Writers & Company

James Shapiro on the critical year Shakespeare wrote King Lear

On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, scholar James Shapiro discusses one of the most significant years of the playwright's life: 1606.
In his new book, James Shapiro weaves a narrative that connects what was happening politically and socially in the world with what Shakespeare produced for the stage. (Mary Cregan)

The year 1606 was productive for William Shakespeare — and terrible for England. Shakespeare wrote three of his most enduring plays, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, while England suffered through a serious bout of the plague, a Catholic conspiracy that aimed to do away with the King and a general sense of unrest across the land.

On the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death, Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel speaks with scholar James Shapiro, who chronicles this critical year of Shakespeare's life in The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.


There was no radio. There was no morning newspaper yet. There were no competing media, other than royal proclamations and sermons outside of St Paul's Cathedral or inside the 120 or so of London's churches. That meant that the only place where Londoners could turn to understand their world — their political world, the economic and social and military crises that the nation was undergoing — was the theatre. [The public] needed the theatre; it's not just they wanted to go there for entertainment. It told them what they wanted to understand about themselves and their world that they did not understand. Shakespeare spoke to those needs.


There are some architects who build from the ground up and others who prefer to do gut renovations. Shakespeare could look at somebody else's play and see what was structurally unsound about it, see what additions needed to be made, see what had worn out and needed to be replaced with something more modish. With the exception of only a couple of his plays (e.g. The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream), he preferred to take somebody else's story and retell it. He does so in King Lear more savagely than he does anywhere else. He takes a familiar story and a happy ending and he turns it into the bleakest, most apocalyptic ending. [It] must have been doubly unnerving for playgoers, who came into that theatre knowing the story and had to sit through a complete reversal of their expectations.


I think Shakespeare really had his finger on the pulse of his age. I'll give one more example. At the end of this extraordinarily productive year for Shakespeare, he writes a third tragedy after Macbeth called Antony and Cleopatra. That play — about a magnificent queen and nostalgia for her — fed right into the growing nostalgia for England's Queen. Just two or three years earlier when Queen Elizabeth had died, everyone was really relieved to be done with the monarch they'd call "that old woman." Three years into James's profligate and politically unsteady regime, people are saying "God, we wish we had her back." In writing the story of Cleopatra, Shakespeare taps deeply into that nostalgia that other lesser playwrights like Thomas Dekker were using at that very moment.

James Shapiro's comments have been edited and condensed.