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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

James Shapiro: The Year of Lear

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 32

1606 was a critical year for Shakespeare’s creative career. It was the year in which he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. It was also a time in which the king of England, James I, faced internal political challenges that threatened to tear the nation apart.

James Shapiro, our guest for this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His new book, The Year of Lear, examines how the events of 1606 touched Shakespeare’s life and whether they are reflected in his work.

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, was published October 6, 2015, by Simon & Schuster.  James Shapiro is also a member of the Folger’s Board of Governors. He was interviewed by Neva Grant.

James Shapiro also discussed The Year of Lear at a Folger Shakespeare Library event on October 7, 2015.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 23, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Have Years on My Back,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington and Larry Josephson at the Radio Foundation in New York.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

There are many different ways to explore the life and works of Shakespeare. Jim Shapiro has carved out his own niche. In 2005, and then again in 2015, he published books that focused on a single year during Shakespeare’s career, looking at England on a micro and macro level, exploring how the year’s events touched Shakespeare’s life, and whether they are reflected in his work.

Jim’s 2015 book, The Year of Lear, is the topic of this conversation. It examines 1606, the year when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, and when a king, James I, faced internal political challenges that threatened to tear England apart.

We call this podcast “I Have Years on My Back.” Jim Shapiro is interviewed by Neva Grant.

NEVA GRANT: I would like to start with a line from the prologue of your book, which really struck me: “The year 1606 would turn out to be a good one for Shakespeare and an awful one for England.” So let’s work our way through that, if we can. For starters, why was it a bad year for England?

JAMES SHAPIRO: 1606 was one of the worst years for England in Shakespeare’s lifetime, perhaps the worst. For one thing, a massive outbreak of plague returned in the summer of that year.

There was also man-made trouble. Less than two months before the end of 1605, a group of 20 or so disaffected Catholic gentry tried to blow up the king, the ruling class, the religious leaders of England in the famous Gunpowder Plot. And much of 1606 was spent finding, torturing, trying, and publicly executing these men, and then trying to figure out how to deal with the aftershocks of an attack that would have killed up to 30,000 Londoners and would have restored Catholicism to the reign.

And on top of that, King James was trying to force the nation, two nations really, Scotland and England, to combine into Great Britain, and it created an identity crisis on top of all these other crises. Shakespeare, of course, was terrific at exploring identity crises, and he wrote three great plays in this year that engaged all of these issues.

GRANT: We are going to get into that Gunpowder Plot in a bit more detail, but let’s pause here and look to Shakespeare and ask why, in the midst of all of this turmoil, was it such a good year for him?

SHAPIRO: Well, the first thing you have to think about is how bad the last five years had been for Shakespeare. We tend to think of Shakespeare as putting out two plays a year, but like any writer, he had his ups and downs. And since writing Hamlet at the turn of the century, he had not been as productive, nor had he written the kind of extraordinary work that we celebrate today. Many of us don’t go to see Timon of Athens or Measure for Measure as often as we do plays like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet and Lear and Macbeth. So he had lost his footing, and I think part of the explanation for that was he had been a great Elizabethan writer, and it took a while for Shakespeare to speak to the moment as powerfully as he had under Queen Elizabeth.

GRANT: One thing I thought you would mention in terms of why 1606 was a good year for Shakespeare is for some time he had been one of the King’s Men. In fact, his group of players was the group of sort of official players of the king’s court, which had to mean so much for, if not his career, perhaps the trajectory of his entire life.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that I discovered in researching and writing this book, on the heels of a book about the Elizabethan Shakespeare, was that the Jacobean Shakespeare, Shakespeare under King James, was living a very different kind of professional life and writing very different kinds of plays.

Shortly after King James came to the throne, he looked around, had to choose a professional playing company to be his company, and he chose Shakespeare’s company, and this was a mixed blessing. Yes, you had royal patronage, but King James expected Shakespeare and his fellow players to show up at court ten times or more a year. So, yes, they were the chosen company, but it also put different kind of pressures and, I think, put Shakespeare at a very delicate spot, when it came to writing about the politics of the moment.

GRANT: Well, we’ll get to the politics in a moment, but just from an artistic point of view, the idea of having to churn out, was it ten original plays a year? That must have put a lot of pressure on him, or were they sort of mix and matching between his own work, as well as the work of other playwrights?

SHAPIRO: To the best of our knowledge, companies at this time presented 20 new plays a year and had in their repertory 20 old chestnuts, so that it wasn’t Cats now and forever. If you had a hit like Hamlet, it didn’t go on at the Globe for three years running. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences went to the Globe and other theaters, expecting that the play would change every day.

So, Shakespeare had been writing two, three, sometimes even four plays a year in the 1590s. That level of productivity had dropped to one play a year in the opening years of the 17th century. 1606 is the first year where he writes three plays, and that is three extraordinary tragedies, so that’s a turnaround for Shakespeare.

But, again, they had run out of new plays to perform before King James, they were recycling a lot of Elizabethan plays that the Jacobean courtiers had not seen, so it was a mix and match, as you say.

GRANT: Give us some sense of what it would have been like on a night, or perhaps an afternoon, of performance. Is the king there, who else is there? How is the word spread around that Shakespeare’s guys are going to be at it again, come out to see the show. What kind of pageantry would have been involved?

SHAPIRO: They would play indoors at court on a stage that was prepared for them, usually in the Christmas holidays, which began in November and ended in February, and there would be 400 or so courtiers packed in to see this event. King James would be sitting in a very prominent position. He was as much the source of attention as Shakespeare’s company. And Shakespeare, over the years, would have played in the Jacobean court so many times, he must have been familiar with most of the figures who were jockeying for power.

GRANT: You mentioned that, as the king’s writer, Shakespeare had to walk a delicate line, particularly, I would think, during this period in history. But explain why that is.

SHAPIRO: Sure. When King James was chosen to succeed Queen Elizabeth and made his way down to London, there was universal relief. They were tired of the “old woman,” as contemporaries said, and they welcomed the king, who was married and had, as we now say, an heir and a spare, so that the succession anxiety was over.

But it soon became apparent to everyone that King James, as brilliant as he was, and he may have been the most best-selling writer ever to sit on the English throne, he was a disappointment. He was spending too much, and he had a political agenda which didn’t quite work, including his prize project, which was unifying Scotland and England. So you can imagine how interested, in a day without newspapers or radio or any other media, how interested audiences were in seeing playwrights explore the problems of the issues that King James had brought with him down from Scotland.

GRANT: And Shakespeare’s right in the thick of that.

SHAPIRO: Shakespeare is right in the thick of that. Everyone is writing at this time about union, divided kingdoms, united kingdoms, and, of course, Shakespeare throws his hat into the ring with a play called King Lear, about the division of the kingdom.

GRANT: And we’ll get to King Lear in more detail in just a second. But before that, I just want to reintroduce something that you had alluded to earlier, which is this Gunpowder Plot. One of the things that made this such a bad year for England is into this charged political atmosphere comes an outright attack, or near attack, on the king.

SHAPIRO: In a post 9-11 moment, we have become acclimated to what it is to anticipate and react to a terrorist plot. But the Gunpowder Plot was unprecedented, no one had ever lived through a terrorist plot of this kind, the enormity of the threat, the way that it would have changed everyone’s life. And then, how do you deal, in the aftermath of this, with the perpetrators, with telling or spinning a story of what happened, of not letting any crisis go unexploited. So this was a time of great anxiety on the street.

GRANT: But it was a terrorist attack that did not happen, that could have happened, and I think the name that most people, if they remember the Gunpowder Plot at all from their history books, the name they will remember is Guy Fawkes. So tell us a bit about the plot, how it unfolded, and how it also didn’t happen.

SHAPIRO: It’s controversial. It looks like a group of 15 or so young Catholic men, disappointed that King James did not show more toleration to Catholics in England, realizing that he was a young king and it could be 20 or 30 years before they’d have another chance, plotted together to transport 36 barrels of gunpowder into the Parliament buildings, under the House of Lords. And on November 5, Guy Fawkes, who was there, Guido Fawkes, with matches, ready to light the fuse that would blow them to kingdom come, was caught red-handed. And he was tortured to give up more information about his fellow conspirators, who all raced to Warwickshire, to Shakespeare’s country, to try, in the aftermath of the failed explosion, to lead a national uprising in an area they thought was sympathetic to Catholicism, and they were going to overthrow Protestantism that way.

GRANT: So you’ve painted this wonderful picture for us of a shaky kingdom to begin with, and that we have this young king, who’s trying to put a union together, into this comes a terrorist plot, and, as you say, an unprecedented event. And here is Shakespeare writing plays, and one of the first plays he writes, I guess, during this time, is King Lear.

SHAPIRO: He does. He started King Lear almost surely in the fall of 1605. It was started before the Gunpowder Plot and finished after, and it’s a play about a divided kingdom and the destruction of the royal family. And I think it must have been a very uncanny experience for King James and the hundreds of aristocrats who had gathered at court in December of 1606 to watch this play about the destruction of the royal family and really the political annihilation of the kingdom.

GRANT: It’s a play about so much. I mean, it’s about power, it’s about loss of authority, it is about betrayal at the absolute deepest level, and you describe it as this double helix, these two interweaving plots, where we have Gloucester on one side, Lear on the other, and it is a desperately, desperately tragic play.

SHAPIRO: It is, but people who were going to see it would not have expected a tragic play. There had been an old play of King Lear that had been around since he had come to London 15 years earlier, and it ended with everyone alive, with King Lear’s daughter and the king reconciled, and peace and harmony and relief. Shakespeare took this happy ending and transformed it into the most agonizing tragedy imaginable. So I think the intensity of the tragedy was magnified by Shakespeare in a kind of unprecedented way in this play.

GRANT: You know, I really empathize with Shakespeare scholars, because, of course, there’s very little sort of surviving documents or first source material that gets into Shakespeare’s head, so it’s hard to imagine whether he either found this all very, very stressful, trying to walk these delicate lines in his own writing, or whether there was something sort of exhilarating in it for him. It was a bit like solving a puzzle, both an artistic puzzle, as well as a political one.

SHAPIRO: Exhilarating was exactly the word that came to my mind as you began that question. It must have been exhilarating for him, because he’s writing under Queen Elizabeth all these plays about succession, but he hadn’t found a form for writing about his times under King James, he hadn’t found the issues that spoke with the same degree of immediacy, and in Lear and Macbeth he does so.

GRANT: Yes, yes, of course, because in 1606 he not only writes King Lear, he writes another extraordinary tragedy, Macbeth.

SHAPIRO: Eighteen months before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, his company had staged a play called The Tragedy of Gowrie. It was about an assassination attempt on King James, and then the government pulled the plug on the play, it doesn’t survive. Shakespeare’s company, having invested in this play, were left with nothing to show for it. It was too dangerous to tell that story of an assassination attempt on King James himself. Well, Shakespeare himself went back to the drawing board and in Macbeth tells, in an oblique way, the story of the killing of a Scottish king. So that’s a pretty good way of saying or explaining how Shakespeare can dodge the bullet of censorship and yet write a play that is transparently about the anxiety of the moment.

GRANT: And was that a safer play, because this Scottish king was an ancient king?

SHAPIRO: It is. You know, you can set things in distant times and get away, or sometimes in Shakespeare, distant places, and get away with things you couldn’t, if you set them in the here and now. But this is a play that is also very clearly of its moment. In fact, King James himself makes a brief cameo appearance in the show of kings late in the play, so everybody knows this is about the past, but it’s also very much about the present.

GRANT: And of course the Gunpowder Plot, which was such a frightening event as an event was, in some ways, a very convenient literary device for Shakespeare, because he works it into Macbeth as well, doesn’t he?

SHAPIRO: When you sat down at the Globe to see, hear, and smell Macbeth, one of the first things you smell are squibs made of gunpowder in the opening scenes with the witches, and you’re aware of that gunpowder element.

One of the key words that emerged in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot was the word “equivocation.” It turned out that the Jesuit advisors of the gunpowder plotters had even given one or more of them A Treatise of Equivocation, which taught them how to lie under oath, and this became, kind of, the word of the year.

GRANT: And excuse me…


GRANT: Excuse me I should just interject here, that at that time, or at least in the context of the treatise, “equivocation” didn’t mean sort of waffling or not being sure, it meant lying, but only lying under certain circumstances, because these were…

SHAPIRO: That’s right.

GRANT: These were Catholics, after all, and they had to abide by certain rules, but they were encouraged to lie under certain circumstances and that was “equivocation,” in that sense.

SHAPIRO: There must have been two people who were really thrilled with the discovery of this Treatise of Equivocation, one was the man in charge of prosecuting the perpetrators and the other must have been Shakespeare. Shakespeare loved words, and he loved the word “equivocation.” Hamlet uses that word, but he uses it, as you suggested, neutrally. But after this treatise was discovered, it began to be understood in that sense of lying under oath.

GRANT: But again, if I could, just to clarify…


GRANT: Because this will be unfamiliar to just about everybody listening. As I understand it, this Treatise on Equivocation was more or less a how-to guide on lying for Catholics, who, at that time were, you know, sort of living on the margins of society, right?


GRANT: And it was a how-to guide, so that if you had to hide other Catholics, you know, it was lying, honorable lying, because, in fact, you were protecting other Catholics, who had to keep their heads down during this time.

SHAPIRO: That’s exactly right. This guide was a how-to guide on how to lie acceptably, and Shakespeare was clearly excited about the possibilities of this, since characters had been equivocating, in this sense, in his plays since he first started writing.

GRANT: So how did it work its way into Macbeth?

SHAPIRO: It permeates Macbeth, from the opening words of the witches in the first scene to the end of the play, where Macbeth says he doubts “th’ equivocation of the fiend.” And in its most central moment, in the very strange Porter scene, where a drunken man comes in, right after the murder of Duncan, and entertains us with his tale of how drunk he had been the night before, he then turns the conversation to “equivocation.” And you get the sense that this is a play about lying, it’s about self-deception on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and it’s also about the larger diabolic forces that are out there. What a brilliant companion piece to the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.

GRANT: That’s fascinating. You know, you mentioned diabolic forces, and I’m wondering if, among them, we are thinking also of witches and witchcraft, because that, too, loomed very large in Macbeth, and it was a subject that was clearly interesting to Shakespeare, but it was also interesting to King James.

SHAPIRO: I had submitted the book to my publishers and I got a call from an archaeologist in England, and he said, “We’ve just made this discovery at Knole, about 20 miles south of London. The Lord Treasurer was refurbishing the king’s quarters at Knole in expectation of a royal visit in 1606, and we pulled up the floorboards, and underneath them was an 18-foot oak beam, between the fireplace and where the king’s bed was going to be, and on this oak beam were all these markings meant to keep away witches or demonic forces that were supposed to come through the fireplace and attack the king.” King James had written a treatise on witchcraft. He had been very interested in the subject shortly after his marriage to Anne, and King James was interested not only in examples of witchcraft, but also in exposing those who were faking it, who were faking demonic possession.

GRANT: There was, in fact, a well-known faker during that time, a woman named Anne Gunter, who claimed to be possessed by witches, she turned out to be faking, and this must have been fascinating to people at that time, as well as quite frightening.

SHAPIRO: King James was obsessed with this case, he met with this young woman, who was spitting out pins and going through frenzied performances, really, for crowds, until he finally exposed her as a fraud. And what’s exciting for me, as a scholar, is seeing the way that her case enters the plays at this time. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great rival, actually includes a kind of parody of Anne Gunter, spitting up pins and having a fit, scene in his great play, Volpone, in 1606.

So these cases represented really what people were interested in, anxious about, obsessed with. And even as the gunpowder plotters are being tortured and executed and become a national preoccupation, Anne Gunter goes on trial before the Star Chamber in the early months of 1606, and dozens of witnesses are called to try to get at the heart of her case. So all these events that are going on feed into Shakespeare’s imagination and feed into the plays, and one of the things that I was trying to do in writing The Year of Lear was to illuminate what kind of cultural preoccupations were shaping, not just Shakespeare’s mind and artistic work, but also those of his contemporaries.

GRANT: So in 1606, just this remarkable year for Shakespeare, he produces King Lear, he writes Macbeth, and he writes Antony and Cleopatra, which gives him yet another opportunity to explore all these issues we’ve been talking about, about authority, about kingdom, about rivalry.

SHAPIRO: We began earlier talking about how King James was becoming a disappointment to the English people. And one of the things you feel in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which is about this glorious queen, was a nostalgia for Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s play is one of the first plays in the early 17th century that really identifies this nostalgia for what has been lost.

GRANT: Go into that in a little bit more detail, because I think for those who remember the play, they will remember Cleopatra as, at least in some scenes, as quite a scheming figure, sort of another version of Lady Macbeth. Certainly not the kind of figure that Queen Elizabeth would have wanted to be associated with, even posthumously.

SHAPIRO: Even as Shakespeare had transformed his source material, that happy ending King Lear, Shakespeare also transformed his source material in telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra. And instead of taking this really negative approach to the scheming, as you put it, Cleopatra, he turns it into a love tragedy that culminates in her suicide, but really, her establishment of her greatness, her moment at Cydnus where she first wooed Antony, her moment of greatness. He turns her into a much more noble figure and that last image of the play, of Cleopatra in her royal garments, is what we’re left with. And that resonated very powerfully at this moment, especially given what was going on with King James’s own effort to displace Queen Elizabeth in the hearts and minds and even in her burial spot in England.

GRANT: You know, as we talk about all of these plays and the interplay between what was happening in real life and how some of these events got woven into the three plays, Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, how difficult was it for you to determine which were the clear connections between something that actually happened, and that showed up in one of Shakespeare’s plays, and something that you would see and think “Oh, maybe, maybe this was sparked by this event,” but there’s no real way of knowing, sort of something like the ringing of the bells for plague victims and the line about “the dead man’s knell” in Macbeth. You know, we could think of that either way. How are you able to sort through that?

SHAPIRO: That’s a really good question. And the best answer I can offer is the first thing I do is turn to generations of scholars, each of whom has wrestled with one of these questions, so that I’m trying to speak from a kind of scholarly consensus. The other thing I’m doing is reaching out to experts, really, and getting their sense of things or what the latest discoveries might mean. Ultimately, it is a judgment about how I read this moment in a writer’s life, and how I try to find, from the shards of evidence that survive, enough to illuminate what these cultural forces were that shaped these works that we continue to read 400 years later.

GRANT: You know, we shouldn’t end the interview without mentioning your previous book, which was also about a single year in Shakespeare’s life, 1599. This was the year when Shakespeare wrote As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Henry V, and Hamlet, and I guess you find this to be a very fruitful way of studying him, to sort of bore in on a single year and take a really slow, almost a pan, a slow pan across that year to get a very full picture of his creativity.

SHAPIRO: I think that image of a slow pan is exactly right. It’s been the way that I have tried to think creatively about how we try to understand the greatness of Shakespeare. The only bad thing about focusing on a year in this way is that the first book was about the year 1599 and that took me 15 years to write. The Year of Lear took me 10 years to write and that’s 25 years of work to cover two years, and I don’t know whether I have another year left in me. They’re just very painstaking acts of reconstruction, and they take a long time, but it’s been thrilling for me to immerse myself in that moment in this way and to share what I’ve learned with readers.

GRANT: Maybe your next book should be a day in the life of William Shakespeare! [LAUGH]

SHAPIRO: I think that would probably take twice as long to figure out, but I’ll think about it.

GRANT: Okay, well, James Shapiro, it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you about this book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Oh, it was my pleasure. Good talking.

WITMORE: Jim Shapiro is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, was published in 2015 by Simon and Shuster. Jim is also a member of the Folger’s Board of Governors. He was interviewed by Neva Grant.

“I Have Years On My Back” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington, DC, and Larry Josephson at the Radio Foundation in New York.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.