Book Review: The Year of Lear
by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 2015
James Shapiro’s wonderfully readable new book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 at first glance seems like a straightforward sequel to his well-regarded 2005 book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. The organizing concept is the same in both books: look at one year in the great dramatist’s life and read the main social, political, and personal events of that year into the plays that date from that time.
The year 1606 is an obviously attractive one in this context: England has a new monarch, the first of a new dynasty, plague is rampant, and the country is still reeling from the uncovering and thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot. And it’s from 1606 that we think we can date three of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, and, as per the title of Shapiro’s book, King Lear. As in the earlier book, Shapiro hunts out the possible ramifications these and other events might have had for Shakespeare’s own life – a landlady of his died of the plague, for instance, and some of the organizing meetings for the Gunpowder Plot happened on Stratford property very near to his own, and so on. Against such a background, Shapiro weaves a very novelistic story about a once-famous writer who’s lately been having creative problems but is determined to overcome them: “In 1606 Shakespeare wasn’t ready to retire or rest on his past achievements,” Shapiro tells us at the outset of his tale, “he still had more to say and hadn’t yet tired of the grueling writing regimen that had defined his life since his midtwenties.”
But even such a brief line shows fairly clearly that although The Year of Lear might be a thematic sequel of sorts to A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, it leans at least as heavily on another book of Shapiro’s, Contested Will from 2010, in which the still-vexed question of Shakespearean authorship is given a thorough examination – a thorough one, and a sympathetic one: Shapiro’s witty and stoutly-worded conclusion settles the question in favor of the man from Stratford.
Without that conclusion, The Year of Lear would be much more of an uphill struggle for its author. With that conclusion, a kind of alternate reality can settle over the book – an alternate reality in which we know pretty much everything about William Shakespeare … maybe not as much as we know about meticulously-documented figures like Norman Mailer or Ned Rorem, but certainly enough to allow Shapiro to follow Shakespeare around in the streets of London, regularly touching base with what he’s doing. “In the summer of 1605 John Wright began selling copies of a newly printed play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir, which had first been staged around 1590,” we’re told in one typical passage. “Not long after, William Shakespeare, who lived just a short stroll from Wright’s bookshop, picked up a copy.” It seems so simple: Shakespeare went for a stroll, got a hot bagel from a street vendor, bought a book, and met Harold Pinter for a stroll through Regents Park – although we can’t know for certain the exact course their stroll took.
Likewise when it comes to the genesis of Antony and Cleopatra, which Shapiro discusses at length:
Shakespeare’s main source for a belated sequel [to Julius Caesar] would have been The Life of Antony, the longest and arguably the richest of Plutarch’s fifty biographical portraits. At roughly thirty-seven thousand words, it is longer than Hamlet, a substantial read. Of all Plutarch’s biographies, it held a special attraction for Shakespeare and was a story to which he found himself returning in the early years of James’s reign. Whether it was because he knew he wasn’t quite done with it yet, because he was discovering in it connections to new cultural preoccupations, or because he found himself identifying with the character of Antony – or even some combination of all of these – we just don’t know.
We just don’t know – it could be any one of those three things, or some combination of them. This kind of alternate-reality accumulation grows richer and more detailed as the book progresses, apparently heedless of Shapiro’s own warnings about “the paucity of surviving evidence” or, as he puts it, “One of the challenges of writing about so pivotal a year in Shakespeare’s creative life is that he kept such a low profile, preferring to remain in the shadows.”
You’d hardly guess at that low profile from reading The Year of Lear. Shapiro presents us with a playwright’s biography that’s fleshed out in nearly all of its details. But in reality, virtually everything he calmly claims about his subject is his own conjecture. We don’t know that Shakespeare was living a short stroll from John Wright’s shop in 1605. We don’t know that he visited Wright’s shop, much less that he “picked up” a copy of King Leir (Wright and his son were responsible for printing a veritable river of gossip and anecdote – certainly they didn’t lack for the ability to crow about the patronage of the famous William Shakespeare). We don’t know that he read King Leir. We don’t know anything about Shakespeare’s personal reactions to Plutarch’s Life of Antony. We don’t know that he identified with the character of Antony, or any other character, in that play or any other play. We don’t know that Shakespeare preferred to remain in the shadows – we don’t know that the paucity of surviving evidence has that as its explanation. We don’t, for that matter, know that Shakespeare composed King Lear in 1606.
What we know, as Shapiro’s book tells its dramatic story, is mainly what kind of dramatic story Shapiro would like to be true about William Shakespeare. His playwright is a hard-working, unpretentious guy, practical, sure, but not greedy, and certainly not one to debase himself with furtive quests for status and patronage, hence his steadfast refusal to dabble in the lucrative field of writing masques for the court of King James:
There was a price to be paid for writing masques, which were shamelessly sycophantic and propagandistic, compromises he didn’t care to make. He must have also recognized that it was an elite and evanescent art form that didn’t suit his interests or talents. If this was a typical Jacobean masque, the evening’s entertainment devolved into serious drinking and feasting after the closing dance. By then, I suspect, Shakespeare was already back at his lodgings, doing what he had been doing well into the night for over fifteen years: writing.
Like so much of this book, virtually every line of that passage is pure fictionalizing guesswork. We don’t know the reason why Shakespeare didn’t compose court masques; we don’t know what he thought of them at all, much less that he thought of them as “elite and evanescent” (it’s only Shapiro’s Shakespeare who would have thought “elite” was pejorative anyway, and what does that “evanescent” mean, when we can read Ben Jonson’s masques today, five hundred years after he wrote them?); we don’t know that Shakespeare disdained serious drinking and feasting; we don’t know that he excused himself from the royal company in order to go back home and write; we certainly don’t know that writing all night had been his routine for fifteen years. When it comes to other writers of the time, writers who occasionally talked about themselves, writers who wrote letters, writers about whom there was a fund of personal anecdotes – in other words, every single other writer of the time except William Shakespeare – we might have the material to make such inferences. With Shakespeare, the rest is silence.
The many readers who enjoyed A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare will love The Year of Lear for the same reasons: here’s the most famous writer in the history of the world, seen through the focal point of one year among the many in which he was active as a literary phenomenon in the London of first Elizabeth and then James. We get his thought, his personal reactions, sometimes his daily itinerary, and we get Shapiro’s always-lively inquiries into the three plays on which he focuses this time around. Readers who like this sort of thing – Shakespeare weeping alone in bed over the loss of his dear little Hamnet, Shakespeare out for a book-buying stroll, Shakespeare personally identifying with some of his source-texts (in a very reassuringly 20th-century way) – will happily add this book to their Shakespeare shelves. But even readers who didn’t think Contested Will was quite as open-and-shut as its author did will still notice quite a bit of stage business taking place in these pages.