Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Year of Lear: James Shapiro

 I have never been a formal student of literature and never studied Shakespeare in class room. I read Shakespeare as I went along. And that’s greater reason why I feel that Shakespeare is perhaps the world's greatest explorer of human nature. James Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is an important contribution to the ever increasing body of scholarly works on Shakespeare and it shows how Shakespeare's observant mind used the contemporary debates and concerns in shaping his major creative works!  That such a passionate work of great scholarship should appear during the year that marks 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare also proves that with times posterity's interest in Shakespeare has not declined a whit, and that Shakespeare still continues to be an important  industry that keeps generating quality works on his life and works! While reading "The Year of Lear” I was most impressed by James Shapiro's marshalling of facts as also his passionate exposition of the spirit of the  period he has written about.

James Shapiro argues that the year 1606 was truly eventful in social, political and religious life of the English people. The year saw great upheavals and tempests that continued to reverberate for  many decades to come.  It was also the most important and productive year for Shakespeare, for he wrote three major celebrated works during this year, "King Lear", "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra".   Shapiro further demonstrates that the happenings of this  period have deeply etched the high creative contours of these three major plays written in 1606.  His book is not merely about Shakespeare’s creativity. It goes beyond Shakespeare and gives a live demonstration of how great writers and artists deeply engage themselves with the complex social forces   that shape destinies of societies and give rise to   dominant narratives and literature of people.  In that sense Shapiro's "The Year of Lear" is not merely an unravelling of Shakespeare's Act of Creation but also a contribution to the study of creativity in literature.

After an intense survey of major themes unfolding in the third year of the reign of James I, Shapiro shows that the period was marked by three or four interrelated dominant social, political and religious themes. And he shows that   these themes were uppermost in the mind of Shakespeare during this period and they powerfully resonate in his three creative works of this period. If literary works are deep meditations on the life and all its afflictions, then here was Shakespeare deeply reflecting on the tumultuous events and themes that were sweeping the English nation. 

The first theme concerned with the union and the division of the kingdom/s---the issue that became important after James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth---- and this forms the core of King Lear.     King Lear's very scheme of dividing the kingdom among three daughters was fraught with political unwisdom and ineptitude! Shakespeare also built around this politically unsustainable proposal a wretchedly unethical and immoral scheme emanating from the senile king's lack of judgement.  The story of King Lear was thus modified by Shakespeare in the light of the contemporary acrimonious debates, and what resulted was perhaps his greatest work "King Lear".

The second was the deep simmering religious disharmony that surfaced violently in the form of seditious "Gun-Powder Plot" that would have blown up the entire parliament along with the King. In November 1605 the nation was shocked   to learn about this conspiracy when the plot  was busted. This brought to the fore the old rivalry between the Protestants and the Catholics and the passions started running high. The spirit of sedition, murder and conspiracy was in the air and was picked up by Shakespeare and grafted on a Scottish story to present Macbeth, one of the greatest tragedies Shakespeare wrote.

 The third theme in the year 1606 was the high profile visit of King James's brother-in-law (King of Denmark) and the accompanying atmosphere of courtly manners and styles masquerading social biases and deep conflicts in the society. And this formed an important influence in the writing of Antony and Cleopatra. With detailed arguments and impressive facts and records James Shapiro shows how the general debates arising from this visit are reflected in the making of Antony and Cleopatra, one of the masterpieces of Shakespeare.

  The fourth important contemporary theme was about witchcraft, the toxic atmosphere of miracles and psychic phenomena. Considerable debate was raging on this issue and in many cases it was argued that such phenomena were either tricks or the reportage of the gullible and the simpleminded. Moreover, many such cases were shown to be closely related to Catholic/Jesuits giving it a political undertone.  This theme of witchcraft has recurred in Macbeth and in King Lear and has aesthetically enhanced   magical suggestiveness of various events in these works. 
1606 was also a year that saw ravages brought about by plague and its social and psychological implications and personal tragedies. All these found reflections in Shakespeare’s plays.

James Shapiro's book  demonstrates that all literary and artistic creativity stems from the 'Now and the Present' of the life; and the great literature, however fanciful it may be in terms of its presentation and rendering, is always rooted in the life of people and the mores of the society. 

 Passion with which James Shapiro writes is unique. His book is also a contribution to history of England during the reign of King James I. As one continues reading the book one feels as if one is a part of the then society of the 16th century England of King James I.  It was great pleasure reading this book that was timely brought out during the Shakespeare festival.  

If Shakespeare has survived for over four centuries and has emerged stronger and greater, it is not merely because of the merits of his literary works alone.  It is also because of abiding faith and total devotion of scholars like James Shapiro.    


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