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You might want to read this justifiably well-received literary history multiple times. The title “The Year of Lear” is a slightly misrepresents the scope of the book. It provides an interesting critical analysis of the literary development of the play “King Lear” in historical and cultural context, but it does the same for “Macbeth“, “Antony and Cleopatra” and other Shakespearean plays. The author, James Shapiro, is an expert on Shakespeare. He previously published “A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599”. It spotlighted Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays of that year: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Coincidentally a local theatre company in NYC is staging to mixed reviews, excerpts from all four plays in one four hours plus production, where the actors take on multiple roles. 1606 was the year for Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Some were performed later, and Timon of Athens was a collaborative effort that may have been dated 1605.

What is most interesting about this book is how we are products of our times. The transition from Elizabeth I to James I required flexibility by playwrights and theatre companies. The latter were dependent upon the public largesse of the Crown and the popularity of the actors. Shakespeare’s the King’s Men, was James I’s official company, even though Shakespeare’s Queen’s Men was associated with Elizabeth I. Political and theatrical transitions were smooth for the time. Dramatist wrote for specific actors who could make or break a company.  King Lear was written for Richard Burbage the lead actor of the period. He was curiously also the embodiment for Richard the Third, Hamlet and Othello. The playwright had to be sensitive to the politics of the period. Criticism not masked in the writing could result in time in the Tower or execution. Antony and Cleopatra, written after Elizabeth’s death, may reflect the virgin Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Essex (who she executed), even though it is drawn from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. Shakespeare counterpart Ben Jonson, who wrote Volpone for Burbage, spent time in the Tower for offending King James.

The historical context of this book is current and  compelling. The Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 although unsuccessful in its attempt to kill King James and to blow up Parliament understandably resonated throughout the kingdom, as 9/11 left a cultural impact on the U.S.. Catholics, and in particular Jesuits, were the targeted group. Gowrie Day, the 5th of November, was a day of collective memory. A plot by Catholic English gentry seemed unimaginable given its magnitude. Spain and other Catholic governments were suspected. There even was a conspiracy theory that the Catholic hating Salisbury orchestrated the plot.  Many of the plotters were known or had association with Shakespeare and his family and it was orchestrated from Warwickshire. James’ response was moderate and no worse than Elizabeth’s prosecution of the Jesuits. James’ primary goal was to unify Scotland, England and Wales and he needed moderation to accomplish this. Queen Anne was also a silent Catholic. His kingdom, like Lear’s, was divided. The Union Jack and other trappings of unity were created by James to enlist Parliament in his desire for Great Britain. He was unsuccessful. Parliament held the purse, the Crown was as dependent as a theatre company.

James did not have Elizabeth’s swagger and Antony and Cleopatra may have been a masked dig at James being the less charismatic. As Shapiro would have it, the play was nostalgic for a more heroic period. The Armada was defeated during her reign. James’ legacy was the King James Bible (see my review of the interesting cultural and religious history of this Bible by Alistair McGrath, In the Beginning). He also began the colonization of the New World with the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Over time, perhaps he is the one with the greater legacy.

Communication was relatively slow, but the plague was fast and near constant during this period, particularly in London. It interrupted the theatre schedules, eliminating younger companies that were not subsidized. As Shakespeare was 42 in 1606 this was beneficial to the Kings Men. Shakespeare did not stage masques which were a financial plum. Although some Shakespearean plays incorporated masques (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, the Tempest and Henry VIII), the costly staging (often by Indigo Jones) of dance, pantomime, and song that engaged the Crown and aristocracy in the production were awarded to others.

As is the case with Broadway, plays were often revivals and adaptations of earlier plays that the public knew and would attend. The spectators expected to see a different play every night, so volume restrained creation of original works. King Lear was an adaptation of an earlier, King Leir. Shapiro contrasts the two, with King Lear being substantially the darker. Shakespeare borrowed language for Lear and Edgar from Samuel Harsnett’s treatise on faking demonic possession A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. Often better to be a borrower than a creator be.

The literary references and analysis, the self-censoring of language, the etymology of Shakespearean usage in their historical and cultural context, are a few of the other virtues of this book. If you like history, language, and Shakespeare, this book will be as you like it.