Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

"Shapiro effectively shows how the beliefs, fears, and politics of Shakespeare’s day were reflected in his plays. Highly recommended for readers interested in Shakespeare or British History."
– Library Journal
1606 was an eventful year in the history of England. King James, son of Queen Mary of Scotland, was on the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth. The kingdom struggled with what it meant to have a king who ruled both England and Scotland. England's Anti-Catholic repression spurred a rebellion, the Gunpowder Plot, foiled at the last minute. All of England was shaken knowing how close they were to the destruction of government and most of London. It spurred and enforced Anti-Catholic legislation and a search for closeted Catholics, who had a pamphlet on how to 'equivocate' to sidestep direct questioning. Plus, the reoccurring Plague took its toll and closed the theaters and demon possession took even the king's interest.

Forty-two-year-old William Shakespeare had been in a lull for several years. He wasn't publishing his new plays and few of his old ones were available at the bookstalls. He wasn't appearing on stage consistently. He was a ripe old age (for those days) and he had amassed enough money to retire. Were his most productive days behind him?

Not at all. For in 1606 Shakespeare finished his masterpiece King Lear and wrote Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

James Shapiro's book Year of Lear links these three plays to the events of 1606, showing how Shakespeare used buzzwords, current events, and the fears and concerns of his time. Because there is so little information about Shakespeare's life and thought, it is Shapiro's deep knowledge of the plays that enable him to link them to their times. His exploration of King Lear is most successful and of the greatest interest. Readers learn about Shakespeare's sources, how he altered and improved the stories, when they were acted, and about changes made over time. While King James quested for Union, Shakespeare wrote about a king who divided his kingdom with dire consequences.

I am no Shakespeare scholar, and knew only the basics about the Gunpowder Plot and Anti-Catholic repression. I studied King Lear three times during the course of my education, but never have read Antony and Cleopatra. I found the book very interesting and accessible, and I enjoyed it very much.

Read an interview with the author at

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Year of Lear
James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster
Publication Oct 6, 2015
$30 hard cover
ISBN 9781416541646

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