The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606

For a man who wrote so many words in celebrated plays and sonnets, William Shakespeare left no writings – diaries, memos, letters or interviews – to explain how he arrived at his masterpieces. So we are left to guess at his muses and motivations. Columbia Professor of English James Shapiro examines the events of late 1605 and 1606 to see how they might have influenced Shakespeare in the year he wrote three of his greatest plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. The result is an intriguing look at what Shakespeare might have been thinking about as he sat in his lodgings, scribbling dialogue for the next appearance of the “King’s Men.” 1606 was dominated by the fearful aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament when it and England’s ruling class were in session to hear the King; the unpopular efforts of the nation’s new King James to effect political union between England and Scotland; and a ferocious outbreak of plague that brought the country’s largest city to a quarantined standstill. Shapiro finds in Shakespeare’s writings evidence of these events as the playwright grapples with political division and religious divide, especially in Lear. The author is one of the world’s great Shakespeare scholars, so his highly readable volume is richly informed, deeply insightful, and very persuasive. This being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there should be books about the Bard on everyone’s reading list. This should be one.
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