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The Year of Lear

Shakespeare in 1606



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About The Book

Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America, shows how the tumultuous events in 1606 influenced three of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies written that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. The Year of Lear is irresistible—a banquet of wisdom” (The New York Times Book Review).

In the years leading up to 1606, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

It was a memorable year in England as well—a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom.

It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

“Exciting and sometimes revelatory, in The Year of Lear, James Shapiro takes a closer look at the political and social turmoil that contributed to the creation of three supreme masterpieces” (The Washington Post). He places them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. “His great gift is to make the plays seem at once more comprehensible and more staggering” (The New York Review of Books). For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.


The Year of Lear 1

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. Not long after, William Shakespeare, who lived just a short stroll from Wright’s bookshop, picked up a copy. A few years earlier Shakespeare had moved from his lodgings in Southwark, near the Globe Theatre, to quarters in a quieter and more upscale neighborhood, on the corner of Silver and Muggle Streets in Cripplegate. His landlords were Christopher and Marie Mountjoy, Huguenot artisans who made their living supplying fashionable headwear for court ladies. The walk from his new lodgings to Wright’s bookshop took just a few minutes. Crossing Silver Street, Shakespeare would have passed his parish church, St. Olave’s, before heading south down Noble Street toward St. Paul’s Cathedral, passing Goldsmiths’ Hall as Noble Street turned into Foster Lane, emerging onto the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside. With Cheapside Cross to his left, and St. Paul’s and beyond it the Thames directly ahead, Shakespeare would have turned west, passing St. Martin’s Lane and then the Shambles, home to London’s butchers. Christ Church was now in sight, and just beyond it Wright’s shop, abutting Newgate market.

The advertisement on the title page of King Leir—“As it hath been divers and sundry times lately acted”—made it sound like a recent play, an impression reinforced by the quiet omission of who wrote and performed it. But Shakespeare knew that it was an old Queen’s Men’s play and probably also knew (though we don’t) who had written it. The Queen’s Men were a hand-picked all-star troupe formed under royal patronage back in 1583. For the next decade they were England’s premier company, touring widely, known for their politics (patriotic and Protestant), their didacticism, and their star comedian, Richard Tarleton. If he wasn’t busy acting that day in another playhouse, Shakespeare may have been part of the crowd that paid a total of thirty-eight shillings to see the Queen’s Men stage King Leir at the Rose Theatre in Southwark on April 6, 1594 (in coproduction with Lord Sussex’s Men), or part of the smaller gathering two days later for a performance that earned twenty-six shillings—solid though not spectacular box office receipts.

Looking back, Shakespeare would have recognized that their appearance at the Rose marked the beginning of the end for the Queen’s Men, who the following month sold off copies of some of their valuable play-scripts to London’s publishers, then took to the road, spending the next nine years touring the provinces until, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, they disbanded. That year also marked the ascendancy of the company Shakespeare had recently joined as a founding shareholder, the Chamberlain’s Men, who soon succeeded the Queen’s Men as the leading players in the land, a position they had held ever since. King Leir had been among the plays the cash-poor Queen’s Men had unloaded in 1594, and Edward White, who bought it, quickly entered his right to publish the play in the Stationers’ Register. But for some reason, perhaps sensing that the play had little prospect of selling well, White never published it. Over a decade would pass before his former apprentice John Wright obtained the rights from him and the play finally appeared in print.

One of the many towns where the Queen’s Men had performed in the late 1580s had been Stratford-upon-Avon. In the absence of any information about what Shakespeare was doing in his early twenties, biographers have speculated that he may have begun his theatrical career with this company, perhaps even filling in for one of the Queen’s Men, William Knell, killed in a fight shortly before the troupe was to perform in Stratford in 1587. It’s an appealing story—something, after all, must have brought him from Stratford to London—but there’s no evidence to substantiate it, nor is there any that would confirm that Shakespeare briefly acted with or wrote for this veteran company. But what is certain from the evidence of his later work is that he was deeply familiar with their repertory.

Scholars can identify with confidence fewer than a dozen plays, mostly histories, performed by the Queen’s Men during their twenty-year run. Several of their titles will sound familiar: The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, The Troublesome Reign of King John, and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. A defining feature of Shakespeare’s art was his penchant for overhauling the plots of old plays rather than inventing his own, and no rival company provided more raw material for Shakespeare than the Queen’s Men. He absorbed and reworked their repertory in a series of history plays from the mid to late 1590s now familiar to us as Richard the Third, King John, the two parts of Henry the Fourth, and Henry the Fifth. Shakespeare’s attitude to the Queen’s Men was surely ambivalent. Their plays, which likely thrilled and inspired him in his formative years as playgoer, actor, and then playwright, had stuck with him. Yet he also would have recognized that their jingoistic repertory had become increasingly out of step with the theatrical and political times.

Shakespeare was a sharp-eyed critic of other writers’ plays and his take on the Queen’s Men’s repertory could be unforgiving, rendering these sturdy old plays hopelessly anachronistic. For a glimpse of this we need only recall his parody of an unforgettably bad couplet from their True Tragedy of Richard the Third: “The screeking raven sits croaking for revenge / Whole herds of beasts come bellowing for revenge.” These lines from the old play, whose awfulness had clearly stuck with Shakespeare, resurface years later when Hamlet, interrupting the play-within-the-play and urging on the strolling players, deliberately mangles the couplet: “Come, ‘the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge’” (3.2.251–52). At best this was a double-edged tribute, reminding playgoers of the kind of old-fashioned revenge drama they once enjoyed while showing how a naturalistic revenge play such as Hamlet had supplanted the dated and over-the-top style of the Queen’s Men.

Six years had passed since Shakespeare had last refashioned a Queen’s Men’s play in Henry the Fifth, a brilliant remake of their popular The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. If anything, the pace of change in those intervening years, especially the last three, had wildly accelerated. The Elizabethan world that had produced King Leir and in which the play had once thrived, like the playing company that had performed it, was no longer. But these years had enabled Shakespeare, as part owner of his playhouse and shareholder in his acting company, to prosper financially. When Wright began selling copies of King Leir in July of 1605 (two months usually lapsed between the time a book was registered and sold, and he had registered it in May), Shakespeare was likely away in Stratford-upon-Avon to close on a large real estate deal, so he couldn’t have picked up a copy until his return to London.

King Leir, like so many histories and tragedies of the 1590s, was fixated on royal succession. These plays spoke to a nation fearful of foreign rule or the outbreak of civil war after its childless queen’s death. For a decade that stretched from Titus Andronicus and his Henry the Sixth trilogy through Richard the Third, King John, Richard the Second, the two parts of Henry the Fourth, Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, Shakespeare displayed time and again his mastery of this genre, exploring in play after play who had the cunning, wit, legitimacy, and ambition to seize and hold power. Those concerns peaked in the opening years of the seventeenth century as the queen approached her end, but vanished after 1603, when King James VI of Scotland, who was married and had two sons and a daughter, succeeded peacefully to the throne of England. There would be no Spanish invasion and no return to the kind of civil strife that had torn the land apart in the late fifteenth century. In an unusually explicit allusion to the political moment, Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 107 shortly after James’s accession that:

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,

And the sad augurs mock their own presage;

Incertainties now crown themselves assured,

And peace proclaims olives of endless age.

(Sonnet 107, 5–8)

The language is elliptical but the meaning clear enough: all those anxious predictions that preceded the eclipse of Elizabeth—that “mortal moon”—were misplaced; the crowning of the new king who promoted himself as a peacemaker had put an end to these “Incertainties.”

But other uncertainties remained. The period leading up to and following the change in regime appeared less smooth in retrospect than Sonnet 107 would on its surface suggest, for the nation and for Shakespeare professionally. The Chamberlain’s Men, now established at the Globe, found themselves facing stiffer competition than ever. Back in 1594 there had been only three permanent outdoor playhouses in London: the Theatre and the Curtain in Shoreditch, and the Rose on Bankside. Since then, new theaters continued to sprout around the City, competing for the pennies and shillings of London’s playgoers. Spectators were now flocking to see the Admiral’s Men at the Fortune Theatre (to the northwest, in the parish of St. Giles without Cripplegate), as well as to see Worcester’s Men perform at the Boar’s Head Inn (in Whitechapel), and to playhouses at St. Paul’s and Blackfriars, smaller indoor sites where boy companies performed plays by London’s edgier young dramatists. Aging public playhouses—the Curtain and the Swan in Southwark near Paris Garden Stairs—also peeled away customers.

Other and unexpected threats to the prosperity of Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders soon emerged. In early 1603, their influential patron, the Lord Chamberlain George Carey (second cousin to Queen Elizabeth), became seriously ill. More bad news followed. First came a Privy Council announcement on March 19, 1603, that because of concerns about civil unrest as Elizabeth lay dying, all public performances were canceled “till other direction be given.” News the following week of the queen’s death and the declaration that the King of Scots was now King of England as well, while reassuring the English that regime change would not be bloody, also meant that during this mourning period the playhouses were unlikely to open anytime soon. London’s playing companies must have been rocked by the next piece of disturbing news, as they waited to see how supportive of the theater King James would be. One of James’s first royal proclamations, on May 7, 1603, was to ban performances on the Sabbath. It was a punishing decree that cut into theatrical profits, for Sunday was the only day of the week that most playgoers weren’t laboring at work. Was this merely a sop to theater-hating Puritans or was it a sign that the new king saw little value in public theater?

The drumbeat of setbacks for Shakespeare and his company continued. King James didn’t wait for the ailing George Carey to die before replacing him as Lord Chamberlain. This meant that Shakespeare was no longer a Chamberlain’s Man, merely the servant of the disempowered Carey (who passed away in early September). The theater companies were facing their own succession struggle, one that would have to be resolved in the wake of the national one. At stake were royal patronage and the chance to be favored at court. It could not have been reassuring that the Earl of Nottingham, patron of their longtime rivals the Admiral’s Men, had secured a place in the new monarch’s inner circle.

Other unexpected and nagging threats emerged as the change in government encouraged those who wanted a share of the lucrative business of staging plays. Richard Fiennes, an aristocrat badly in need of money, proposed that in exchange for an annual payment of forty pounds he be awarded a patent allowing him to collect a poll tax of “a penny a head on all the playgoers in England.” Fiennes argued that since playgoing was a voluntary activity (much like what the king himself had deemed the “vile custom of tobacco taking”), it could be regulated and taxed by the state, and he would be happy to pay for overseeing that activity in exchange for a hefty cut of box office receipts. Since admission to the public playhouses started at a penny, Fiennes’s proposal was outrageously greedy. Luckily for London’s actors, nothing came of this nor of another proposal not long after from the other end of the social ladder, by a disabled veteran of the Irish wars, Francis Clayton. Fiennes had hoped to obtain a royal patent to tax playgoers; Clayton appealed to Parliament to tax performances, seeking for himself a “small allowance of two shillings out of every stage play that shall be acted . . . to be paid unto me or my assigns during my life by the owners and actors of those plays and shows.” It must have struck the players as absurd: anyone with a scheme and some political connections could submit a plan to cut into their hard-earned profits. Fiennes’s and Clayton’s proposals—although they went nowhere—were one more headache for Shakespeare and his fellows, vulnerable at this time of transition and of freewheeling and often unpredictable political largess.

Then, suddenly, came news that profoundly altered the trajectory of Shakespeare’s career: King James chose Shakespeare and his fellow players as his official company. After May 19, 1603, Shakespeare and eight others were to be known as the King’s Men, authorized to perform not only at the court and the Globe but also throughout the realm, if they wished to tour. It was more than a symbolic title; Shakespeare was now a Groom of the Chamber, and he and the other shareholders were each issued four and a half yards of red cloth for royal livery to be worn on state occasions.

Exactly how and why Shakespeare’s company was elevated to the position of King’s Men has never been satisfyingly explained. Their talent and reputation surely played a part. So too did a little-known English actor named Laurence Fletcher. Fletcher had spent time acting in Scotland, where King James had come to know and like him. This relationship accounts for why Fletcher’s name appears first, right before Shakespeare’s, in the list of those designated as the King’s Men, though he had never been affiliated with the company before this. Fletcher was merely a player; though a valuable go-between, he could not, by himself, have been responsible for Shakespeare’s company’s swift promotion. More powerful brokers were undoubtedly involved. One of them might have been the younger brother of their dying patron, Sir Robert Carey, who had ridden posthaste from London to Edinburgh to bring James word of Elizabeth’s death. Others might have been Shakespeare’s former patron, the Earl of Southampton, newly released from the Tower, or perhaps the Earl of Pembroke, an admirer of Richard Burbage and a patron of poets and artists. Mystery will always surround how Shakespeare and his fellow players were chosen to be the King’s Men. What matters is that it happened and that they had won their own succession struggle—and the plays that Shakespeare would subsequently write would be powerfully marked by this turn of events.

The King’s Men did not have much of a chance to celebrate their good fortune, for London was soon struck by a devastating outbreak of plague. Even during years that were considered safe, Elizabethan London had rarely been entirely free of plague: there were forty-eight reported plague deaths in 1597; eighteen in 1598; sixteen in 1599; and four in 1600. The fresh outbreak apparently began in Lisbon in 1599, then spread to Spain and elsewhere on the Continent. By February 1603 it had reached London. By May, plague deaths had risen to more than twenty a week. Then, suddenly, the number of Londoners dying from the plague skyrocketed: by the end of July more than a thousand were perishing every week. James had just arrived from Edinburgh for his coronation and massive precautions were taken to prevent the infected from getting near him. Travel near Westminster by road or river was barred to ordinary citizens, and following the coronation James quickly withdrew to the relative safety of Hampton Court. The planned festivities and public celebration would have to wait.

King James wasn’t the only one fleeing the plague-ridden city. Even those who were infected tried to. A court official reported that “divers come out of the town and die under hedges in the fields, and divers places further off, whereof we have experience weekly here at Hampstead, and come in men’s yards and outhouses if they be open, and die there.” Some of the plague-stricken hurled themselves out of windows or drowned themselves in the Thames. Others turned to drink or to religion, and special prayers were read in London’s churches.

In late August, the height of the outbreak, desperate London authorities were reporting more than three thousand deaths a week, out of a population of roughly two hundred thousand. By the time cold weather slowed the outbreak that winter, nearly a third of the population had been struck: more than thirty thousand Londoners had died, while another thirty thousand or so were infected but managed to survive the terrible visitation. Enough fatalities were still being reported that winter and spring for the playhouses to remain closed. They reopened briefly in April 1604, before the return of plague with the onset of warmer weather led to their closing again until September. The long outbreak of plague meant that the King’s Men had to maintain themselves by touring through rural England’s towns and visiting great houses (a royal handout of thirty pounds also helped). Local records of their touring are spotty, but there are payments to them between 1603 and 1605 for performances at Bath, Shrewsbury, Coventry, Ipswich, Maldon, Oxford, Barnstaple, and Saffron Walden.

It took an underemployed playwright turned pamphleteer, Thomas Dekker, in his mordantly titled The Wonderful Year, to capture the full horrors of what it meant to be locked up by the authorities in an infested house:

What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house, hung (to make it more hideous) with lamps dimly and slowly burning in hollow and glimmering corners? Where all the pavement should, instead of green rushes, be strewed with blasted rosemary, withered hyacinths, fatal cypress, and yew, thickly mingled with heaps of dead men’s bones. The bare ribs of a father that begat him, lying there; here the chapless hollow skull of a mother that bore him. Round about him a thousand corpses; some standing bolt upright in their knotted winding sheets; others half-moldered in rotten coffins, that should suddenly yawn wide open, filling his nostrils with noisome stench, and his eyes with the sight of nothing but crawling worms. And to keep such a poor wretch waking, he should hear no noise but of toads croaking, screech-owls howling, mandrakes shrieking. Were not this an infernal prison?

It’s a challenge, four centuries later, to imagine the effects of this nightmare on those fortunate enough to survive.

While plague closures had suppressed the demand for new plays at the Globe, the royal family’s desire for fresh entertainment was proving insatiable. Under Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s company expected that two or three of its best plays each year would be selected for performance before the court between Christmas and Shrovetide. While King James may not have enjoyed watching plays as much as he enjoyed hunting, he nonetheless called for many more performances than his predecessor had, and expected most of these from the company he patronized. The King’s Men acted before James nine times in 1603–4, ten times during the expanded Christmas season of 1604–5, and yet another ten times during the similarly expanded winter holidays in 1605–6—more court appearances in this brief span than they had made altogether before Elizabeth.

Frustratingly, the names of plays and those who wrote them are almost never listed in records of court performances. But a remarkable Revels Account of what was staged at court during the holiday season of 1604–5 gives us a snapshot of how central a role Shakespeare played. These records tell us that “Shaxberd” was responsible for seven of the ten plays performed before king and court between Hallowmas Day in early November and Shrove Tuesday in late February: Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Henry the Fifth, and The Merchant of Venice twice, that encore performance “commanded by the king’s majesty.” Along with the court debuts of Othello and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s company served up revivals of some of their greatest Elizabethan hits, which the Scottish royal family had never had a chance to see. The King’s Men also performed two of Ben Jonson’s popular Elizabethan comedies, Every Man in His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour, along with the anonymous and now lost The Spanish Maze. If this holiday season was representative, it meant that more than two-thirds of the plays staged at court by the company were Shakespeare’s. And if we assume that a similar percentage of his Elizabethan plays were acted before the king in the nineteen command performances at the 1604–5 and 1605–6 holiday seasons, there’s a good chance that by the beginning of 1606, of the close to thirty plays the King’s Men had played before James, twenty or so had been by Shakespeare, leaving only a handful of his old plays as yet unstaged before the new court.

The pressure to provide new plays had, if anything, intensified. A letter survives from January 1605 to the Earl of Salisbury (the king’s chief minister) from Sir Walter Cope, who had been tasked with finding fresh entertainment for the court, in which a frustrated Cope reports, “I have sent and been all this morning hunting for players, jugglers, and such kind of creatures, but find them hard to find.” Having come up empty-handed, he left notes for the various entertainers to report to him. One of those summoned was Richard Burbage, star of the King’s Men (or perhaps it was his brother Cuthbert, part owner of the Globe), for Cope’s letter continues: “Burbage is come and says there is no new play that the queen has not seen; but they have revived an old one called Love’s Labour’s Lost, which for wit and mirth he says will please her exceedingly.” Burbage’s enthusiastic pitch for Shakespeare’s dated Elizabethan comedy notwithstanding, his admission that “there is no new play” that Queen Anne “has not seen” was not what the authorities wanted to hear. Demand was rapidly outstripping supply, even of old favorites. It was time to write another play, and not long after he came upon that copy of King Leir, Shakespeare had decided on its subject. He would turn another Queen’s Men play into a King’s Men play. It’s not what one would have expected from a playwright struggling to connect with this Jacobean moment, especially a writer so identified with the drama of the 1590s. Yet however counterintuitive it may have seemed, Shakespeare saw that the best way for him to grapple with the present was to engage with the past, refurbishing an old and unfashionable Elizabethan plot.

If the Queen’s Men had been the all-star company of the 1580s, Shakespeare’s company were the all-stars of their day, and had been for over a decade. When Shakespeare sat down to write King Lear, he knew that he would be writing the part for Richard Burbage, the finest tragedian of the age. He had already created for him such career-defining roles as Richard the Third, Hamlet, and Othello. Burbage was now in his late thirties, which also meant that Shakespeare could expand his imaginative horizons and write plays that starred more grizzled and world-weary protagonists. Before 1606 was over, he would challenge Burbage not only in the role of Lear, but also in another pair of older tragic roles, Macbeth and Antony (while this same year Ben Jonson wrote for Burbage the brilliant part of Volpone, who play-acts the role of an infirm old man). No actor may ever have faced more daunting newly written roles in so short a time span. If Shakespeare was memorialized as the “soul of the age,” Burbage, some years later, and perhaps with a nod to that earlier tribute, was the acknowledged “soul of the stage.”

Reflecting back on the special relationship between great playwrights and their star actors, Richard Flecknoe observed in the mid-seventeenth century that it “was the happiness of the actors of those times to have such poets as these to . . . write for them,” and those poets were no less fortunate “to have such . . . excellent actors to act their plays as . . . Burbage,” who was known for “so wholly transforming himself into his part, and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the tiring-house) assumed himself again until the play was done.” Flecknoe helpfully describes the naturalistic acting style at which Burbage excelled: audiences “were never more delighted than when he spake, nor more sorry than when he held his peace; yet even then he was an excellent actor still, never falling in his part when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gestures maintaining it still unto the height.” Shakespeare knew that he could count on Burbage to convey not only Lear’s words but also the telling gestures and great silences on which his part depends, something a reading experience of the play too often misses.

It wasn’t only Burbage who had aged. Many of the talented and ambitious players who had come together in their twenties in 1594 to form the Chamberlain’s Men were now approaching forty; Shakespeare, at forty-two, was now the oldest in the company. Some of the founders were not in good health and others were no longer alive. Augustine Phillips was already dead and Will Sly and Laurence Fletcher would be buried before two years had passed. John Sinklo, a longtime hired man for whom Shakespeare had been writing skinny-man parts for more than a decade, was either dead or had left playing, for no more was heard of him after 1605. The company’s first star comedian, Will Kemp, had parted ways with them back in 1599, pursuing a solo career, a blow to the company, for audiences were drawn to the theater for Kemp’s clowning as much as they were for Burbage’s tragic roles or Shakespeare’s words. Kemp’s replacement, Robert Armin, was a very different kind of comedian. While Armin could step into some of the roles Shakespeare had written for Kemp (such as Dogberry in Much Ado), Kemp’s improvisational and physical style and commonsensical if at times dim-witted demeanor couldn’t have been further from the sardonic, witty style of the diminutive Armin. It took awhile for Shakespeare to figure out how best to write Armin into his plays. He had some early success with the parts of Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night, and with smaller roles as the Gravedigger in Hamlet and perhaps Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. But it wasn’t until King Lear that Shakespeare created a truly defining role for Armin, Lear’s Fool (and it was probably with this role in mind that, four years later, John Davies praised Armin as one who could “wisely play the fool”).

The Fool would be a role unlike any Shakespeare had ever written before or after—witty, pathetic, lonely, angry, and prophetic in turn, a part rich in quips and snippets of ballads and the kind of sharp exchanges for which Armin was famous. Armin’s range was extraordinary and it’s not surprising that this almost bewildering role was cut for much of King Lear’s stage history. It wasn’t only Shakespeare’s relationship with both Burbage and Armin that had matured, but also the relationship of the star comedian and tragedian with each other. In the past, Shakespeare had tended to keep clowns and kings apart; this time he would force them together, creating an unusually intimate and endearing bond, one that also depended on the personal familiarity and mutual understanding of his two lead actors. The poignancy of one of Lear’s most heartbreaking lines, written for Burbage—“And my poor fool is hanged” (24.300)—depends on it, reminding us not only of the manner of Cordelia’s death but also of the loss of his beloved Fool, Armin, who disappears from the action midway through the play.

Genius may be a necessary precondition for creating a masterpiece but it’s never a sufficient one. Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays depended on the raw talent of his company. We don’t know as much as we would like about who acted in them and must reconstruct this as best we can from a few surviving cast lists and from scattered anecdotes and records. The casts called for roughly a dozen men and two or three teenage boys, which meant that the ranks of the eight or so shareholders were fleshed out with experienced “hired men” for the lesser adult roles and two or three boys for the women’s parts. When he decided to rewrite the story of Lear and his three daughters Shakespeare knew that he had available at least two extraordinary teenage actors, their names now lost to us. They may even have been the same pair who had proven their mettle as early as Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It in 1599, then Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet, and Emilia and Desdemona in Othello. Shakespeare would challenge his young actors with more mature female roles this year: first, Goneril and Regan in Lear, then Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff, and finally, Cleopatra and Octavia. John Heminges and Henry Condell, veterans of the company, had aged too, and were now better suited to such exceptional and older parts as Gloucester, Kent, Albany, and Cornwall. Another veteran, Richard Cowley, for whom Shakespeare had written the sidekick role of Verges in Much Ado, could fill such roles as well. For younger male roles, the King’s Men had recently added a pair of rising stars, still in their twenties, John Lowin and Alexander Cook, and it’s likely that they stepped into such parts as Edgar and Edmund (if Cook, who had apprenticed under Heminges, wasn’t slated for leading female roles).

Despite its losses, the company was still deep in talent, and staging King Lear (which has eleven significant roles) without that depth, and without actors who knew one another intimately from having worked together for so many years, is, as many modern companies have discovered, incredibly hard to do well. Shakespeare’s division of the parts was unusually well balanced: Burbage, as Lear, spoke just under a quarter of the play’s lines, while the roughly equal other major parts—the Fool, Edgar, Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund—accounted for half the play, and other roles the remaining quarter. While Shakespeare no doubt joined them onstage when needed, by 1606 it seems that either he or the company felt that his hours were better spent writing full-time than in the wearying business of rehearsing and acting in the mornings and afternoons, which had left only his evenings free for reading and writing. This meant that his days were free, for the first time since the early 1590s, to collaborate with other playwrights. That half of his last ten plays were coauthored is undoubtedly related to his withdrawal from full-time acting. Rehearsing and performing almost every day, year after year, was physically demanding; acting on the early modern stage was a young man’s game. One need only look at the example of Burbage’s great Elizabethan rival Edward Alleyn, who retired from the stage in his early thirties before making a brief comeback a few years later. There weren’t many actors over forty performing in 1606. Condell would continue acting regularly into his forties, as would Heminges, who in his mid-forties was already and cruelly called “old stuttering Heminges.” Burbage was probably exceptional in performing daily into his late forties or, at the very most, until his death at age fifty.

Shakespeare’s days of touring rural town halls and great men’s houses, especially during plague time, were probably over as well. That left him in an unusual position in 1606: while he had firsthand knowledge of the strengths of each of his fellow players and could write plays that took advantage of their unrivaled depth and talent, he was no longer interacting with them every day. This had an impact not only on the intimacy of his bond with his fellow players but on his writing as well, which started to become, even by Jacobean standards, increasingly dense and knotty, as if he were liberated to write as much for himself as for others.

For confirmation of this, we need look no further than the reaction of his rival Ben Jonson, who reportedly singled out a work from this year as evidence of Shakespeare’s turn toward writing that was deliberately opaque. Later in the seventeenth century the playwright (and Shakespeare admirer and adapter) John Dryden wrote that in “reading some bombast speeches of Macbeth, which are not to be understood,” Ben Jonson “used to say that it was horror; and I am much afraid that this is so.” Jonson may well have had in mind passages such as the soliloquy in which Macbeth wrestles with whether to kill King Duncan. That speech could not have begun more simply, as Macbeth cannot bring himself to name the horrific deed: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly” (1.7.1–2). But as the horror of the crime and his moral reservations about murdering his king sink in, Macbeth’s speech becomes increasingly tortured. And as the long soliloquy nears its end and he has just about talked himself out of committing murder, Macbeth’s palpable relief finds expression in a string of dense and paradoxical images that displace one another so rapidly that early playgoers at the Globe, including Jonson, must have struggled to follow his train of thought.

Yet few soliloquies have ever captured a feverish mind at work or traced an arc of a character’s moral crisis more memorably. As Macbeth’s imagination takes flight, he fears that Duncan’s “virtues” will “plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.19–20). This powerful image, in turn, leads him to think aloud in the kind of heightened language that so troubled Jonson:

And Pity, like a naked newborn babe

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

That tears shall drown the wind.


To call such passages “horror” is surely too strong, and “bombast” unfair; both terms smack not only of jealousy but also of a failure to grasp what’s gained, not just lost, when writing begins to verge on the impenetrable (though audiences have never needed to know precisely what Macbeth is saying in order to grasp what he is feeling at this moment). Lucidity as an end in itself can be overrated. This passage is, as critics have long noted, breathtaking—and few stretches in Shakespeare’s work suffer more from crude glossing. Shakespeare’s writing here is anything but imprecise and his passage’s meaning is clear enough once its dense metaphorical network—which touches in condensed form on so much else that happens in the play—is unpacked. A reductive paraphrase that explains what Macbeth says also strips his remarkable lines of their mystery and resonance: he imagines here that a personified Pity, like an infant bestriding the winds, or soaring retributive angels riding the air, will spread word of his evil deed, eliciting so compassionate a response that the tears shed will be like a great rain that stops the wind. Jonson rightly recognized that Shakespeare’s writing had taken a new turn, one far less accessible than Jonson’s own efforts in neoclassical verse or colloquial prose. But if Shakespeare’s actors and audiences now had to work harder, the rewards for doing so would prove greater too.

About The Author

Photograph by Mary Cregan

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of several books, including 1599 and Contested Will, and is the recipient of many awards and fellowships. Shapiro is a Governor of the Folger Shakespeare Library. He lives in New York with his wife and son.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 18, 2016)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416541653

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Raves and Reviews

The temptation for someone reviewing a readable and revelatory work like The Year of Lear is to babble on about the amazing secrets its author has uncovered. . . . [The book] is irresistible—a banquet of wisdom.”

– Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review

“Truly magnificent. . . . A work of genius.”

– Paul Muldoon, TLS Books of the Year

“A meticulous narrative of a momentous year in the life of the playwright and a masterpiece of intelligent literary criticism.”

– Colm Tóibín, Observer Books of the Year

“James Shapiro [is] the liveliest and most accessible of Bardologists. . . . The book is crammed with stimulating research that again and again produces startling connections. . . . It is to be hoped that Mr. Shapiro might be persuaded to write a book for every year of Shakespeare's life: Then we might finally find ourselves face to face with the Sphinx of English literature.”

– Simon Callow, The Wall Street Journal

"In The Year of Lear, Shapiro takes a closer look at the political and social turmoil that contributed to the creation of three supreme masterpieces. . . . Exciting and sometimes revelatory."

– Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Illuminating. . . . Shapiro captures a Shakespeare moved by – and moving – history.”

– The New Yorker

“Shapiro has a marvelous ability to use his formidable scholarship, not to pluck out the heart of Shakespeare’s mysteries, but to put the beating heart of the contemporary back into them. His great gift is to make the plays seem at once more comprehensible and more staggering.”

– Fintan O'Toole, The New York Review of Books

"Shapiro's investigation of Shakespeare's professional fortunes is as fascinating as his scrutiny of the plays. . . . [His book] draws on a mountain of reading, yet is persistently original. It takes us onto the streets of Shakespeare's London, and it reminds us of the brutal culture from which his plays sprang."

– John Carey, The Sunday Times (UK)

“No one writes about Shakespeare as Jim Shapiro does; it's so immediate and alive. . . . His passion for Shakespeare, his excitement and pure joy infect everyone he comes in contact with and absolutely come through in each of his books.”

– F. Murray Abraham

"James Shapiro’s insightful new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, performs a kind of archaeological excavation of the three plays Shakespeare wrote in this year – King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – to reveal the rich matrix of factors that molded their themes and language."

– Nick Romeo, The Christian Science Monitor

"Like other Shapiro works, [The Year of Lear] is a brilliant, acessible fusion of meticulously researched historical narrative and keen-eyed literary criticism."

– Celia Wren, Commonweal

“While many contemporary literary scholars are devoted to deconstructing literature, and many more to only the narrowest lines of inquiry, Shapiro has the knack of piecing together those few scraps and fragments into a coherent — and persuasive — narrative of a writer at work at a specific place and time. . . . A remarkable, completely fresh look at how literature, and history, come to be.”

– David Walton, Dallas Morning News

"Probing and original. . . . Shapiro shows how [Shakespeare] was not only for all time, but also very much of his age."

– Sameer Rahim, Prospect (UK)

"Shakespearean scholar Shapiro links the tumultuous events of 1605 and 1606 to three of the Bard's greatest works. . . . Shapiro's discoveries of long-lost sources and missed connections make this a fascinating tale. His well-written, scholarly exploration will stand as an influential work that is a joy to read.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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