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which had far-reaching effects in Shakespeare’s work and Britain’s history. I did feel, at times, that he was also extrapolating too much from the historical context, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
Though there are many examples I could list here, the one I thought was the most interesting dealt with the topic of equivocation and Macbeth, one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. After the Gunpowder Plot, which was orchestrated by English Roman Catholics in an attempt to assassinate King James I and most of Parliament, Catholic supporters and priests came under fire for their doctrine of “equivocation.” This basically gave them license to lie and call it “mental reservation.” The King’s men could ask them if they knew where a priest had gone, and the person being interrogated could equivocate his or her way out of the question.
In Macbeth, equivocation is an incredibly important theme. Almost every character speaks out of both sides of his or her mouth or lies in order to accomplish his or her ends. The Weird Sisters speak “prophecies” that are purposefully ambiguous, and Macbeth interprets them according to his own desires. It’s obvious that the topic of equivocation would have been on everyone’s mind, and Shakespeare made the most of it in his work.
I think sometimes when we read old works we forget that there was an entire political, historical, and cultural climate surrounding their creation. Shakespeare’s plays don’t exist in a vacuum; they were written in London in a very tumultuous time of upheaval, terrorism, and plague. Shapiro does a really nice job of showing how all of those elements interacted to create the perfect backdrop for Shakespeare’s work.
That’s all for now! Hopefully I’ll be back with some more reviews soon. I’ve fallen behind on my pace for the year, so I’ve got some work to do.