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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 15 November 2015

"1606 William Shakespeare and the year of Lear" by James Shapiro

What is brilliant about this Shakespearian scholar (James Shapiro) is the way he roots each play in its context.

King Lear was borrowed from an older play called King Leir which was printed in 1605. With numerous quotes and including the fact that in Shakespeare's first version Lear is spelt Leir several times, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare rooted his play in the old one. But then he goes on to demonstrate Shakespeare's brilliance in the improvements that he made,for example using a line that mentions nothing to make nothing a motif for the entire play: "Nothing comes of nothing."

Intriguing stylistic aspects of Lear include:

  • the remarkable part of the Fool: "a role unlike any Shakespeare ever wrote before or after - witty, pathetic, lonely, angry and prophetic"'; 
  • the subplot of Edmund and Edgar and the Earl of Gloucester which "would be the first and last time that Shakespeare ever included a parallel plot of subplot in one of his tragedies;
  • the  "highly experimental" passage at the end of Act Three when Lear's madness "shifts in and out of lucidity, from prose to blank verse to snatches of song" and which is "closer to Samuel Beckett than to Jacobean drama";
  • the use of not one but "two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester";
  • and the biting irony: "We hear, time and again, a version of 'The Gods are just'. But the Gods are not just; as the blinded Gloucester has learned, 'As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport."
And then we discover that the device of the mysteriously delivered letter by which Edmund throws suspicion on his half-brother Edgar by letting his father Gloucester read it was mirrored a few days after it was written when a mysterious letter was delivered which contained sketchy details of the Gunpowder Plot; the 'recipients' of the letter similarly allowed King James to divine its meaning. Suddenly we are into the most famous conspiracy of English history: Guy Fawkes and his fellows. And Shakespeare is in the thick of it, living in both London and in Stratford-on-Avon, very near where the conspirators are massing (Ben Jonson, fellow playwright, was also involved, having recently dined with the conspirators at a London pub). Can a history book get any more exciting?

The Gunpowder plot was close to the London theatre scene. On 9th October 1605, less than a month before the discovery of Guy Fawkes, Ben Jonson, playwright, Shakespeare's friend and a Catholic, dined on the Strand in the company of conspirators Robert Catesby (ringleader), Francis Tresham (most likely author of the mysterious letter) and Thomas Winter.

And of course a major theme of Macbeth is equivocation ('Fair is foul and foul is fair') which was a controversial talking point in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Macbeth also has interesting stylistic points: 
  • King Duncan is killed offstage ... and so is Macbeth!
  • In the 'Hell's Porter' scene "Shakespeare offers us, in the most down-to-earth scene in the play, the closest thing to an evocation of hell itself." It is also a comic interlude (perhaps the only moment of humour in this dark play) which comes immediately after Duncan's murder, the point of no return.

Shapiro discusses the discovery of an old beam, scorched and marked with mesh design based on a pentagram. The symbols are towards the fireplace because "fireplaces and chimneys were thought to be rapid transit systems favoured by hellish spirits." And so to Harry Potter?

And finally, Shapiro deals with Antony and Cleopatra. In this play:
  • Shakespeare virtually abandons the soliloquy
  • He "never lets us see Antony and Cleopatra alone together on stage"
  • "His account of Cleopatra is suffused with paradox and hyperbole: ... 'she makes hungry Where she most satisfies'" (A2 S2) (Shapiro 2015 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear; p 280).

In Titus Andronicus there is a mad scene in which Marcus Andronicus kills a fly and Titus first reprimands him and then attacks the dead body of the fly; this scene was introduced between the Quarto version of the play and the First Folio and dhows that Shakespeare revised his works. I wonder whether the famous 'Fly' episode of Breaking Bad when Walter White spends a whole episode trying to kill a fly that might conceivably contaminate his meth cook (ironic since Crystal Meth is not known for customers who worry about the possible harm it may do).

The genius of Shapiro is that he lets us see how the plays were constructed by an ordinary man who was writing in the context of his company, the limitations of his theatre, and the context of events happening at the time. He tells us of the sources for the plays, the dates when they were published, the extensive borrowings Shakespeare made and the changes he made, and why he made them.

This book is a brilliant sequel to Shapiro's equally fabulous 1599 and the wonderful Contested Will. Read them all!

Also read Charles Nicholls The Lodger and the unputdownable Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World as well as Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells.

November 2015; 359 pages





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