Goodreads: The Year of Lear
James Shapiro takes a look at a pivotal year in the reign of King James I of England and how political and historical events may have affected Shakespeare and informed his writings.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 seems to be James Shapiro’s attempt at recreating the success of his previous book A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599. However, while A Year in the Life presents a compelling argument about the ways in which current events shaped Shakespeare’s writing, The Year of Lear seems forced to make more tangential connections–perhaps because the dating of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra is not even very certain. At times, the connections seem to disappear altogether, and readers are left with a fascinating account of King James I’s rule, but not much Shakespeare. The Year of Lear may be best suited to history enthusiasts and less so to avid Shakespeare fans.
I have read three books by Shapiro so far and Shapiro is generally very good at stressing that we will never know as much about Shakespeare as we would like. We will certainly never get a glimpse into his inner life or his personal thoughts on why he wrote what he did. What Shapiro tries to give readers instead is an account of what was going on in the world around Shakespeare. By looking at moments that rocked the nation such as the Gunpowder Plot or debates that occupied people’s minds, such as the question of Union, Shapiro argues that we can have a taste of what Shakespeare was experiencing and how it might have affected his work.
This argument works very well in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, but somehow seems less compelling in The Year of Lear. A good deal of Shapiro’s focus does not even seem to be on Shakespeare’s work for much of the play. There is an interesting discussion of Union and how King Lear deals with related questions, a fascinating analysis of Antony and Cleopatra and how Shakespeare diverged from his sources, and a long detour into the supernatural and James’ preoccupation with witches. I never really felt that Shapiro convincingly linked the supernatural back into Shakespeare’s plays despite the fact that he does cover Macbeth. More pertinent is the connection Shapiro makes with England’s preoccupation with “equivocation” and Macbeth. And yet, a good deal of the book simply gets lost in the intricacies of the Gunpowder plot, recusancy and increased anti-Catholic laws, the cracks beginning to show in King James’ reign.
Books on Shakespeare tend to focus on him as an Elizabethan playwright, so I appreciated a book dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s work under King James. I also enjoyed learning a lot about history I never knew before. However, I do think the connections Shapiro makes between history and Shakespeare are not always as strong as they could be–certainly not as strong as they were in Shapiro’s previous work.