Armchair Book Club: Shakespeare in context

Heather Allen explores the context around William Shakespear's career in The Year of Lear.

It’s been 400 years since William Shakespeare died. You’d think after so long, there would be little left to say about the bard. But in the new book, The Year of Lear, author James Shapiro begs to differ.

Shakespeare wrote the play King Lear in 1606, a particularly tumultuous time in English history. Queen Elizabeth had died three years previously. The English were petrified about what was going to happen without their virgin queen. Would Catholic Spain or France sweep into England and rule over them?

In fact, King James I of Scotland took over the throne keeping Protestant order, and rule within the British Isle. But this relatively peaceful transition caused unrest, particularly among the persecuted Catholics.

In fact, in 1605, a group of Catholics plotted to blow up Parliament, kill the king, the royal family, and all of the country’s leading political figures. This event, called the Gunpowder Plot, would likely have set fire to most of London, killing thousands. Just hours before lighting the stacks of gunpowder, the still-notorious Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed in a room under Parliament.

Although the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, the cultural implications on England were huge. The near calamity changed England much the way 9/11 changed the United States. The Jacobean era became different in tone and outlook than the previous Elizabethan period.

Many people refer to Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but Shapiro argues that after the death of Elizabeth, Shakespeare was more in tune with the changing Jacobean mindset. It’s an entirely new way to understand his plays and the times that he lived through.

It’s brilliant. Not much is known about Shakespeare’s personal life, but by connecting Shakespeare to important historical events, we can see significant changes in Shakespeare’s writing, use of language and even his choice of material to put on stage.

Although written in an engaging style, The Year of Lear isn’t an introductory book. Unless you’re somewhat familiar with Macbeth, you’re not going to appreciate a full chapter about the introduction of the word equivocation in that Scottish play.

I fully admit to being a bard-o-phile — so much so that back in high school, my sister once stabbed me with a fork at the dinner table in an attempt to get me to stop me quoting Hamlet. For readers with a similar level of interest, you’ll love this fascinating new look at Shakespeare’s plays.


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