“1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro

Biographies of Shakespeare generally tend to be like Hamlet without the Prince: we know much about the historic times, the cultural and social background, the religious controversies and conflicts, and so on, but about the man himself, all we have to go on are a few scattered documents. We do not even know what Shakespeare thought: all he wrote in his plays are words spoken by characters in their respective characters, so the reader who thinks Shakespeare a nihilist on the basis of Macbeth’s despairing utterances is on grounds as shaky as the reader who imagines Shakespeare a believer in a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will. Perhaps he speaks in his own voice in the sonnets – in some of them, at least – but even when we can be fairly sure that he is indeed speaking in his own voice, we find little more than a poet aware of his own genius, who knew that nor marble nor the gilded monuments will outlive his works.

However, this has not stopped writers and scholars trying to re-create the sort of life Shakespeare may have led. I am particularly fond of Anthony Burgess’ witty and characteristically exuberant biography, but there have been others. A few years ago, academic and writer James Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, made quite a splash with a book re-creating a single year of Shakespeare’s life – 1599. It was an eventful year all right: it was in this year that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, moved into the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare himself, after a few relatively fallow years (at least by his standards), burst into an astonishing period of creativity with Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. We tend nowadays to use the word “amazing” to signify something that is very good, but this really was, quite literally, “amazing”. Shapiro in this book brought together his prodigious knowledge and understanding of the times to give us a tremendously vivid account of the historical, cultural, political and social picture of the times, and conjectured intelligently on what a man of Shakespeare’s background and position may have been doing or thinking. Most interestingly, he considered how the times are reflected in the plays, and how contemporary audiences are likely to have seen them.  For there is no contradiction between these plays being “for all time”, and also for their own time: we may judge for ourselves what these plays mean to us now, but to discover what Shakespeare’s own audiences may have received these plays is fascinating in its own right.

WP_20151220_11_27_04_Pro (1)1599 was a runaway success: perhaps to everyone’s surprise, it became a bestseller. Shapiro certainly has a gift for presenting historic times in a most vivid manner, and of interpreting what documentary evidence we have to give an impression of what it might have been like to have lived in those times, in that place. Now, given the success of that first book, he has followed it up with 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.  And once again we see the same virtues that had distinguished his earlier volume – that same ability to interpret what we know of history, of the culture of the times, to try to re-recreate what it might have been like to have lived there and then. , We cannot, of course, know with any precision what Shakespeare was thinking, or even what kind of person he was, but certain conjectures do seem reasonable: for instance, it tells us much about Shakespeare the man that, despite being acknowledged in his own time as the leading poet and dramatist of his age, and despite the documented fact that writing flattering verses for masques at the court would have earned him far more than merely writing plays, Shakespeare did not go in that direction. Even Ben Jonson did; but Will, it seems, was made of somewhat sterner stuff.

The years between 1599 and 1606 had hardly been “fallow years”: these years had seen the writing of Twelfth Night, Othello, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, as well as the curious but intriguing Timon of Athens, which was probably written in collaboration and even more probably abandoned in an unfinished state. But, supreme masterpieces though at least four of these works undoubtedly were, Shakespeare had certainly slowed down: five plays – or four and a half plays, if we consider Timon of Athens to be unfinished – in five years is slow by Shakespeare’s standards; and, as Shapiro points out, Shakespeare’s dramatic output but stopped completely after the accession to the throne of King James. But then, in 1606, in the course of a single year, came King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. All in one year. Even when one knows this to be a fact, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief.

The political environment was now much changed. James wanted to be seen as the founder of a new dynasty, reconciling previous discords in an era of peace and stability: he liked, indeed, to be seen as Octavius Caesar. His deepest desire seemed to have been to unite England and Scotland, much to the opposition, it seems, of both the English parliament and of the Scottish ruling classes. It is not unreasonable to assume that this debate resonates strongly in King Lear, in which division of kingdom brings about a cataclysm, although it is still very much open to conjecture whether Edgar’s “I smell the blood of a British man” was intended as a celebration of the proposed union, or knowingly played for laughs.

The major event that overshadowed these times was the Gunpowder Plot, discovered and foiled in November of the year before. Now that we have relegated the whole thing to a jolly annual celebration, it’s perhaps difficult for us to imagine just how traumatic an event this must have been: the appalling St Bartholomew’s Day’s massacre just across the channel, and the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada, were very much within within living memory, and the fear of a Catholic uprising, and of the death and devastation it would bring in its wake, were all too real. Had the Plot not been discovered, thousands would have been killed, including the King and the entire Parliament: it was an attempted act of terrorism on the largest imaginable scale. Shapiro describes in vivid and exciting detail the discovery of the plot, of the various manhunts in the immediate aftermath to track down the perpetrators (why has this not been filmed, I wonder?) – one of these manhunts taking place in Shakespeare’s own Warwickshire, and involving people whom Shakespeare must personally have known – and of the fears that lingered of the promised end, or an image of that horror.

English Catholics, not surprisingly, found themselves particularly vulnerable, and in danger. In the summer of 1606, two English Jesuits, Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet (both since canonised), were hung, drawn and quartered: they were the co-authors of what was soon to become a notorious treatise – on the subject of “equivocation”. The theme of “equivocation”, a word that had previously meant merely “ambiguity”, soon took on a whole range of meanings, for the treatise was, in effect, a justification of, and instructions for, lying under oath. At a time when the fate of one’s soul was a matter, both for Protestants and for Catholics, of vital importance, this treatise explained how to say one thing while meaning another, so that, strictly speaking, one isn’t lying at all; it explained how to give a false impression while keeping one’s soul free of perjury; it even went as far as to claim that it is permissible to speak an untruth under oath as long as the truth is clear in one’s heart, because God, who can see into the human heart, cannot be deceived. As was quite rightly perceived, this treatise threatened to bring down the institution of law itself.

Equivocation in all its guises is a major theme in Macbeth. Once again, it seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the topicality of that word chimed with themes that had long been maturing in Shakespeare’s mind. In this play, perhaps above all others, Shakespeare seems fascinated by the contradictory directions in which the same mind can be pulled at the same time: thus, Macbeth both desires to kill and desires not to kill with equal intensity; Lady Macbeth’s desire for murder is matched by her own inability to commit it. From the very first scene, we have equivocation: fair is foul, and foul is fair; and as soon as Macbeth enters, he remarks “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”. The witches equivocate with both Macbeth and with Banquo, the Macbeths equivocate with Duncan, Malcolm later equivocates with Macduff: everywhere one looks in the play, there is equivocation. And the theme appears transformed into a grimly comic tonality with the Porter, pretending to himself that he is porter of the gates of Hell itself, without realising how close to the truth he is:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

I hadn’t realised till Shapiro points it out that these lines themselves are equivocal. They seem at first glance to be mocking the equivocating Southwell and Garnet, but the treason they have committed was for God’s sake – i.e. not for their own; and neither could they equivocate to heaven because Heaven knows what’s in their hearts. Strange that I have been reading these lines for over 40 years without seeing this.

In late July 1606, “in the midst of a thrilling theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged”, a virulent outbreak of plague forced the theatres to close. Shapiro tells us there is very little historic documentation to tell us what it must have been like to live within the plague-stricken city, although I suspect it might not have been very different from Daniel Defoe’s painstaking journalistic reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year. Shapiro comments that there is perhaps no better description of the horrors of the “terror and malaise that plague carried with it” than these four lines from Macbeth:

… The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

– from IV, iii

Perhaps it is impossible for us to feel the horror that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, who lived with plague as a daily presence (there were plague deaths even when there weren’t major outbreaks), would have felt when Lear describes Goneril as “a plague sore, and embossed curbuncle in my / Corrupted blood”; or when a soldier in Antony and Cleopatra speaks of a hopeless situation in battle, and declares it be “like the tokened pestilence, / Where death is sure”. These works may indeed be for all time, but there were resonances also in its time and for its time that are now at best diminished, but which should, nonetheless, be acknowledged. Shapiro, as ever, is unerring in the light he throws upon them.

Much though I enjoyed reading this book, there are a few points where I must register a protest. In a section comparing an older anonymous play about Lear with Shakespeare’s version, Shapiro says:

The anonymous author of Leir had been content to build to a somewhat wooden reconciliation scene between father and daughter, one that failed to pack much emotional punch. Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

 – From Chapter 3

I agree fully with the last sentence above, but the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester comes before, not after, Lear’s recognition scene with Cordelia.

Later, in an otherwise fascinating passage describing how, in Macbeth, even good people are forced to equivocate, Shapiro, after describing the scene in which Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, continues:

In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff, telling him that his rapacious and violent nature renders him unfit to rule in Scotland…

  • From Chapter 10

Actually, Malcolm’s equivocation with Macduff precedes rather than follows the news of Macduff’s slaughtered family.

And from Chapter 13:

The wild drinking scenes aboard ship in Antony and Cleopatra in which Pompey has to be carried off dead drunk…

It is Lepidus, not Pompey, who is carried off dead drunk.

Now, I am sure that James Shapiro knows these plays backwards, and, strange though it seems, these are errors of carelessness, or of poor editing, or both. But however these errors got in, they are terrible howlers, and makes me wonder what other errors have crept in that I am not sufficiently competent to identify. If anyone from Faber & Faber is reading this, may I suggest that every effort be made to correct these (and possibly other) errors, as they are terrible disfiguring blots on what is otherwise a quite superb read.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for posting on this! I had no clue this was out, but obviously people at our library knew since I’m way up on the hold list. I’ll keep your error notes handy when reading…thanks!

    Reply

    • I don’t want to make too much of these errors, as the rest of the book really is terrific, but they seemed worth pointing out, especially as none of the other reviewers I have read appear to have done so. I found teh book compelling, page-turning stuff!

      Reply

  2. Thanks, Old Git. It’s beautiful to see how very well you know Shakespeare and interesting that you detected three astonishing errors.

    I love the writing of James Shapiro. I read his “Contested Will,” and of course, his “1599.” And I have purchased his “1606” but have not yet read it. I am still in the middle of his “Shakespeare in America.”

    Keep up your fun and fascinating writing.

    Reply

  3. Thanks, Old Git. I love James Shapiro’s work. I read his “Contested Will,” and, of course, his “1599.” I have purchased his “1606” but have not yet read it as I am still in the middle of his “Shakespeare in America.”

    It’s great to see you so wonderfully familiar with Shakespeare that you were able to detect three astonishing errors.

    Keep up your fun and fascinating work.

    Reply

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