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An intriguing exposition of Shakespeare’s genius

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Fintan O’Toole has an interesting review in the NY Review of Books:

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
by James Shapiro
Simon and Schuster, 367 pp., $30.00

Even by its own standards of extremity, King Lear ends on a note of extraordinary bleakness. The audience has just been through the most devastating scene in all of theater: Lear’s entrance with his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms and the words “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” coming from somewhere deep inside him. All is, as Kent puts it, “cheerless, dark, and deadly.”

Albany, the weak, widowed, and childless man who is all that remains of political authority, goes through the ritual end-of-play motions of rewarding the good and punishing the bad, but these motions are self-consciously perfunctory. When he says, “What comfort to this great decay may come/Shall be applied,” we know that the comfort will be small and cold. Albany promises to restore Lear to his abandoned kingship, but the old king utterly ignores the offer of power, and promptly dies.

Albany then tries to appoint Edgar and Kent as joint rulers, but Kent replies that he, too, intends to die shortly. No one, it seems, is willing to perform the necessary theatrical rites of closure, to present even the pretense that order has been restored. And so the only possible ending is the big one. Because the play cannot end, the world must end. In the original version that Shakespeare completed in 1606, the last lines are Albany’s:

The oldest have borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Why will the young not live to be old? Because the end of the world is coming. The bad news does not end there. This is not even the Christian apocalypse, in which the bad are damned to Hell and the good ascend into the eternal bliss of Heaven. We’ve just seen a version of that last judgment, with the rather pitiful Albany playing God the Father:

              All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings….

This assurance of just deserts is immediately undercut by one of the most terrifying images of injustice, Lear’s raging at a universe in which dogs, horses, and even rats have life but his daughter will never have any again, in this world or the next: “Never, never, never.” This is why King Lear was so unbearable that it was Nahum Tate’s infamous version, with its happy ending for Lear, Cordelia, and Edgar, that held the stage from 1681 to 1843, and why a critic as discerning as Samuel Johnson supported Tate’s alterations on the grounds that Shakespeare’s ending violates the natural human desire for justice. Johnson admitted to finding the original ending so upsetting that he did not reread it until his duties as an editor of Shakespeare forced him to do so.

This aversion is not unreasonable. King Lear is not apocalyptic, it is far worse. Instead of deserved damnation and merited salvation, there is merely the big fat O, the nothing that haunts the play, the “O, O, O, O!” with which Lear expires. Even Shakespeare seems to have thought twice about this utter annihilation of hope and justice. When he rewrote the play, probably two or three years after its first performance in 1606, he allowed Lear (and the audience) one little moment of merciful illusion. Instead of that terrible “O, O, O, O!,” Lear is permitted to lapse with his dying breath into the fantasy that Cordelia’s dead lips are moving after all. It is as if even Shakespeare, watching his own play, could not quite bear its unyielding ferocity.

That such a play is possible at all is one of the great wonders of human creation. That it was written by a liveried servant of a Calvinist king who devoutly believed in salvation and damnation, and performed at his court, seems almost inexplicable. Or at least it seemed inexplicable before James Shapiro’s wonderfully illuminating The Year of Lear.

Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, published in 2005, broke new ground in the subtlety, vividness, and richness of its explorations of the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and their immediate social and political settings.* He repeats that achievement for 1606, an astonishing year in which Shakespeare finished the first version of King Lear, probably wrote all of Macbeth, and almost certainly wrote and staged Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro plunges these tragedies back into the whirlpool of plots and plagues, of religious and political anxieties, from which they emerged. He does not drown them in historical detail, but he does bring them before us still wet from their struggle to emerge from the urgent currents of politics and power.

Shapiro has a marvelous ability to use his formidable scholarship, not to pluck out the heart of Shakespeare’s mysteries, but to put the beating heart of the contemporary back into them. His great gift is to make the plays seem at once more comprehensible and more staggering. The better we understand the immediate materials with which Shakespeare was working and the political pressures to which he was responding, the more profoundly we can appreciate the alchemy of his transformations.

To see Shakespeare as a court official working to please his political masters is not to reduce him to the level of functionary or propagandist. It is to marvel anew at the ways in which he could use even such humbling demands as sources of imaginative energy. Though it may be incidental to his purpose, Shapiro effectively overturns the Romantic conception of the artist as the champion of freedom over necessity. We begin to see a Shakespeare for whom the distinction between freedom and necessity is scarcely relevant. Here is Shakespeare as an opportunist in every sense, a political operator taking advantage of a shift in power and a voracious artist for whom the need to please new masters is not a restriction but a creative stimulus.

In April 1603, James VI of Scotland, then just thirty-six, began his long ride from Edinburgh to London, where he would succeed the childless Elizabeth I as James I of England. This was an unlikely event: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2015 at 3:12 pm

Posted in Books

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