The bile, the fire, the vitriol; do we understand now what King Lear meant when he assaulted his eldest daughter with these words?
I certainly did not. I took it as an insult, sure, but I did not know the deeper meaning.
Recently, I was driving to work and I heard James Shapiro on NPR. He was a guest because, despite the fact that he was promoting his latest title, a lot of people have been making a lot of headway with the statement that hey: Shakespeare wrote three masterpieces while he was in plague lock-down,what are you going to do with your time?
James Shapiro won me over straight away; there was nothing confrontational in his tone- no challenges, no dares, no critiques. He wants us to learn, not to measure ourselves against the past. We should be knowledgeable, yes, but we need to be open to learning and to change. Social media misses the mark when the talk of Shakespeare’s plague year- it’s not a challenge to create- it’s a mantra towards survival.
When Lear casts those words towards his daughter he is dredging up the filthiest, cruelest, basest insults he can muster. He is making her into rot incarnate; were we in the theater at the debut of those words we would have left with our jaws agape. No one at the time talked of the plague; it was not a contemporary theme- except to make it clear that Lear’s daughter was the lowest of the low.
The world of 1606 was marvelous and frightening. The Tudor Dynasty was over. The Stuart Dynasty was a terrifying toddler. The world had changed, changed back, and changed again- the people of Britain were in a constant state of unrest. During that state, Shakespeare and his men managed to create, perform, and thrive. They managed to comment on the woes of the day, call upon the gilded history of the past, and attempt to shape current times towards a better place. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, changing both literature and history for the better. Could he have known the importance of his words?
James Shapiro has done his research; he is patient, thoughtful, and kind while doling out the facts of the time. Shakespeare looked to antiquity for a framework, but his work was deeply entrenched in the Gunpowder Plot (which would have been so much worse than Cersei’s attack on the Sepulcher- good lord), King James’s attacks on witchcraft and exorcism, and the people of England looking back on Elizabeth’s golden years.
Please allow this book to help you to put a framework to our modern times, and to comfort you throughout our days of misrule and terror. Mankind has been dealing with the end of the world since the beginning of the world, and we are far from doomed.