Wednesday, 12 July 2017

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

Review by Catriona Troth

What we thought:
I first heard the name James Shapiro when I was lucky enough to interview the curators of the 2012 exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum. They had cited 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare as an influential source and, inspired by that terrific exhibition, I bought the book.

1606, the follow-on book, again focuses on a single year – a remarkable one both for Britain and for Shakespeare.

As Shapiro notes, we think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright. But some of his greatest plays were written after the accession of James I, when as a member of the King’s Men, he had exceptional access to the goings-on at court.

1606 is three years into James’ reign. The country is still absorbing the shock of the Gunpowder Plot when, on the 5th November 1605, parliament and monarchy came within a whisker of being wiped out in a single night. In the year that follows that near miss, as the plotters are hunted down, Shakespeare writes not one, but three of his most important tragedies – King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Shapiro’s fascinating narrative painstakingly uncovers the source material for those three plays and shows how the dangerous politics of the times interweave with the plays - and with Shakespeare’s own life.

Even if you know the plays well, it is easy, at more than 400 years’ remove, to miss the subtle references that Shakespeare stitched into his texts. Indeed he seems to have been exceptionally politically astute as – unlike his contemporaries Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe – he seems to have stayed largely out of trouble while still providing powerful commentary on events unfolding around him. Shapiro rebuilds those lost connections and allows us to glimpse how the plays must have been received by their first audiences – inside the court and out.

A compelling read for historians and Shakespeare lovers alike.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare by James Shapiro; Shakespeare: The World As A Stage by Bill Bryson

Avoid if you dislike immersing yourself in detailed scholarship. Or if you’re a Shakespeare conspiracy theorist.

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of ale and a DVD of your favourite performance of Lear, Macbeth or Anthony and Cleopatra

Genre: Non-fiction, History

Available on Amazon

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