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

Kernel Kate reviews 1606: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR, an historical book from James Shapiro that delves into the busiest year in Shakespeare’s career and everything that is going on at the time in Great Britain. Shapiro is a master of history and Shakespeare and this uncovers a lot of the meaning and political intrigue of the time and how/ why they are written into the great works of the Bard. 1606: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR is out now from the fine folks at Allen and Unwon Book Publishers, it has sold out from the publishers website but this will be available in most bookstores. Enjoy Kate’s thoughts…….all the best…….JK.


1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear Book Cover image



James Shapiro’s 1606 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR is not going to be for everyone. If you’ve never liked Shakespeare this probably won’t sound appealing, but if, like me, you love Shakespeare or just have an interest in history and can stand a few lines of verse it is worth a read.

1606 was a big year for what we now know as Britain. King James was just getting into his stride after taking the throne from Elizabeth in 1603. He had recently survived The Gunpowder Plot and as King of a separated Scotland and England, each in their own right, was pushing forward with uniting the two countries. The big issues of the day were religion, witchcraft and possession, plague and politics. 1606 was also a big year for Shakespeare. With his theatre company having been appointed ‘The King’s Men’ they became the official theatre players of the court and these royals had a real thirst for the theatre. This would make it Shakespeare’s busiest play writing year since Elizabeth’s reign with KING LEAR, MACBETH and ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA all penned during this year.


James Shapiro Author image


While there have undoubtedly been works, including these three, which have suffered losses, omissions and rewrites through the years 1606 marks one of Shakespeare’s greatest writing years and these plays are a reflection of their time. Some of the historical influences on Shakespeare’s play are quite clear, LEAR’S warning over a divided kingdom at a time when James was trying to unite his and MACBETH’S murder of a Scottish King when James, the Scottish King had just survived an assassination attempt. Other influences however have almost been lost to us and it is these Shapiro guides us through by tying other historical sources into Shakespeare’s plays and allowing us to understand references which would have been obvious to our predecessors.

Shapiro allows us a glimpse inside contemporary works like DECLARATION OF EGREGIOUS POPISH IMPOSTURES, certainly not a title I would pick up even if my local bookstore did have a copy. This title demonstrates the way Shakespeare used current affairs of the day in his writing. This title was published as a ‘how to detect and exorcise witches guide’ and used by con artists to fake possession by demons creating a well publicised scandal when one of them attracted the attention of the King. Shakespeare used this as inspiration for LEAR even quoting the same lines quoted in contemporary accounts of the events.


1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear Book Cover image


A professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Shapiro has positioned himself as an expert in Shakespeare, having published several books on the Bard including A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE: 1599 and CONTESTED WILL: WHO WROTE SHAKESPEARE? But any questions as to Shakespeare’s identity are essentially left out of this work. Shapiro focuses instead on tracing Shakespeare’s sources for rewrites and sequels with LEAR in particular being a reboot of an earlier play conveniently titled KING LEIR. With printings of the original text still surviving Shapiro demonstrates the aspects of the play which have been updated and how they tie into the feelings and issues of the time. Interestingly many of Shakespeare’s plays were rewrites or adaptations of earlier works, even the ones we think of as his most original. The source material of most of these having been lost Shapiro teases out evidence of the plays roots giving a new perspective on Shakespeare’s works.

Despite being a career academic and relying heavily on sources which are over four hundred years old Shapiro doesn’t come across as stuffy and boring. Shapiro has a down to earth tone and you can feel that not only does he have an intimate understanding of the subject, he’s really excited about it too. Some of Shapiro’s descriptions of the play houses and performances are so well thought through you can almost feel the excitement of the crowd and the environment they would have been enjoying. Structuring the book in chapters which each deal with an interest of the time, its cultural historical evidence and how this is worked into Shakespeare’s work makes it somehow more entertaining. For me it almost felt like the reward for making it through the chapter on politics was to be rewarded with possession and witchcraft. As often as he uses official documents or historical records Shapiro also refers to real peoples’ colloquial accounts so we get a real feel for the time and people.

Enlightening reading for anyone interested in understanding some of the original jokes in Shakespeare’s plays, anyone who loves history, literature or English language, 1606: SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR is the book for you.


4 Pops


Having always loved stories one of Kernel Kate’s most frequent childhood memories was her parents telling her in the early hours that it was way too late to still be reading and to go to sleep, but she would always sneak in the end of the chapter. Her love of stories led to a career in movies as well as remaining an avid reader of everything from novels to academic papers and junk mail. She makes a perfect reading machine fit to the Salty Cob.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher or distributor – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.