Review: The Year of Lear, Shakespeare in 1606 – James Shapiro

Today’s review is on The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro.

First, to all my Canadian readers, Happy Thanksgiving.

I am thankful both for my love of reading and my ability to share the passion I have for books through this little corner of the internet.

And what better way to show how thankful I am than by reviewing a book that gives us a look into one of literatures greatest writers, William Shakespeare.

I’m not sure if I have mentioned it before, but out of all of Shakespeare’s works, King Lear is my absolute favourite.

So naturally when I saw The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro I thought I had found the perfect little King Lear niche.

What did I think of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606? Keep on reading to find out my thoughts and opinions.

The Book 

In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

It was a memorable year in England as well—and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom.

It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.

The Review

Shapiro is able to present The Year of Lear in such a way that it makes it accessible to even the most uninformed Shakespearean reader. The book is meticulously researched, and as a reader I could tell Shapiro was passionate about the era he was presenting.

While this book was chock-full of information, my biggest issue with it lies with the title, The Year of Lear. I picked this book up because of my love of Shakespeare’s King Lear play, and while Shapiro does discuss at length some of the inspirations behind the play, a good chunk of this book went over the year instead of the work. Shapiro explores, specifically, the Gunpowder Plot in such detail that it should have been renamed to reflect this aspect rather than lead the reader to believe that it is a book exploring Shakespeare’s play.

With that said, I must admit I am a hypocrite when it comes to certain historical aspects explored in The Year of Lear. Specifically, I did find Shapiro’s exploration on the plague and subsequent theatre closures to be really engrossing, even though they really didn’t have too much influence on King Lear, Macbeth, or Antony and Cleopatra.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars. 

Purchase Links

Simon & SchusterAmazon | Barnes & Noble |Indigo

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