James McNamara reviews '1606' by James Shapiro

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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Published in December 2015, no. 377

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