1606 And All That

Review of James Shapiro 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

Australian Book Review, December 2015

1606 was a rough year for England. In late 1605 the Gunpowder plotters nearly blew up the government; a Catholic rebellion in Warwickshire sharpened the country’s fear. England’s ports were closed and an army raised; bonfires lit the streets of London and guards manned the city gates. Later, the Tower drew its bridge and loaded cannons upon the (false) report of King James’s assassination. Through this, James, who had succeeded Elizabeth I three years earlier, sought to unify England and Scotland in the face of parliamentary resistance and hard-crusted xenophobia. Add demonic possession, witch-hunting, exhuming Elizabeth, a boozy state visit from Denmark, exorcism, and the plague, and you have quite a year.

William Shakespeare had a better 1606 than England. After a fallow period, he wrote three of his great tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare biographers have a rum job: aside from the plays, documentary evidence of his life is thin. A good biographer has to be a sophisticated critic and historian, and dusty enough from archival work to deploy the scraps of evidence we have. James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, is all of these. In 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Shapiro continues the approach of his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning biography, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), studying a ‘slice’ of Shakespeare’s life to illuminate his world and works.

Union was a pressing question in 1606; Jacobean audiences were ‘inundated by pageantry, polemic, and gossip about’ it. James, the first king of both England and Scotland, was convinced of the need to join his realms. The king advised his son never to divide territory among offspring, and framed the argument for union to parliament in ‘familial terms’: he was the ‘husband, the whole isle … my lawful wife’. In Lear, Shakespeare responded to ‘James’s rhetoric’ – he began with a king splitting his kingdom between daughters.

Lear is, like most Shakespeare plays, an adaptation – in this case, of a 1590s Queen’s Men play, King Leir. Shapiro’s textual analysis gives ‘a glimpse of Shakespeare as literary architect – performing a gut renovation of the old original’. The Queen’s Men’s version ends in cheerful victory. Shakespeare’s progresses through insanity, betrayal, war, and torture, ending in total bleakness: a mad king weeping, then dying, on the corpse of his daughter. The cost of a divided nation was high.

The play’s study of evil was partly inspired, Shapiro argues, by widespread reports of demonic possession. One case, Anne Gunter’s (‘fits, foaming … vomiting … casting forth of pins from her mouth’ – the usual) attracted James’s attention. A noted witch-hunter in his youth, the king believed in witches and demons ‘but was also deeply curious about how they worked’. He had Anne observed; her fraud was revealed by chaplain Samuel Harsnett, author of A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures – on Catholic priests’ faked exorcisms. The confessions of bogus possessions in Declaration made it a veritable ‘how-to’ manual. Anne Gunter used it for her act. And Shakespeare used it to write Lear. Edgar’s disguise as a ‘mad and possessed beggar’, and the inventive names of his tormenting devils – Mahu, Smulkin, Obdicut – are drawn from Harsnett. Further, Declaration‘s ‘unrelentingly vicious, scabrous, and manipulative world of’ possessions and exorcisms informs Lear’s own wrangling with evil: ‘Were people literally possessed by’ it? Was evil ‘the product of the circumstances of birth or culture? Or was it innate?’

Evil permeated 1606. The previous November, an ambiguous letter (uncannily similar to one in Lear) warned the king’s councillors of treachery: the upcoming parliament was at risk. A search of Westminster’s vaults the night before parliament sat revealed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. If they had gone off, ‘the damage … would have been catastrophic, almost unimaginable: the entire leadership of England, from King James, Queen Anne, and princes Henry and Charles, to the nobility and political representatives and heads of the Church … would have been wiped out in a single blow’. The resulting fires would have killed thousands and destroyed the ‘repositories of English law and history, along with London’s greatest architectural landmarks’. The plotters’ aim was to restore Catholic rule.

They were hunted down and executed in early 1606: hanged, cut down alive, genitals hacked off, guts torn out, and the viscera burned before them. But a more pernicious evil faced civil order: the attorney-general’s search for traitors uncovered a manual on ‘equivocation’, which taught ‘Catholics how to lie under oath’ – sanctioning the ‘saying [of] one thing while deceptively thinking another’. This caused consternation: if equivocation wasn’t quashed, it ‘could tear apart the social fabric no less than the barrels of gunpowder could destroy bodies and buildings’.

‘While we will never know,’ Shapiro writes, how ‘the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath affected Shakespeare personally, it’s nonetheless possible to recover some of the traces it left on his work’, notably Macbeth. The audience, Shapiro suggests, must have responded to the murder of a Scottish king. Similarly, Macbeth‘s interrogation of evil as a supernatural quality versus innate human capacity reflected wider debate: how could the plotters – ordinary men – have contemplated such barbarity? ‘Equivocation permeates the play’ too: ideas of honesty and truth are destabilised; in Macbeth, ‘even the most admirable characters swear and lie’. Shakespeare, Shapiro writes, responded to his cultural moment.

By 1606, England was tiring of their king. When King Christian of Denmark – a hard-charging boozer – made a state visit, his magnificent navy dwarfed England’s ships. Elizabeth’s regime had, it seemed, been replaced by ‘less impressive figures, especially King James’. People missed Elizabeth. When James dug her up to confirm his family’s iconographic legacy – by reordering the tombs of Westminster Abbey – Londoners responded more to the queen’s new memorial, nostalgic for her reign. Shakespeare, aided by close observation of the two kings at court performances, reflects this nostalgia in Antony and Cleopatra. The play ‘juxtaposes the giants that had once inhabited Rome’ with ‘the play’s ostensible victor: the much-diminished’ Octavius – or James.

Core parts of Shakespeare’s life – his loves, views, recreations, youth – are lost to us. But Shapiro’s archival work recovers glimmers of him: the ‘dense network’ of connections linking Shakespeare (innocently) to the Gunpowder plotters and Warwickshire rebels; his daughter Susanna’s prosecution for refusing Communion – a dangerous implication of Catholicism. Impressively, Shapiro triangulates plague deaths in Shakespeare’s parish, revealing how close he came to the horrific 1606 outbreak. More broadly, Shapiro’s measured argument from the historical context shows how the playwright, ‘gifted at understanding what preoccupied and troubled his audiences’, responded to his uncertain times. 1606 is nuanced, erudite, and engaging – an impressive picture of our greatest writer.

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