This is the second of sample introductions meant mainly for students in my senior classes. The previous post describes my interest in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World.
I have just started reading a biography of Shakespeare. A particular kind of biography that increasingly interests me. One that focuses on a single year in the life of its subject. This sort of biography first came to my attention when my wife gave me a copy of Rise to Greatness, a study of Abraham Lincoln in the year 1862. The author, David Von Drehle, chose this one year because of the particular challenges the President faced during that year. Von Drehle organizes the book by months. He gives each month its own chapter. One of the threads running through many of the chapters is the pressure the President faced not to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He signed it in January 1863.
James Shapiro’s biography is called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. I have started it because I read an earlier one of his called A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. I liked his earlier book well enough to read this one. An interview at the back of his 1599 book reveals that he has made a conscious choice to write for the general reader, and I can see this decision on almost every page. He writes lucid sentences, and anticipates my questions. I had chosen the earlier because it recounts the year in which Shakespeare started writing Hamlet, a play I have taught almost innumerable times. Each time I read it, this play finds new ways to astonish and teach me. I thoroughly enjoyed Shapiro’s book because it helped me understand the context, personal and political, of one of my favorite plays.
Shapiro’s writing makes me want to read more of his work. I chose The Year of [King] Lear because 1606 saw the composition of Macbeth. I am teaching this play to sophomores at the moment, so the timing works out well. As I start this second Shapiro, his forceful scholarship and inviting tone bring me immediately into the world of Shakespeare during the reign of the Scottish King James. In this time, England has a new set of challenges represented, for example, by the terrorist plot to blow up Parliament and begin returning the country to its Protestant past. In short, the book will show me the nation’s political struggles and Shakespeare’s responses to them in his plays.