Monday, 25 April 2016

The Year of Lear / James Shapiro

4 out of 5 stars
Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

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.

 So this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I didn’t realize that earlier in the year and it is just fortuitous that this has become my year of binge-watching and binge-reading the Bard. I’m having a grand time doing it too.

I heard about this book on CBC radio and since I think I saw King Lear twice last year (once live & once via film), I was intrigued enough to put a hold on our public library’s copy. I am so glad that I did! I haven’t read a great deal about the Bard himself, but I am going to have to rectify that lapse in coming months.

The Year of Lear is a fascinating look at this eventful year in William Shakespeare’s world. I usually think of him as an Elizabethan playwright, but as the author of this book reminds us, he also wrote during the reign of King James (he of the famous Biblical translation). Politics had changed a lot—witness the fact that 1606 had England dealing with the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (and they have been celebrating Guy Fawkes Day ever since!) Not to mention the ravages of plague, visits of foreign rulers, and many other events which would have impinged on Shakespeare’s life.

What I had not realized was how prolific 1606 was for the playwright—he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year! If you are interested in how current events shaped all three plays, give this book a try.

Accessible writing, fascinating history, and a timeless playwright. What more could one desire?


  1. Hi Wanda

    Great post, I am thinking of getting this for my brother based on your comments that way I can take a quick peek before I mail it.


    1. I think you & your brother will both enjoy it, Guy. It is excellent!