What else don't we know about "history"? Every time I pick up a book as well-written, researched and formulated as "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606," I walk around in a cloud of 'wow, imagine that, who would have known such-and-such?'
Shakespearean scholars as learned as "The Year of Lear" author James Shapiro (how wide a set that can be?) seem to know a lot more about the circumstances in which his plays were written than they did a few decades ago when I was studying them in graduate school. We were certainly aware that the change from the Elizabethan period to the Stuart dynasty upon the ascension of James I to the throne of England in 1603 had consequences for Shakespeare and his crew. But "The Year of Lear" tracks the composition of three of Shakespeare's major tragic masterpieces against the pulses of the news cycle in the fraught transitional year of 1606.
A number of strong political, cultural and religious forces buffeted English society in the years immediately after Elizabeth's death. Her death marked the end of an era when England took its place as a central player on the world (i.e. European) stage, fending off attempts at domination by larger powers just as 'Good Queen Bess' fended off marriage proposals from Spain and France. I think Shakespeare's history plays and other formative successes in the Elizabethan theater may have helped build a sense of a shared, significant national culture -- though Shapiro's book does not make this point. England now possessed an art through which to know itself. France and Italy had music and art. Spain had wealth; along with its own literary tradition of the "picaro" (or picaresque tale) that flowered in Cervantes, Shakespeare's contemporary and, in many eyes, peer.
England fought off a Spanish invasion during Elizabeth's reign and sent its first expeditions to compete in the great game of exploration, world trade, and eventual colonization. On the home front it stabilized as a Protestant nation with a clearly outlined, though limited tolerance for Catholics. London became a teeming, populous, international trade center and world capital.
But following the queen's death, the plague returned to London with the first warm season, after a few years of happy absence. James avoided the city like the -- well, thing in itself -- and his coronation was put off for two years. Parliament was reluctant to meet. The theaters were closed; "The Year of Lear" reports that the city had a law closing the theaters whenever the official "death list" from plague reached 30 in a week. Astonishing facts of a long-ago, but literate civilization: London kept a list of everybody who died from plague, though some of these records were lost in a later fire. Still Shapiro can tell us that Shakespeare's London landlady died in the plague at this time and that she was close enough to her prominent lodger to ask him to help arrange a marriage for her daughter. Records show this.
Because of the epidemics, the king's absence from London, and the uncertainties of how to please the new regime, Shakespeare's company virtually shut down and -- astonishingly -- he wrote no new plays for two or three years after a decade of regular production of brilliant new work. From my studies I knew that "Lear," "MacBeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra" are considered the 'later tragedies,' but little of their circumstances. They were 'later,' I know now, because there were no outdoor, public theaters for 'The King's Men' to perform in, and no king in London to commission new works from the company to debut before him.
When James finally settled in and new works were called for, several major social and political forces helped light a fire and provide the tender in the imagination of the world's greatest playwright. For me, this is the deeper insight that "The Year of Lear" offers about the nature of great public art, particularly of the literary and narrative sort: The problems of a given society feed the juices of great imaginations; their productions in turn nourish the ruminations of the people.
The big issue dominating the early years of James Stuart's reign was his desire to merge the two kingdoms of England and Scotland into one united kingdom since he was now monarch of both. James was a proponent of the "divine right" of monarchs. Since God (he reasoned) had made him king of both lands, God clearly wanted them united. Furthermore, James dusted off an old legend that the two countries used to be one kingdom since they share the same geographical entity. God not only works in mysterious ways, apparently, he works in islands.
In fact, an old play based on a British legend depicted the terrible consequences of an aging king's decision to divide his kingdom. This story of course is "King Leir," which Shakespeare re-imagined as "King Lear." While a lot more is going on in Lear besides dynastic politics, Shapiro is clearly onto something when he points out that a play warning of the dangers of dividing a kingdom would likely find favor with a king who wanted to unite his two crowns to form Great Britain.
"The Year of Lear" also mulls the play's (highly unpopular) innovation of failing to offer a restorative happy ending to bring a troubled world back to rights. Shapiro provides the intriguing suggestion that the play's last lines spoken by Edgar, a member of the younger generation, "we that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long" as the previous generation, amount to a valedictory for Elizabeth's epic reign.
Audiences are so troubled by the death of the "good" daughter, Cordelia, that subsequent productions consistently brought her back to life. My suggestion on the playwright's unconventional choice: Might not Cordelia's death stand in for the thousands of innocents slaughtered by London's plagues?
When London finally appeared safe enough for James to make his court there and press Parliament to approve an "act of unification" of the two kingdoms, his new country is faced with an act of treachery that shakes it to the roots. In November of 1605, England endured a near-miss 911-sized catastrophe known to history as the Gunpowder Plot. An explosive attempt at a stroke of terrorism meant to destroy, king, royal family, government and much of the ruling class in a single cataclysm produced by tons of gunpowder and musket shot stored in the bowels of Parliament. 'Security' had a long way to go back then; the conspirators had simply rented the basement storage areas from the government.
The plot was also intended to set off a nationwide Catholic uprising to restore the "old religion," return the country to the authority of the Roman Catholic church, and install a Catholic monarch.
Of further import to our story, many of the plotters had connections to the region of Shakespeare's own Stratford. How big a deal this plot -- reduced in current days to the devilry of "Guy Fawkes Day" -- was for post-Elizabethan England is recounted in greater legal and political detail than I needed. What I will remember is that the repressive laws against Catholics enacted in the wake of this plot swept up Shakespeare's daughter, who initially refused to swear a new 'loyalty' oath but was forced to recant.
Shapiro make the connection between this near-disaster both to Lear and, more importantly, to MacBeth, a play about the treasonous murder of a Scottish king. Again, I think there's a deeper take-away. Tragedy was invented in Ancient Greece from the politically driven need for a citizenry to experience, at artistic remove, the disasters that befall those who seek to rule. Greek tragedy is about power, rule, and passion. We the people cram into the amphitheater to feel the terror of crime, misdeed, and failure.
We fear the terror of failure and crime; we find compassion in our own hearts for the human suffering displayed for us on stage.
MacBeth is also a cautionary tale. What would happen if a plot to kill a king succeeded? -- as MacBeth's plot to kill Duncan does, and as the Gunpowder Plot to kill James I failed to. What happens is you get MacBeth, "in blood stepped in so far" that a nation must suffer more wars and the bloody removal of another king before the moral order is restored.
MacBeth is also, Shapiro argues, a play about "equivocation," which James's England considered as bad armed rebellion. To them equivocation meant not telling the whole truth when you are put under oath to do just that -- as the courtroom oath says today, you swear "to tell the truth and the whole truth." If rebels, traitors -- particularly secret Catholics -- believed it was all right in God's eyes to hold back part of the truth from a courtroom or any official inquiry, then society would fall apart. You would never know who to believe.
Hence in MacBeth we have witches telling newly elevated war hero MacBeth what he wants to hear in his secret heart, but only hinting, or perhaps omitting entirely, important pieces of the story. Shapiro closely analyzes a playful of other examples of 'equivocation,' of giving a misleading or partial impression. Oh, dear, it's everywhere.
I'm afraid Shakespeare's day never knew the half of it. Today American citizens routinely listen to their elected leaders and come away saying, "Ah, they're all lying. That's what they do."
Frankly, I suspect we all hold back some of the truth.
I'm afraid I'm holding back any discussion of "Anthony and Cleopatra," the third of the great tragedies Shapiro finds bathed in the controversial waters of 1606, because it's a play I've never warmed up to. Also because the author's case for relating this play to specific events and the national mood at the time of its writing is too subtle for summation here. Besides, I've already forgotten so much of this argument that I need to read it again.
But this is the beauty of reading history, especially when important times and great writers intersect. The truth is, there is always something new under the sun.
It's the old stuff we never knew.