James Shapiro, ‘1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear’ (2015)

How can ordinary people attempt such horrible and unthinkable crimes? In doing so, what kind of lies or stories must they tell themselves and others? Does this evil come from satanic forces or from within us? What binds us together – be it a family or a marriage or a country – and what destroys these bonds?’

1606 james shapiroI was led to James Shapiro’s remarkable book by the above extract, posted online by a friend about a fortnight after the Paris terrorist attacks. I was struck by Shapiro’s extraordinary telepathy, his seeming ability to put my own thoughts and questions into words. My abiding memory of that time is an enormous sense of bewilderment. How could I explain what had happened not only to my own children, but also the pupils I teach in school? How do you even begin to understand an act as heartless, as inhumane as that?

Well, you start by going to the most humane writer you can think of: you go to Shakespeare. In class I’m often asked why we continue to read him – ‘sir, what is the point of Shakespeare?‘ My answer is that, even after 400 years, he still has an awful lot to say to us – and there’s a great deal more we can learn about him. 1606 is a welcome and wonderful example of that, a book that serves up a rich diet of fascinating narrative; and is filled with tasty morsels about the world within which Shakespeare moved and thought and wrote.

1606 was a remarkable year even by Will’s standards. Not only was it the year in which King Lear was first performed, it was also the one during which Shakespeare wrote both Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. And what’s clear from Shapiro’s book is just how firmly rooted each play is in their immediate political context. Dramatists in Shakespeare’s time did not have sufficient freedom to comment on contemporary politics in an obvious way, but rather had to do so much more obliquely – and Shapiro does a wonderful job of illuminating these references in Shakespeare’s work.

King Lear is the story of a man who divides his kingdom between his daughters, and then sees the country descend into violence and civil war. At the time Shakespeare wrote it, King James I was trying to secure his own place on the English throne by persuading Parliament of the need for full political union between England and Scotland (itself a very timely issue, given the recent rise of the nationalist movement north of the border). James’ fears about the consequences of the break-up of Great Britain are writ large in Shakespeare’s play and are taken to their natural conclusion, with the ending seemingly taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. ‘This outcome must have been shocking,‘ writes Shapiro, ‘the image and horror of the collapse of the state and the obliteration of the royal family akin to the violent fantasy of the Gunpowder plotters a year earlier.

The most successful sections of Shapiro’s book deal with the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s response to it in the form of his shortest play, Macbeth. Shapiro gets right under the skin of this singular event – singular at least for the fact that it was an unsuccessful terrorist outrage which we still remember and celebrate over 400 years later – and shows us not only what was happening in London at that time but also how the Plot linked to Shakespeare’s family in Stratford-upon-Avon. ‘It must have been a novel experience,’ Shapiro writes at one point, ‘for a writer who had spent much of his adult life reading and writing about epochal moments in history to realise he was living through one himself.‘ Chapter by chapter, Shapiro shows how the play links to a number of societal obsessions of that time – including the dangers posed not only by witchcraft and demonic possession, but also by the Catholic ‘enemy within’.

james shapiroOne particularly striking avenue that Shapiro follows concerns the re-emergence of the plague in 1606, in an outbreak that may almost have cost Shakespeare his life. Shapiro reminds us that any references to the plague in his work would have seemed very contemporary to his audiences, and not treated (as we might today) with a more allegorical viewpoint. The plague had far-reaching consequences – at one end of the spectrum, the sound of barking disappeared from London’s streets as the dogs that were thought to carry the disease were rounded up and killed. More decisive for Shakespeare was the closure of the theatres, a move designed to prevent the spread of the disease. The resulting loss of income meant that many theatre companies were unable to continue, and at a stroke removed much of Shakespeare’s competition – whilst the Bard himself, with his royal patron and frequent demands to perform at court was less affected by it.

It’s a vivid reminder of just how crucial daily life could be in shaping not only the writing but also the performing of plays by England’s national poet. If you want to learn more about the world in which Shakespeare lived, then 1606 is a tremendous place to start. It’s one that Shapiro brings sharply into focus, reminding us that for all the differences between now and 400 years ago, so much remains the same.


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