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In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare's great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn--King Lear--then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
It was a memorable year in England as well--and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation's political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom.
It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.
The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-06-01
- Reviewer: Staff
Shakespeare expert Shapiro (Contested Will) delivers a fascinating account of the events of 1606 and how they may have influenced three tragedies the Bard is thought to have written that year or soon afterwards. He starts by acknowledging that writers, including Shapiro himself, have traditionally treated Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright instead of a Jacobean one, though some of his greatest plays are from the latter era. Shapiro goes on to trace the Shakespearean implications of a year that included the trial (and execution) of Guy Fawkes for the Gunpowder Plot, plague, European royals visiting England, and family drama. It’s an inherently fraught task—“I’m painfully aware that many of the things I’d like to know about him... cannot be recovered”—but Shapiro convincingly demonstrates how closely contemporary events are reflected in the plays. The parties in Antony and Cleopatra that leave Pompey drunk “have no source in Plutarch,” so the reports of such events during the visit of Danish King Christian seem a likelier source. The other tragedies explored here—Macbeth and, of course, the titular King Lear—show similar contemporary influences on both plot and theme. Shapiro is as compelling when documenting historical events as when analyzing Shakespeare’s text, and his sizable bibliographic essay provides ample fodder for readers wanting to dive deeper into his research. (Oct.)