Reading James Shapiro

Some years ago, I read James Shapiro’s 1599, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. I’ll admit I’m not one to read non-fiction books very often – outside of linguistics, of course. I tend to reserve book reading for fiction and occasionally poetry. Reading a year in the life of Shakespeare, however, was a different matter. Shapiro’s 1599 brough1599t together history and social context with textual analysis of Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, along with some of the influences on Hamlet, which Shakespeare started in that same year.  While some critics felt this volume was too encyclopaedic and lacking in soul, it certainly whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, I had to wait some ten years.

I’ve just finished reading Shapiro’s next instalment, 1606, which covers the context around the writing of King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. I’ve never been a strong fan of Anthony and Cleopatra as a play and was glad that it didn’t take up much of the book. Most of this volume is about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the ways it influenced the writing and performance of King Lear, and to a lesser extent, Macbeth. While the political climate of 1606 – and the reminder that Shakespeare was also a Jacobean – made for interesting reading, I found even more fascinating the textual analysis of Lear. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s Lear drew from King Leir, the anonymously-authored Elizabethan play, and more importantly how it di1606verged from it, rendering a much more complex ending. Shapiro has also unearthed the influence and direct borrowings from Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, which gave guidance on how to spot people faking demonic possession – a popular topic at the time.

I could say a great deal more about both 1599 and 1606, but I don’t wish to give away any more than I already have. Yes, it sounds as if I’m talking about a novel and not a literary history – this is a sign of good writing coupled with captivating interpretations.