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.
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.