Shakespearean scholar Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.; Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, 2010, etc.) links the tumultuous events of 1605 and 1606 to three of the Bard’s greatest works.
The author examines King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all written in 1606. For readers seeking the nitty-gritty of historical connections and sources, Shapiro does not disappoint. Adjusting to the new Scottish king, James I, Elizabethan playwrights had to forego being English for British. Unfortunately, the union of crowns wasn’t official without the consent of Parliament. It was a sensitive issue both in England and Scotland, and artists presenting plays had to tread carefully. The plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and a rumor of the king’s murder created a fraught atmosphere. The recurring plague transformed Shakespeare’s company, his competition, and the audiences to which they played, requiring further alteration to his plays. Shakespeare knew to disguise any events that spoke of broken kingdoms—not only in Lear, but also in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. He used the latest buzzwords—e.g., “equivocation” and “allegiance”—to expose the darkness in men’s (and women’s) hearts. King James was fixated on demonology, and Shakespeare used Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures to describe demonic possession and to reflect on social ills and the reasons people commit evil acts. Shakespeare adapted Lear from an older play staged 10 years before, and he strongly leaned on Plutarch’s biography for Antony, often using dialogue verbatim. He also used Plutarch’s account of a soothsayer in Macbeth, although his main source was Holinshed’s Chronicles. Shapiro points out the connections of Shakespeare’s plays to his own earlier work but also to whatever was at hand.
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.