So December is when people will think back on the year that is soon to be past, and they will think about what they accomplished. Most people wish they had done more. If you think you did a lot, consider this.
In 1606, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra.
So no, you didn’t do a lot.
That’s quite a year for someone to have. Honestly, that’s a lifetime of creative output for most artists and it happened in one year.
I’ve posted a couple of times about The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, but I do want to do a summary/review.
It’s a really good book, for two reasons.
First, it delves into the detail and the context that the plays came out of. This was a tumultuous time, from the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 (see Guy Fawkes) to the plague to King James seeking to unify Britain to horrifying repression of Catholics, some of which appeared to even reach Shakespeare’s family.
So, as a study of literature as an artifact of its time, this book succeeds. As I mentioned previously, you don’t get this when you study Shakespeare in school. Shapiro does a great job of delving into the actual texts of these plays to show not just the themes they explored but also the inside jokes buried inside of them–little cultural references and snippets of familiar language that would have delighted his audiences.
The cover, in fact, is a picture of prisoners being dragged to a gallows where an apparent drawing and quartering is scheduled.
The key point is that great art rarely comes out of peaceful times, just as great art rarely comes out of sanguine people. Chaos makes us question, and when we question the lives we lead–and the question of our basic humanity, as they had to have been doing in this time–we make great art.
You don’t make great art in cruise control. It comes from troubled minds.
Second, the book succeeds a primer to great storytelling, which I suspect it did not intend to be. We were taught in school that Shakespeare used old stories as the basis for his plays, but Shapiro puts us inside that process. He shows us what Shakespeare started with and then how he adapted the stories to tell the story he wanted to tell and how sometimes that process can be seen in individual passages, like the fossil of a bug in a piece of rock.
This source material includes King Leir, an old play, Plutarch for Anthony and Cleopatra and Holinshed’s Chronicles for Macbeth. In each case, he relied heavily on source documents but did not let them stifle the storytelling process. As it has been said, “research can kill a novel.”
The borrowing casts an interesting light on current teaching:
Students are taught to be original and where authors who borrow can end up being labelled a plagiarizer.
Students are also taught not to use too much timely language or jargon, but note this:
Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written not for posterity but for contemporaries like Matthew Banks and his fellow carpenters, playgoers drawn to a post–Gunpowder Plot tragedy…
Lastly, there are certainly parallels to our time, which is actually far kinder and safer than 1606, but we still have ample opportunities to understand that humans have a good side and an awful side.