Book Review: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro

Back in September of last year, I picked up a copy of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro. After the rave reviews it received in the press, how could I not? Especially since I knew the play of the title was just around the corner on this very blog (the past has become present, as we enter King Lear this month).

The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

You know, they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I suppose the same can be said of titles.

If all of that seems rather ominous, rest easy.

This is a very good book. If I had consumed it differently, I might actually say “great.” Lemme ‘splain.

Reading the first chapter (and prologue), I was hooked. Shapiro’s style, to give a brief anecdote of British history, then make a sidelong connection to Shakespeare and/or an element in the text, is wonderful. Part storyteller, part “best professor you’ve ever had,” he takes the reader on a journey.

He starts the trip with the same story of an aging king who divides his kingdom, only this version–King Leir–by a different playwright, and Shapiro makes the link to Shakespeare, via the national concern over monarchical succession. The play had been performed as early as 1590, but wasn’t sold until 1605. And here Shapiro begins to tie the past worry over who would replace Elizabeth on the throne to the current problems that faced the man who did. King James would face down the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605, and this would set the stage, as it were, for the context of Shakespeare’s writing of King Lear.

And so it goes, anecdote, connection, anecdote, connection. All beautifully done.

Then I made my mistake.

I switched from the written (albeit Kindle) word to the audio version. I listened but not as attentively. I was distracted (you know, stuff going on in the background of my mind and the foreground of my activity while listening), and when I became not distracted, I noticed we weren’t talking so much about Lear anymore. But now Macbeth…and then Antony and Cleopatra.

It threw me off.

My headspace had taken into account too much of the book’s cover, or rather its title, The Year of Lear, and not enough of its subtitle. Had I been reading, I think I would have made the transition from the King Lear connections to those of Macbeth and A&C, both of which were also (most likely) written in 1606.

The key was the “Year” not the “Lear.” But I missed that in my listening. It would have been more obvious in (a more careful) reading. And that’s my fault.

The bottom line is this: The book is very very good. Highly recommended.

I just may have to go back and re-READ those Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra chapters later this year, as we head into those plays.