The Mind of England and the Pen of Shakespeare: Plagues, bomb plots, terrorist conspiracies and ‘equivocation’ lead to masterpieces about a divided kingdom and the killing of a Scottish King

The cover illustration of “The Year of Lear” depicts the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators

What else don’t we know about ‘history’? Shakespeare scholars such as James Shapiro seem to know a lot more about the circumstances in which his plays were written than they did a few decades ago when I was studying them in graduate school. We were certainly aware that the change from the Elizabethan period to the Stuart dynasty upon the ascension of James I to the throne of England in 1603 had consequences for Shakespeare and his crew.

But Shapiro’s fresh study of a critical year in Shakespeare’s career, “The Year of Lear,” tracks the composition of three of Shakespeare’s major tragedies against the pulses of the news cycle in the fraught transitional year of 1606. England, both country and court, was still in transition following the death of a queen who lent her name to one of her nation’s most vital periods. England fought off a Spanish invasion during Elizabeth’s reign, just as the queen evaded attempts at acquisition by marriage to Spanish or French monarchs, and launched its first expeditions abroad to compete in the great game of exploration, world trade, and eventual colonization. On the home front England stabilized as a Protestant nation with a clearly outlined, though limited tolerance for Catholics. And London became a teeming, populous, international trade center and world capital.

Culturally, the Elizabethan public theater remains one of England’s great gifts to Western civilization. But the theaters shut their doors and civilization itself pretty much dried up as plague returned to London following the death of Elizabeth. James avoided the city like the — well, thing in itself — and his coronation was put off for two years. Parliament was reluctant to meet. “The Year of Lear” reports that theaters were forced to close whenever the official “death list” from plague reached 30 in a week.

Because of the epidemics, the king’s absence from London, and the uncertainties of how to please the new regime, Shakespeare’s company virtually shut down and — astonishingly — he wrote no new plays for two or three years after a decade of regular production of brilliant new work. From my studies I knew that “Lear,” “MacBeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” are considered the ‘later tragedies,’ but little of their circumstances. They were ‘later,’ I know now, because there were no public theaters for the theatrical troupe now called ‘The King’s Men’ to perform in, and no king in London to commission new works from the company to debut before him.

When James finally settled in and new works were called for, several major social and political forces helped light a fire (almost literally, catastrophically) and provide the tender in the imagination of the world’s greatest playwright. The big political issue dominating the early years of James Stuart’s reign was his desire to merge the two kingdoms of England and Scotland into one united kingdom since he was now monarch of both. James was a proponent of the “divine right” of monarchs. Since God (he reasoned) had made him king of both lands, God clearly wanted them united. Furthermore, James dusted off an old legend that the two countries used to be one kingdom since they share the same geographical entity. God not only works in mysterious ways, apparently, he works in islands.

In fact, an old play based on a British legend depicted the terrible consequences of an aging king’s decision to divide his kingdom. This story of course is “King Leir,” which Shakespeare re-imagined as “King Lear.” While Lear is a great work of theater for many reasons despite its treatment of dynastic politics, Shapiro is clearly onto something when he points out that a play warning of the dangers of dividing a kingdom would likely find favor with a king who wanted to unite his two crowns to form Great Britain.

“The Year of Lear” also mulls the play’s (highly unpopular) innovation of refusing to provide a restorative happy ending to bring the play’s troubled country back to rights. Shapiro offers the intriguing suggestion that the play’s last lines spoken by Edgar, a member of the younger generation, “we that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long” as Lear’s generation, amount to a valedictory for Elizabeth’s epic reign.

Despite James’ divine right argument, and Shakespeare’s theatrical warning, Parliament dragged its heels and failed to give the king his heart’s desire. As if political disappointment and virulent plague weren’t enough, the first years of James’s reign also endured a near-miss, 911-sized catastrophe known to history as the Gunpowder Plot. An explosive attempt at Renaissance terrorism, the plot intended to destroy, king, royal family, government and much of the ruling class in a single cataclysm produced by tons of gunpowder and musket shot stored in the bowels of Parliament. ‘Security’ had a long way to go back then; the conspirators had simply rented the basement storage areas beneath Parliament from the government.

The plot was also intended to set off a nationwide Catholic uprising to restore the “old religion,” return the country to the authority of the Roman Catholic church, and install a Catholic monarch. How big a deal this plot — reduced in current parlance to “Guy Fawkes Day” (the name of the armed conspirator watching over the gunpowder) — was for post-Elizabethan England is recounted in great detail in “The Year of Lear.” The snippet I will remember is that the repressive laws against Catholics enacted in the wake of this plot swept up Shakespeare’s daughter, who initially refused to swear a new ‘loyalty’ oath but was forced to recant.

Shapiro make the connection between this near-disaster both to Lear and, more centrally, to MacBeth, a play about the treasonous murder of a Scottish king. MacBeth, among its significances, is a cautionary tale. What would happen if a plot to kill a king succeeded? — as MacBeth’s plot to kill Duncan does, and as the Gunpowder Plot to kill James I failed to. What happens is you get MacBeth, “in blood stepped in so far” that a nation must suffer more wars and the bloody removal of another Scottish king before the moral order is restored.

MacBeth is also, Shapiro argues, a play about “equivocation,” which James’s England considered as much a danger to public order as armed rebellion. The term equivocation meant not telling the whole truth when you are put under oath to do just that — as the courtroom oath says today, you swear “to tell the truth and the whole truth.” If rebels, traitors — secret Catholics, the current worry — believed it was all right in God’s eyes to hold back part of the truth from a courtroom or any official inquiry, then society would fall apart. You would never know who to believe.

Hence in “the Scottish play,” we have witches telling newly elevated war hero MacBeth what he wants to hear in his secret heart, but only hinting at, or perhaps omitting entirely, important pieces of the story. Shapiro closely analyzes a play-full of other examples of ‘equivocation,’ of giving a misleading or partial impression. Oh, dear, it’s everywhere. I’m afraid Shakespeare’s day never knew the half of it. Today American citizens routinely listen to their elected leaders and come away saying, “Ah, they’re all lying. That’s what they do.”

I confess that I’m holding back any discussion of “Anthony and Cleopatra,” the third of the great tragedies Shapiro finds bathed in the controversial waters of 1606, because it’s a play I’ve never truly warmed up to. Also, frankly, because the author’s case for relating this play to specific events and the national mood at the time of its writing is too subtle for summation here. In fact, I’ve already forgotten so much of this argument that I need to read it again.

But this is the beauty of reading history, especially when important times and great writers intersect. The truth is, there is always something new under the sun.

It’s the old stuff we never knew.