James McNamara reviews '1606' by James Shapiro

James McNamara reviews '1606' by James Shapiro

1606: William Shakespeare and the year of Lear

by James Shapiro

Faber, $39.99 hb, 352 pp, 9780571235780

1606 was a rough year for England. In late 1605 the Gunpowder plotters nearly blew up the government; a Catholic rebellion in Warwickshire sharpened the country's fear. England's ports were closed and an army raised; bonfires lit the streets of London and guards manned the city gates. Later, the Tower drew its bridge and loaded cannons upon the (false) report of King James's assassination. Through this, James, who had succeeded Elizabeth I three years earlier, sought to unify England and Scotland in the face of parliamentary resistance and hard-crusted xenophobia. Add demonic possession, witch-hunting, exhuming Elizabeth, a boozy state visit from Denmark, exorcism, and the plague, and you have quite a year.

William Shakespeare had a better 1606 than England. After a fallow period, he wrote three of his great tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare biographers have a rum job: aside from the plays, documentary evidence of his life is thin. A good biographer has to be a sophisticated critic and historian, and dusty enough from archival work to deploy the scraps of evidence we have. James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, is all of these. In 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Shapiro continues the approach of his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning biography, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), studying a 'slice' of Shakespeare's life to illuminate his world and works.

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James McNamara

James McNamara

James McNamara is an Australian television writer based in Los Angeles. His television work includes comedy and drama writers rooms for the Academy Award-winning See-Saw Films, Matchbox Pictures/NBC Universal, Foxtel, ABC, Porchlight Films, and Endemol Shine, and developing shows for Goalpost Pictures and Playmaker Media/Sony Pictures. McNamara received ABR’s third Ian Potter Foundation Fellowship for his long-form essay, ‘The Golden Age of Television?’ (ABR, April 2015), praised by Clive James as ‘a global contribution to cultural analysis’. McNamara’s essays and criticism have also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, and The Spectator.

Born in Western Australia in 1982, McNamara received degrees in English and Law from the University of Western Australia, graduated in screenwriting from AFTRS, and holds a doctorate in English from Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar. Before becoming a writer, McNamara was a litigator specialising in international disputes at a top-tier US law firm. He was recently named a BAFTA LA Newcomer. 

Published in December 2015, no. 377

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