By Chet Yarbrough
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
By: James Shapiro
Narrated by: Robert Fass
James Shapiro (Author, Shakespeare Scholar, Professor at Columbia University.)
As a Shakesperean scholar, James Shapiro addresses Shakespeare’s plays during King James I’s reign. His history reveals the times in which Shakespeare is producing his most memorable plays. The three most relevant in this review are King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth.
King James I (Scottish King of England 1603-1625, Succeeded by Charles I.)
Part of Shapiro’s theme is the use of the word equivocation. The word first appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is a common technique used in Shakespeare’s plays to avoid giving definitive answers to questions. Shakespeare is purposefully obscuring some unclearly expressed truth. It is a way of misleading without flatly lying. Shakespeare conceals the evil nature of the witches. Their predictions of Macbeth’s existence are true, but they obscure the precise truth of events that unfold.
King James I is possibly best remembered by Americans as the English King who commissioned the first English translation of the bible.
King James also lent his name to the first permanent English colony in America. Shapiro reminds reader/listeners King James I was the first joint ruler of Scotland and England and was nearly assassinated by treasonous Catholic terrorists in the gunpowder plot of 1605.
A presumed rendering of the House of Lords (where the gunpowder plot was to be executed).
Though Shapiro’s book is about Shakespeare’s plays, it is also about the history of that era in which the gunpowder plot of 1605, the plague, and the reign of James I occur. The events of that time offer precedent for today’s makers of history.
Most interestingly, today’s master of equivocation is former President Trump.
In a January 26, 2017, article in GQ by Jay Willis, the following examples were noted as Trump’s classic use of equivocation:
- If people are registered wrongly, if illegals are registered to vote, which they are—if dead people are registered to vote and voting, which they do. There are some. I don’t know how many.
- Our country has enough problems without allowing people to come in who, in many cases or in some cases, are looking to do tremendous destruction.
- You’re looking at people that come in, in many cases, in some cases with evil intentions. I don’t want that. They’re ISIS.
- I had a tremendous victory, one of the great victories ever. In terms of counties I think the most ever or just about the most ever.
- There are millions of [illegal] votes, in my opinion. … I didn’t say there are millions. But I think there could very well be millions of people.
And of course, there is the 2021 “stolen election” equivocation that misled thousands of Americans who storm the US Capitol. None of these Americans committed treason but all appear to have fallen prey to Trump’s equivocations that led to the January 6, 2o21 rebellion.
Another parallel to the King James I era to modern times is Covid19’s impact on today’s society and economy. London’s social interactions became hostile as the spread of plague diminished care and respect for others. Violence became commonplace as plague attacks neighbors and diminishes social gatherings. Shakespeare’s plays and other entertainments were no longer conducted. The London economy spiraled downward. These events are repeated today as Covid19 subsides, with a rise in violent crime and a halting return to economic growth. Today is not yesterday but, as Mark Twain suggested, history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.
Guy Fawkes is caught in the basement of the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder and fire ignitors that would have killed or injured anyone meeting at this chamber of government. Shapiro explains many, if not all, who had a hand in the conspiracy were caught, tried, hung, and quartered when the plot was revealed.
The gruesome detail of quartering is explained by Shapiro. While still conscious after being hung, bodies are castrated and then dismembered. (Shapiro notes Fawkes avoids the conscious brutality of castration and dismembering because his neck is broken when he is hung.)
Protestant discrimination of Roman Catholics and religious intolerance motivate the gunpowder rebellion. Religion plays a part of Americans’ discontent in modern times but not to the degree of treasonous acts; undoubtedly, because of America’s Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The 1605 gunpowder rebellion is principally motivated by different religious belief. In England, Catholics suffer from discrimination because of the dominance of the royally mandated Church of England and the control of a Protestant King.
The gunpowder rebellion’ conspirators are relentlessly pursued by officers of James I’s rule. Though the conviction consequence is not the same for America’s January 6 ,2021 rebellion, the perpetrators are relentlessly pursued.
Though Spiro is not addressing any of what has happened in America today, it seems relevant to consider Donald Trump as the “equivocator and chief” that fomented America’s January 6,2021 rebellion.
Another interesting parallel revealed in Shakespeare’s plays is America’s aged Presidents in the last two elections.
Like the story of King Lear, one wonders if dementia is not a threat to American governance.
James Spiro offers an insightful history of the greatest playwright of all time. For today’s events, Shakespearean plays are as relevant today as in the 1600s.