Book review: 1606: William Shakespeare And The Year Of Lear

Shapiro's research into the period has a profound impact on our interpretation of Shakespeare' plays. Photograph: Prakash Singh/Getty
Shapiro's research into the period has a profound impact on our interpretation of Shakespeare' plays. Photograph: Prakash Singh/Getty
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The troubled accession of a new monarch set the stage for two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays

1606: William Shakespeare And The Year Of Lear
James Shapiro
Faber & Faber, £20

At the beginning of this excellent and ingenious book, James Shapiro makes a very smart observation: “Try imagining a version of Shakespeare In Love that ends with a cameo appearance of the Scottish king rather than the Virgin Queen”. Half of Shakespeare’s professional career was under James VI and I. His company was renamed The King’s Men, and the court paid for vestments for them to attend the coronation. As he did with 1599 (and as Charles Nicholl did with The Lodger: Shakespeare On Silver Street) Shapiro takes the historical context, rigorously researched and uncondescendingly presented, and allows the greater significance in terms of Shakespeare’s life and work to shimmer around it. We may not get definitive answers, but we get some very telling suggestions.

How did Shakespeare respond to the new monarch, with his interest in political union and obsession with witches? According to Shapiro’s chronology, Shakespeare writes little or nothing between 1603, with his final Elizabethan tragedy, Othello, and 1606, when he writes both King Lear and Macbeth. Of course, in between, there was the real life political theatre of the plot by Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and others. Although some scholars would date All’s Well That Ends Well to 1604-5, and perhaps the fragment of Sir Thomas More to 1605-6, Shapiro’s central point stands: two of Shakespeare’s greatest works had direct links to the interests of the king.

King Lear built on an earlier tragedy, King Leir, and Shapiro writes cleverly of the changes Shakespeare made. It is his most negative play, as Shapiro says, with variations on “nothing”, “never”, “no” and words beginning with “un-” occurring with ominous regularity. He identifies two things which Shakespeare neither found in the source nor had hitherto attempted. The first is the depiction of possession we get with Edgar’s feigned madness and Lear’s real madness, which chimed with one of the king’s notorious concerns. Then we have the forged letter which Edmund uses to turn Gloucester against Edgar. Shapiro links this to the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot, with similar letters that “palter to us with a double sense”, as Macbeth would have it. Shapiro also notes, quite brilliantly, that parliament issued a “Wanted” poster for one of the plotters, Thomas Percy, and in King Lear Edgar’s picture is sent “far and near, that all the kingdom may have note of him”.

That Shakespeare would then turn to a Scottish play seems almost inevitable. It was not the only one: we know that a play based on the Gowrie plot to assassinate James was suppressed; and there are lost plays called Robert II, King Of Scots and Malcolm, King Of Scots. The claims by the witches in Act I, Scene III are reminiscent of James’ conviction that witchcraft might be deployed to wreck the vessel on which he was returning with Anne of Denmark. Act IV has the most overt reference to James with the procession of eight kings – the number, minus Mary, between Banquo’s son and James, though this scene may have been interpolated by Thomas Middleton. It is odd, since the audience would, I presume, expect Fleance to be crowned at the end, to guarantee the succession to James, rather than Duncan’s son Malcolm. It hardly bodes well for his reign. Shapiro also notes the use of “equivocation” in the play, and sets it against the moral panic that Catholics could use rhetorical and psychological tricks to lie brazenly. When Macbeth says the fiend “lies like truth” he is almost defining what jurists and lawyers feared most about Jesuits.

I am slightly less convinced by the parallels Shapiro finds in Antony And Cleopatra, mostly concerning the visit of James’ brother-in-law, Christian IV. The Danish guests apparently had fairly Bacchanalian tastes – Christian boasted of drinking 30 or 40 glasses of wine in one evening – and Shapiro links this high-profile debauchery to the onboard drinking in the play, which, as he notes, has no counterpoint in Plutarch. It is a bibulous play, with “drink”, “drunk”, “cup” and “wine” mentioned over 35 times. As Cleopatra says: “the quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us, and present / Our Alexandrian revels; Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ the posture of a whore.” It seems to me The Winter’s Tale might be a more significant text: given the play is about a mother wrongly accused of adultery, redeemed by becoming a living statue, it might conceivably be linked to the partial rehabilitation of Mary, Queen of Scots, James’ mother, in which statuary and reburial played prominent roles.

What is as significant is what Shakespeare does not do. Unlike Ben Jonson he does not produce court masques – though Shapiro argues the masque in The Tempest alludes to the new dramatic tradition. Nor does he produce volumes of epigrams for court. And given the King’s beliefs about tobacco, I was surprised to discover Shakespeare never mentions smoking. Why would Shakespeare’s late collaboration, Henry VIII, end with Elizabeth? Is there a link between the chivalric romance of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the recently deceased Prince Henry, a keen proponent of the same? Shapiro rekindles interest in the plays with every page, and I could imagine him writing something fascinating about every year, month and day of Shakespeare’s life.