William Hazlitt thought Hamlet had “a prophetic truth, which is above that of history”. His Romantic urge to read the plays of Shakespeare as timeless and transcendent could not be further from James Shapiro’s passionate need to locate their meaning in their contemporary context.
Nearly ten years ago, the American Shakespeare scholar won the Samuel Johnson prize with 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, a micro-history which did just that. His new book, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, is a repeat performance, in which he applies the same idea to another twelve-month period in the playwright’s life, again deriving his principles from Hamlet’s advice to the players, that the purpose of drama is to “give the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.
Back in 1599, Elizabeth I was still alive. By 1606, the Scottish James I has been on the English throne for three years. Since the new king’s accession in 1603, Shakespeare has been through a relatively fallow creative period (for him), producing only Measure for Measure and the co-authored Timon of Athens. But in 1606 he pens three of his greatest plays: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. As Shapiro shows in exhaustive yet exhilarating depth, these works reflect the dark and anxious public mood which dominated a year which began in the shadow of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, and ended with an outbreak of plague in London, whose victims included Shakespeare’s own landlady.
Shapiro opens at a tangent, describing a theatrical entertainment, put on for James on 5 January 1606 at the Banqueting House, which Shakespeare did not write (although he was probably in the audience). Such elaborate masques – whose expensive stagings cost as much as much as £3000 in Jacobean money to produce and included bejewelled court ladies in the cast – were shamelessly sycophantic, requiring artistic compromises which, Shapiro asserts, Shakespeare was not prepared to make.
At that time, according to Shapiro, the playwright had recently been working on King Lear, a play which offered a much more worrying take on kingship. In coming to the throne, James was bringing together Scotland and England. Lear offered a disturbing counter-portrait of ancient Britain divided. By the time it was first performed at court in December 1606, the hopes of British unity - which had greeted the accession of James, and had then, at least in the view of propagandists, been cemented by the seemingly providential foiling of the Gunpowder plot - were wearing threadbare. 1606 was, as Shapiro laconically puts it, “a good year for Shakespeare but an awful one for England”.
Before the Jacobean era, Shakespeare was obsessed with English history, in plays such as Henry V and Richard II. Afterwards, his vision turns to the wider British perspective (the Union Jack, Shapiro tells us, was first invented in 1606). Macbeth put Scottishness up front, alluding to King James in the prophecy that his reputed ancestor Banquo’s heirs would be kings (the fact that James I’s son Charles I would end up on the scaffold extends dramatic irony beyond the play to an extent that Shakespeare himself could never have imagined). But Macbeth was also far more ambiguously woven into the warp and weft (particularly the warp) of its moment, through its leitmotif of “equivocation”, a term which could not have been more topical at the time.
One of those executed for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot – the planned act of terrorism was devised by a group of disaffected Catholic gentry - was a Jesuit called Henry Garnet, who wrote and secretly circulated a treatise on equivocation, a “how-to” guide showing Catholics how to lie on oath without morally comprising themselves in the eyes of God, through the practice of “mental reservation” and verbal ambiguity. Shapiro’s identification of a topical reference to Garnet in the porter’s scene in Macbeth – he refers to a “farmer” and “Farmer” was one of Garnet’s aliases – seems a little stretched. But when he explains that Ben Jonson also made references to Garnet in the contemporaneous Volpone, his speculation seems more convincing.
Over the past 400 years, Shakespeare has often sparked instances of what can only be called the delirium of interpretation. Shapiro’s 2010 book on Shakespeare’s afterlife, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, points to many such examples, revealing how often antiquarians (including one called Looney and one who ended up in a lunatic asylum) have been hoist on the petard of their own prejudices and fantasies. Such bizarreries could, however, only have arisen as a result of the extraordinary paucity of biographical information about the man.
Shapiro describes The Year of Lear as a “slice of a writer’s life”, but that can only be an equivocation on his part, designed to fit his work into the populist category of biography. He himself admits that Shakespeare’s personal and inner life cannot be recovered, although the minimal quasi-biographical material that exists for this period is intriguing and underwrites the contention that Shakespeare was viscerally connected with the current of his times. Following the Gunpowder Plot came a lesser known armed uprising in Shakespeare’s own Warwickshire in which some of the playwright’s Stratford neighbours were implicated. After the government made it mandatory to swear an oath of allegiance and to attend Protestant church services, Shakespeare’s own daughter Susanna – like Cordelia in Lear – refused, recusant-fashion, to bend to authority and do so, although she ultimately capitulated, and also made a prudent marriage to a well-to-do Protestant.
Shapiro admits that we cannot reconstruct Shakespeare’s personal political or religious convictions. His underlying message – one he made powerfully in his excellent BBC TV series in 2012 – is that the playwright’s genius was a product of the uncertainties of his paranoid times. The way he made words mean so much more than their superficial meaning; the way he chose to enter empathetically into the viewpoints of such a range of characters, whatever their perspectives; the way he made it ultimately impossible to identify his own views - these were a response to the cultural and political impasse of his day, in which it was too dangerous to question the status quo, and also too evidently mindless, to a man of Shakespeare’s calibre, not to question it like some blind propagandist.
Such issues form the creative crux of Shakespeare criticism today. Shapiro does not have quite the cool intellectual elegance found in fellow New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet In Purgatory. What he has instead is a vigorous, burning appetite for historical information and an equally burning desire to impart it. The Year of Lear offers a fascinating account of a case of demonic possession – or rather fraudulent imposition – which fed into both Lear and Macbeth. What Shapiro knows better than most is that the devil is in the details.
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