In 1606, after a creative lull, Shakespeare wrote three of his masterworks: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. How did he accomplish so much in so short a time period? According to Shakespeare Scholar James Shapiro’s new book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 , a number of political and social events combined to make this the Bard’s Best Year Ever. It was a period of upheaval, plague, public executions — and plays. Here are just five of the events that influenced the great works Shakespeare produced, and the environment in which he wrote and produced his plays.
- A Scottish king was almost murdered. 1605 was the year of the infamous foiled “Gunpowder Plot,” in which Guy Fawkes and his Catholic associates tried to overthrow the new King James and Parliament. It was a bloody night, and after their defeat, the rebels were tried for treason and given the traitor’s death: hung, drawn, and quartered most brutally. Shapiro writes that the unrest, the divided kingdom and the violence and destruction of this event, a national trauma, can be felt in the brutal fates of both the monarchs and the courtiers in Lear and Macbeth. Macbeth in particular, with its bloody beheadings and regicide, seems to have a thematic connection with this violent series of events.
- Elizabeth’s death in 1603 made the depiction of aging queen Cleopatra very tricky. During the period right before Shakespeare’s play, Shapiro writes, the story of Antony and Cleopatra wasn’t viewed with much sympathy in England. The long-suffering Octavia, Antony’s wife back in Rome, was a much more prominent figure of interest and identification. Shakespeare wanted to write a sequel to Julius Caesar, but immortalizing the figure of Cleopatra, who would inevitably be compared to England’s reigning queen, was a tricky feat. After Elizabeth’s death, Shakespeare reworked the story and added the elements of doomed love and tragedy. Essentially, he shaped the ill-fated lovers to fit the archetypes we associate with them today: heroic and sympathetic — a sort of grown-up Romeo and Juliet — if also fatally flawed.
- A royal line was sundered. Elizabeth I’s death also meant the end of the Tudor line, which was replaced by the Stuarts, starting with James I. After the Virgin Queen’s long and relatively stable reign, the kingdom felt unstable. A few years later, in a moment of truth being stranger than fiction, James even had Elizabeth I’s body exhumed and moved to the same plot as her sister Mary’s so that he could claim her prime plot for himself. He also moved some other graves around to balance things out. To compensate for this, he built Elizabeth a massive tomb. This very visceral tussle over the royal dynasty — and the upheaval felt by the royal subjects — is palpable in all of the 1606 plays, most obviously in the violent intra-clan power struggles of Lear and Macbeth. But James’ maneuvering can also be seen in Antony and Cleopatra, as Octavius determines how to bury the doomed lovers and Cleopatra understands that her attitude in her final moments will determine her legacy.
- The plague came back. A small but potent outbreak of the plague claimed many lives in 1606 London. Shapiro notes that in a house close to where Shakespeare lodged in London, nearly an entire family was struck down. But an infant was spared, and she happened to be named Cordelia — a very rare name for the time. The bleakness (in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a similar outbreak claims so many characters in one short period it’s breathtaking) might have made its way into the bleak tragedies he wrote at the time, but it also changed the course of his career. Many theater companies that relied on young boys had to shut down because of the plague, creating a turn of events that “transformed and reinvigorated [Shakespeare’s] playing company,” the King’s Men.
- An international royal visit. In 1606, the Danish king, Christian, visited James (who had married his sister Anne) to much pomp and circumstance. As in Antony and Cleopatra, a procession of barges, lavish celebrations, and tension between the two kings were the order of the day. But the visit also highlighted how much things had changed. “Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy of nostalgia, a political work that obliquely… expresses a longing for an Elizabethan past that, despite its many flaws, appeared in retrospect far greater than the present political world,” writes Shapiro.