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 42, 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.
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.
©2015 James Shapiro (P)2016 Tantor
"[Shapiro's] well-written, scholarly exploration will stand as an influential work that is a joy to read." (Kirkus Starred Review)
"With a voice of gentle authority and a good command of historic detail and literary deconstruction, Audie-winning narrator Robert Fass takes the listener on a fascinating tour of a pivotal time in William Shakespeare's life and career.... The American-accented Fass leaves aside classic theatrical rhythms and delivers the many passages of the Bard with a conversational clarity that is much appreciated." (AudioFile)
Shapiro takes another journey through a year in Shakespeare's life, this time documenting the world surrounding the creation of the plays "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra." Elizabeth is dead, James is on the throne, and the Lord Chamberlain's Men are now the King's Men, complete with the scarlet livery they're required to wear on ceremonial occasions.
Shapiro is good at describing the political and religious currents: James wants to unite England and Scotland. A group of Catholics plot to blow up the king and Parliament and place the king's daughter on the throne. James takes up the "popish" practice of curing the King's Evil. King Christian of Denmark visits and drinks everyone under the table. Fellow playwrights are imprisoned for making fun of the Scots. A distant relative of Shakespeare's is hanged, drawn, and quartered; and his own daughter Susanna is fined for avoiding Anglican services.
It would be nice if somehow a more intimate picture of Shakespeare himself came into focus from this mass of detail, but he remains elusive. Shapiro insists he's not trying to recover Shakespeare's private life; at this point no one can. What we CAN recover is some of the zeitgeist, the issues that caused people sleepless nights, the bits and pieces of daily life, news from home and abroad; and see how these bits show up in the plays. Conclusions can at times be made about Shakespeare's artistic goals and methods: Shapiro provides an excellent guide to the differences between the two versions of "Lear" and what they may signify. But we still don't know whether Shakepeare loved his wife, or whether he preferred his beef medium rare or well done.
The narrative is detailed and at times - during the description of the Gunpowder Plot, for example - it moves forward at breakneck speed. There are many small surprises, such as the fact that Samuel Harsnett - source of the litany of devil's names in "King Lear" - is also the source of the unusual adjective "corky" (as in "bind fast his corky arms").
Fass is an excellent narrator. I was mainly familiar with him for his work on the Oxford History of the United States. He does an impeccable job here, maintaining a clear and consistent pace through the historical events and reciting the many speeches from Shakespeare's plays with genuine passion. (And, thankfully, with no attempt to assume a British accent. I'm not saying Fass himself would have been bad at this, but I've heard other North American narrators try this, with uniformly dismal results.)
It's an interesting excursion, and I recommend it.
This is a very enjoyable audiobook, well read, interesting set of facts. What is odd about it is the light connection with the play King Lear. It is certainly connected with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's writings (including Macbeth). It provides a quite useful context for Shakespeare's life in 1606, but I am not quite sure that it provides a useful context for his play King Lear. As long as you understand that, that the volume does not tease out answers to the mysteries of Lear, but rather to the time & to Shakespeare's life & times, you can find the story very enjoyable.
As an answer to your questions about the play, let me recommend, recommend highly, another book available on Audible -- It is "King Lear, Shakespeare Appreciated."
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