“The Year of Lear”

Every time I read a Shakespeare play or read a good book about him, I wonder why I waste my time doing anything else.  Here’s one: The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is James Shapiro’s followup to his A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  The idea is to connect the plays Shakespeare wrote in a given year with the events taking place that year.  England in 1606 saw the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, concerns about King James’s push to unite England and Scotland, witchcraft trials, repression of Catholics, and the return of the plague.  Among other things.  During this welter of events, and presumably reacting to them, Shakespeare found the time to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Not a bad year.

Of course, Shapiro’s book is full of suppositions, because we know absolutely nothing about Shakespeare’s inner life.  But it’s fun to guess!  Shapiro has a lot to say about what I think is one of the most fascinating issues in Shakespeare.  Why did he rework the plot of an older play called King Leir and change its happy ending to the unbearably tragic ending of his version?  Was it the times?  Was it something in his personal life?  Was he trying different meds?

And what caused him (or someone else) to change his original ending (published in the Quarto of 1608) to what we find in the First Folio of 1623?  It’s still tragic, but there is now a thin shaft of light amid the all-encompassing darkness.  (This still wasn’t enough for playgoers, who preferred a version adapted by Nehum Tate that restored the happy ending of King Leir; this version held the stage until 1838.)

Anyway, Shakespeare is forever.  And I’m pleased to see that Glenda Jackson is returning to the stage in a gender-blind production of King Lear at the Old Vic. That’s big news, since Jackson has been away from acting since 1992.

I saw her in a production of Macbeth with Christopher Plummer in 1988.  It was not a success, as the Times review makes clear; maybe that contributed to her decision to go into politics.  The production was still in ferment when I saw it in Boston.  In the performance I attended, I remember her practically masturbating during the “unsex me here” speech.  Not sure that made it to Broadway.

Oddly, a brief clip from the production survived into the YouTube age.  Here it is, although be warned: you’ll have to look at the insufferable Gene Shalit interviewing Jackson:

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