Stage of Fools

The Year Shakespeare Wrote Lear

Scholar James Shapiro's new book looks at Shakespeare's great tragedy through the lens of current events in the year 1606.


Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of Contested Will and 1599, sat down to talk about his new book, The Year of Lear, with novelist Arthur Phillips, author of the Shakespearean novel The Tragedy of Arthur.

Arthur Phillips: I see the importance (and the great pleasure) of your work like this—for people who want to know something about Shakespeare himself, about who he was and what he was thinking, there have been, until now, two unsatisfactory methods. One is limited and by now probably exhausted; the other was flawed from the start.

The limited method was the biographical method. We only have a small amount of verifiable detail about his life, and so we look to it to explain the man who wrote the plays. We hoped that we could understand the work better if we looked hard at the biographical details, like…

James Shapiro: So, for example, if you begin by assuming that Shakespeare was a Catholic, then everything in the plays seems inflected by Catholicism. The same holds true for Shakespeare’s sexuality or his politics.

AP: Exactly. Or “His will tells us that he left his wife his second-best bed?! He must have been unhappily married or a vindictive jerk. The plays were written by a bad husband or a miserable man. That certainly clarifies Taming of the Shrew.”

The other way we have had of knowing him was, I think, doomed from the beginning, a method that doesn’t work on Shakespeare and doesn’t really work on any writer of fiction or drama, and that is looking for the truth of the writer in the plays. Someone reads the work first and says it must tell us something about the man: “Only a lawyer could have written those Merchant of Venice scenes, so he must have been a lawyer.”

JS: There is a fantasy—it dates back to the late 18th century—that you can discover the life in the work, whatever that life is. In the most extreme and reductive form you end up with “The writer of the plays must have been an aristocrat, so the true author of the plays couldn’t have been that glover’s son, William Shakespeare from Stratford.”

AP: That way leads to projections of the reader onto a screen they then call Shakespeare. But I think you have forged an entirely new way of seeing him. It seems like in 1599 and now in Year of Lear that you broke through these two flawed methods and found something new, a much more plausible way of understanding the man.

"The Shapiro Method" goes like this: In a given year in London, everybody would have known and reacted to certain facts, to the talk of the town. Everybody knew about the plague numbers or the recent executions or the news from Ireland or the inconceivably evil and vast terrorist attack that was thwarted. And we know (from good old biographical research) that Shakespeare was in a given place at a given time and would have known all this too. And then you can look at his plays that you know were written in that year and say, “This is the material that was going into his head, this is what he was living with that year of creativity, and this in turn is the material that was coming out of his quill.”

JS: And you know the sources he was working with, because happily he didn’t make up his own stories. He’s always rewriting someone else’s story. You can get a little closer to him than is probably comfortable for a writer and see what he’s changing, what he’s turning these stories into.

In taking the approach that I do, I try to do something that academics can’t or prefer not to do. Those subjected to departmental reviews often have to rush their work, turning in a book every three or four years. And non-fiction writers who are generalists can’t really do it because they don’t have the skills to go into archives and museums—really, they don’t have the connections of someone calling them up and saying, “We just found something at Knole (the recent discovery of anti-Satanic protective carvings in a bedroom prepared for King James)." I’m lucky to get that call, “Could you come over and look at them?” So it’s taken a long time to learn how to find things and then write well enough (which most academics are not rewarded for doing). I can take the 10 years needed to research and write my books that other writers can’t, or can’t afford to. This last book took ten years to research and write. 1599 took 15 years. It just takes a really long time to understand what a particular moment was like, what Shakespeare was writing at that time, and how the two connect.

What you really have to do is think at a street level. Most of the people who write about this past tend to write about Queen Elizabeth or the Earl of Essex. But I prefer thinking about those walking through the streets of London, going to the Globe Theatre. What were their favorite plays? Imagine what it was like if someone’s favorite play was King Leir (that’s L-E-I-R, not L-E-A-R), an older play, which someone might have seen in 1590 and kept seeing in repertory for 15 years. He runs into his friend and he says, “I love this play and there’s a new version on at the Globe. Shakespeare just re-wrote it. It’s that story about this king who falls out with his three daughters, the one with the HAPPY ending. You feel so good when he is reconciled with his youngest daughter, Cordella, and gets his kingdom back.” His friend says, “Great, I need something upbeat.” They go to the theater and sees Shakespeare’s version of it, but this time everybody dies—including Lear and Cordelia. I’m sure Shakespeare was standing behind the curtain looking out at their shocked faces.

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So I’m trying to think of those friends, rather than trying to imagine what Shakespeare was thinking, which can only be an act of projection.

AP: And would they have been as stunned by Lear if they hadn’t been fans of Leir?

JS: Surely not. That’s the whole point. Shakespeare is depending upon everyone knowing Leir. And an edition of it was published in 1605, a few months before Shakespeare wrote his version. And don’t forget something crucial about that historical moment: there are no other media. Novels aren’t really in circulation. There are no newspapers, etc. Theater is the one place where this culture went to understand itself. I take that as a given. So how do plays help Elizabethan playgoers understand themselves? In much the same way, I suppose, that I turn today to, say, television, to Fargo or Homeland to clarify something about our current moment that I otherwise don’t quite grasp.

I’m not reading Shakespeare’s plays as if they’re the greatest works of literature of all time. Rather, I’m trying to understand a different set of questions about them: How did they capture something in the air and explain something to thousands of people at a street level?

And I think I reach readers too because—and this is probably what distinguishes me from people I read, scholars, colleagues I admire—when I first was forced to read Shakespeare back in high school I didn’t like it and didn’t understand it. I didn’t even get the dirty bits. So I came to it late. I fully understand why people are turned off by Shakespeare and think, “What’s the big deal?” because I used to think the same way—until I went to London in my late teens, and started seeing Shakespeare staged, and started to go back year after year for a month every summer, quitting whatever job I was holding down, seeing 20 plays in 20 days. It was like a drug—a really good, cheap drug.

So when I write books about Shakespeare today, I try to remember what I felt as a teen-ager: “Why do I have to read this? About things that happened 400 years ago?” I want the people who hated Shakespeare in school to feel that I helped bring him to life for them a little bit. If you’ve always loved Shakespeare, you can’t really write a book that closes a gap that you don’t feel.

If there is a “Shapiro Method” it is also premised on the conviction that you can’t really understand Shakespeare’s plays without understanding the times in which they were written and—and historians don’t really want to hear this—you can’t truly understand those times without understanding Shakespeare’s take on them. He saw, and put onstage and then on paper, things that others didn’t see, or see so clearly.

AP: Another key requirement of your method is having confidence that the man on the street in 1606 was of the same species as the man on the street in 2015. That you can speculate with some certainty what these people—people who believed in witchcraft and the divine right of kings—were feeling.

JS: Agreed. And if I’m wrong, then in 15 years people will come along and hold up my books and say, “Boy, did he get it wrong.”

But I do believe that people who lived through 9/11 can understand Macbeth more powerfully because they can understand how a writer is responding to a terrorist attack, though the Gunpowder Plot was thwarted. Whether a terrorist attack succeeds or fails, people still go around asking, “Who would do such a thing? Why would they do it? Is that something that comes from within them or did they pick it up in their Catholic seminaries?” (Or madrassas, whatever you want to call it: the permutations of how the game is played haven’t changed much politically, socially, economically. I am aware of how much structures have changed, of course, but the human reaction, the way the pieces move on the chessboard: it seems very familiar.)

AP: And how small a town are we talking about? It seems like everyone knows each other. Shakespeare’s at court but his neighbor back home is implicated in the uprising.

JS: How many people live between Wall Street and 14th Street? More than 200,000? That’s all of 1606 London and its environs. You’re passing these people all the time. Figure three degrees of separation with anyone, not six. Once you’re into the world of people with connections to city, court, writing, and theater, it’s an even smaller world. It’s the downtown world. You walk into a party or a market, you see the same people.

AP: So in this small world, when plague hits every summer, the percentage of people who might be sick and dying in a bad year is…

JS: One in seven. And every July when it comes back, you don’t really know if this year is going to be the big one. For us, Ebola hit two years ago? But it wasn’t our time. You never know.

We know who died in Shakespeare’s parish in 1606. But the records don’t specify the cause of death. I went back and looked at it and started seeing a pattern: a master and a servant die in this household. A brother and a sister died in that household. Three deaths the same week, the next building over. We know that Shakespeare’s landlady was only 39 and she died this year. She was working right up to this point. So the odds are plague reached Shakespeare’s door.

AP: What do you think it felt like to him?

JS: That’s the hardest thing to understand. What did it mean to walk down the street during an outbreak of a plague whose cause was unknown? Just imagine your worst nightmare. You don’t have to go to an African village during an Ebola outbreak to imagine it.

AP: And yet, he was writing.

JS: And when you read or see Antony and Cleopatra, you should know that this too shaped its creation.