The Year of Lear

By James Shapiro

The Year of Lear is a direct sequel to A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, picking up the Bard’s story five or so years later. I leave the date vague because the title isn’t all that apt. As I understand it King Lear was mostly written in 1605, which is also when the Gunpowder Plot, the signal event discussed here, was discovered. Nor do we spend that much time talking about the life of Shakespeare, as opposed to his plays. Instead this is a literary-historical survey that looks at those “connections to [the] moments of creation” surrounding the writing of King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra, all assumed to have been composed around this time.

Of course we don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life anyway, so Shapiro is perfectly justified in going further afield. There’s only so much you can do with the scattered biographical evidence that we possess. Instead, more time is spent on pulling out threads from the plays, like an entire chapter discussing the special significance the word “equivocate” had and why Shakespeare might have been so taken with it. I found this interesting stuff, even if in the end it didn’t tell me a lot about the tragedy of Macbeth, and could be overdone (for example, I don’t think Macduff is being equivocal so much as ambiguous when he says “He has no children”).

It’s a shame, but it seems as though this is the only form of literary criticism now tolerated by the general public: playing as a sort of background music to biography and cultural history. Still, we should be thankful we’re getting this much. Shapiro is an expert on Shakespeare’s world and makes that world come to life with lots of energy and insight. Some of what he has to say is worth making notes on, like the difference in the use of “you” and “thou” at the time, and the relevance this has in Act One of Lear. Other parts are more of a stretch. For example, Shapiro quotes a letter from the minor courtier Sir John Harington, likening the revels of King James hosting King Christian of Denmark to that of those held by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba, to Shakespeare’s writing of Anthony and Cleopatra. “It’s an uncommon coincidence,” Shapiro concludes, “that even as Shakespeare was writing of a famous encounter with one African queen, Harington’s letter describes another.” I don’t think this rises to the level of any sort of coincidence. Every work of art has countless connections to the moments of its creation, but I doubt this is one of them.

The year of Lear? I can’t think of anything else that 1606 is remembered for today. And yet the play left so little immediate impression that we can’t even say for sure when it was written or first performed. The afterlife or long tail of literature plays out in mysterious and sometimes random ways, leading one to reflect on what will last from our own literary culture. Or whether anything will at all.

Review first published online May 4, 2021.

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