His two greatest plays are arguably Hamlet and Lear. If there was a Hamlet on the boards, he probably had acted in it. His company had it in their repertory, and you can easily imagine Shakespeare playing some minor role in this early Hamlet and thinking, “God, if I could add soliloquies here or change this or develop that, it could be an extraordinary play.” And that’s what happened. With King Lear — and this is one of the things I write about in my book The Year of Lear — from 1590 to 1605, for 15 years or so, there was a play on the boards that Londoners loved, called King Leir. It is a play about this father and his three daughters. It had a happy ending. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, is reconciled to Leir at the end of the play, and Leir gets his kingdom back. Shakespeare takes this old Elizabethan play, which is a tragicomedy with a happy ending, and turns it into the most searing tragedy imaginable for his Jacobean audiences.
It is not just taking somebody else’s play and updating it. It is understanding how it doesn’t speak to the time and place in which Shakespeare is writing. That drives those revisions of others’ stories.
OR: What is your favorite play?
Shapiro: My favorite play is the one I am working on at the moment, and it seems like one nail drives out the next. The most recent play I worked on was The Comedy of Errors at the Public Theater, and I have a deep, deep affection for that play. It is not his greatest play, but it is one of his most underrated ones.
OR: You think that his greatest play is either Hamlet or Lear?
Shapiro: Yes. Some mornings I wake up and think it’s Hamlet, which is better-constructed than Lear. Lear is kind of rickety in its construction, but Lear is extraordinary and daunting. Lear is the Everest of the plays. Maybe Hamlet is K2. Many have tried to scale it, and I spent 10 years thinking about Lear. I spent probably that many thinking about Hamlet and the plays he wrote in 1599, and Lear defeats you. It is so complicated.
OR: Turning for a moment to the subject of your latest book, what do you view as the driving force behind his extraordinary productivity in 1606?
Shapiro: I think that Shakespeare responded to all sorts of pressures. They are different in 1599 and in 1606. In 1599, his theater company faced a crisis. They had lost their lease and were potentially itinerant if they didn’t get a new playhouse. They owned a playhouse called the Theater, but they didn’t own the land it stood on. One of the most important moments in literary history was that cold December day when Shakespeare and his fellow actors went, armed, to the Theater along with a crew of carpenters and dismantled the building. When challenged, they bluffed it out, carried the dismantled building across the Thames, and rebuilt it as the Globe. That was a very close call, and Shakespeare was obviously under enormous pressure since they had rebuilt this new playhouse a stone’s throw from their main rival, The Admiral’s Men, in Southwark. They were under tremendous pressure to get an audience and to establish themselves on the south bank of the Thames. I am sure that Shakespeare’s fellow actors were saying, “Please, come up with some really good plays because these are tough times.”
In 1606, there was a different set of pressures. 1606 was a terrible year for England. It turned out to be a terrific year for Shakespeare’s productivity, in part, because he was responding to those times. There is no competing media then. There is no radio; there are no newspapers. Other than sermons and executions, there are very few places where people gathered to get a sense of what was going on. Londoners turned to the public theaters to try to understand themselves and the political and economic and social world in which they found themselves. If Shakespeare spoke to that with great insight, then they would go to see his plays. If, at competing theaters, Marston or Dekker or Jonson spoke more powerfully to their concerns, they would go to those plays instead. The pressure was on Shakespeare to speak to the moment, and he responded very well to pressure.
OR: Do you see any detectable political position or philosophical position in Shakespeare?
Shapiro: The answer is that Shakespeare must have had really clear political views — and if you look at the plays, you won’t find them. I have been teaching Julius Caesar to my Columbia students for 30 years. Three decades ago, maybe 90 percent of the students sympathized with the conspirators in their justification to kill Caesar. Now it’s flipped entirely: 90 percent of them do not identify with the conspirators. The answer is not because I am teaching it any differently. It is still the first question I ask, when I walk into class. But the change in attitudes derives from the fact that now we experience politics differently. Shakespeare was quite brilliant at setting up political tensions, whether in Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, but he wasn’t interested in giving sermons. He was interested in writing plays that sat on the razor’s edge of political concerns. That is why, 400 years later, we still bother reading and staging the plays. We don’t know what Shakespeare’s religious beliefs were, and we certainly don’t know what his political views were.
OR: What do you think King Lear is about, and what do you think makes it so great?
Shapiro: Lear is a family story about a man whose wife is no longer alive, who doesn’t know himself and certainly doesn’t know his daughters. I think that is a timeless domestic story. On another level, one that is more meaningful today, Lear is about a man who’s losing his mind. As we now grow older, and a greater percentage of the population suffers from dementia, that too is a powerful story. Lear is also a political story, and certainly was, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a story about a king who wrestles with dividing his kingdom and the terrible consequences of both union and division.
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. His books include Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), the anthology Shakespeare in America (2014), and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015).