On “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” by James Shapiro

While many biographers of William Shakespeare have tended to focus almost exclusively on the Bard’s prolific period at the end of the Elizabethan era, in a more recent book entitled The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015), leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro focuses on Shakespeare’s late career resurgence through the lens of a single transformative year in English history: 1606.

It was a year of extraordinary tumult and upheaval –Elizabeth I “The Good Queen Bess” had died only a couple of years prior in 1603. With her death, and consequently the end of the childless Tudors, came the rise of the Stuart dynasty under James VI of Scotland (James I of England). The reign of the new king came with the promise of patching up old problems; James hoped to rule as a peacemaker, both at home and abroad, bringing unity to both England and Scotland, healing the rising religious fervor among the Puritans, Jesuits, and Church of England, and revitalize English art and culture via extravagant pageantry, despite the protestations of Parliament.

Shapiro chooses to begin his book during the holiday season of 1606 at the start of the new year. We are invited to stroll through the dark and whispering alleyways of 17th century London and join six hundred other aristocrats at the Banquetting House of the Palace of WhiteHall where a royal masque is set to be formed (a masque was an opulent, sycophantic stage performance wherein courtiers donned garish costumes and masks, the whole affair was embraced by James I). William Shakespeare, a nationally celebrated actor and playwright in his day who was also a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as well as the Globe Theater, was among the audience members at this masque. He would have known Whitehall well, having staged numerous performances there. At the time, Shakespeare and his troupe had recently been selected by James I to assume the privileged role of The King’s Men.

Shakespeare, himself, never elected to write a masque –a close reading of his plays suggests a personal aversion to flattery– and instead, he focused his talents on questions of political philosophy which would both delight as well as edify the court of crown. Although, at the dawn of the Jacobean era, Shakespeare remained remarkably quiet. Perhaps he was waiting, observing the court of the new king before staging new plays –in the absence of a colorful biography, Shakespeare’s silence sometimes speaks volumes.

Shapiro notes: “Having spent much of the past quarter century researching and writing about Shakespeare’s life, I’m painfully aware that many of the things I’d like to know about –what his political views and religious beliefs were; whom he loved; how good a father, husband, and friend he was; what he did with his time when he wasn’t writing—cannot be recovered. The possibility of writing that sort of biography died by the late seventeenth century, when the last of those who knew Shakespeare took their stories and secrets with them to the grave” (12). Nevertheless, “However much Shakespeare may have preferred to remain the shadows, he can be glimpsed in the glare of what was going on around him” (13).

Therefore, Shapiro guides us through the events of 1606 with an effort to illuminate why Shakespeare might have been relatively silent following the release of Hamlet, before embarking upon a string of seminal plays –King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. At the time, the Palace of Whitehall had come to represent the age –the Banquetting House was initially constructed by Queen Elizabeth when she was courted by Duc d’Alencon back in 1582, but by the Jacobean era it was in great need of repair. King James had grand visions for the palatial revival, but alas the debts inherited from the Tudors prevented him from incurring further debts. He was subsumed by hope, but entrapped by circumstances.

Several key events loomed over the year 1606, and therefore over Shakespeare’s plays, as well. In November 1605, a band of “Papist” terrorists very nearly enacted one of the more notorious acts of treason in history –the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king. The perpetrators were caught, but the spirit of Catholic uprising had spread throughout the country, including in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. There was also a lesser-known armed uprising in Warwickshire of Catholic agitators seeking to undo the Protestant Reformation spurred on by Henry VIII, and many of those in the rebellion were known to Shakespeare. Throughout the country, fear of treason and sedition was high. There were rumors among the lower classes of demon possessions and other supernatural and magical fascinations. Among the gentry, there was a growing nostalgia for the return of the Good Queen Bess, while King James, who had hoped for Union between England and Scotland, spawned an internal identity crisis –was he ruling over the divided empire of Britain, or the separate country of England? The notion of divided kingship was therefore a key theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

As the year progressed, there was another brutal surge of the plague, following the initial outbreak in 1603, a year in which much of England was shut-down by royal decree, and the King’s expensive coronation ceremony was highly restrictive (all the roads were cleared for the king). This plague was a vicious and unforgiving disease that left many dead in its wake. Tens of thousands died in ghastly quarantined houses (some four thousand people died each week). There were those who decided to simply to roam out into the countryside to die, while others hurled themselves out of windows or drowned themselves in the Thames. Religiosity was ascendant and fiery clerics tended to blame the plague on the nation’s own immoral behavior. There was a predictable return of obsessiveness among the commons regarding demonic and satanic intrigue, and other apocalyptic concerns. Public events and gatherings were widely shuttered, including the Globe, and performances were broadly prohibited. Older plays were put under a rigorous regimen of religious sanitization and censorship, perhaps in an effort to appease the growing Puritanical fanaticism. Church attendance was made mandatory, and those who did not comply were prosecuted. Many Englishmen feared either death or the rising tide of civil war –and many of these popular anxieties found their way into Shakespeare’s plays.

By end of year in 1606, further transformation came to England as ships sailed from London to establish the first permanent American colony at Jamestown. Indeed, England was rapidly becoming Britain, and this new era was not lost on Shakespeare. “Shakespeare had spent much of his career writing about Englishness; indeed, a strong claim can be made that his nine Elizabethan English history plays did much to define English identity, if not English exceptionalism. That changed after he became a King’s Man and his attention, and that of his Jacobean audiences, turned from Englishness to Britishness” (40-41).

By 1606, Shapiro portrays Shakespeare as an aging behemoth of the stage. Once a celebritry actor and writer, in truth, acting was a young man’s game, and by now Shakespeare was in his early forties (on average, people died in their mid-forties in 17th century England). At the turn of the 1600s, Shakespeare was no longer beholden to his grueling writing routine of the 1590s. He was also now a rich man. Much of his wealth was invested in real estate, including a tract of land outside Stratford-upon-Avon that he purchased for 440 pounds, roughly the equivalent of twenty years work for a Jacobean schoolmaster. He remained a shareholder in his profitable play company and he was co-owner of the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare had more than enough money to retire in Stratford with his wife Anne (who had recently turned fifty) and their two unmarried daughters, Susanna and Judith. A decade had now passed since the death of their only son, Hamnet. In the winter of his life, Shakespeare knew he did not have much longer to write.

In the summer of 1605, John Wright began selling copies of a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, a play that was first staged in 1590. By now, Shakespeare had moved from his lodgings in Southwark to a quieter, more upscale neighborhood right around the corner from Wright’s bookshop. In need of new material to perform, Shakespeare’s company leaned on their eldest member to craft a new work of genius to please the king. Richard Burbage, the legendary star of the King’s Men who defined his career in such plays as Hamlet, Richard III, and Othello, was set to star as the titular character in King Lear. Burbage was in his late thirties by the time Lear was staged, and thus he was free to portray a more world-wearied, grizzled character, at least according to Jacobean standards. The brilliance of Shakespeare is that he speaks differently to unique audiences in his plays –to the vulgar, Macbeth and King Lear are examinations of evil supernatural events. To a more refined audience, Shakespeare uses these plays to explore the nature and limits of politics, which as Aristotle notes, is itself an examination of human nature.

At any rate, it was in this troubled age that Shakespeare crafted some of his greatest works –a year of superstitious resentments, fantasies, conspiracies, plagues, and religious fervor. The image of the Palace of Whitehall is revisited at the end of Shapiro’s book. He invokes the famous painting of James I wearing the “Mirror of Great Britain” a fabulous jewel which symbolized the prospective union, but it soon became apparent that his hopes were not to be. Like King Lear’s divided kingdom, the Jacobean lineage was to face trouble –there was the death of Queen Anne and Prince Henry (at the age of eighteen in 1612). King James’s daughter, Elizabeth, was married off as Queen of Bohemia but it was short-lived as she was soon exiled, and Prince Charles, who succeeded his father to the throne, would soon confront the many unresolved fiscal, religious, and political problems in the country as civil war and insurrection eventually led to his deposition and public execution on a scaffold outside the reconstructed Banquetting House of Whitehall in 1649.

James S. Shapiro (1955-present) is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. He is a Governor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a member of the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at New York’s Public Theater, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He and his wife, Mary Cregan, reside in New York City. They have a son named Luke.

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, NY. 2015.

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