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Unpacking The Bard

Posted by Team APATA | Apr 1, 2020

We’ve noted over the past few weeks inspirational social media posts suggesting when times are tough and the world is changing daily with uncertainty and challenge, that Shakespeare himself drew on disruption by taking the time to write three masterpieces – Macbeth, Anthony & Cleopatra and King Lear. Heck we’ve posted the same sentiments to our social media channels stoke encouragement, motivation and mix in a little positivity.

But are some of the greatest works by The Bard during a time when the Globe was shutdown actually true?

Well maybe if we cross examine the playwright’s career with history and actual events. It’s suggested The Bard supposedly took advantage of the Globe’s lengthy closure to put pen to paper.

During the height of Shakespeare’s career both as an actor, playwright and theatre shareholder, plague presented a professional and existential threat. This is also during a period where authorities were naturally suspicious of theatre and considered the practice an incitement to lewdness and cross-dressing. Between 1603 and 1613 the bubonic plague outbreak dramatically changed the Globe and other London playhouses. Authorities shutdown and ban mass gatherings and playhouses were invariably the first to close along with brothels and bear baiting arenas while at the same time preachers were out walking the streets denouncing all forms of entertainment in particular theatre as ‘The causes of plague is sin and the cause of sin is plays’. The Globe along with every other playhouse across London was shut for an astonishing total of 78 months – more than 60% of the time. Definitely a dark period for the performing arts.

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro provides an engaging insight into this dark period for theatre and performance which begins in January 1606 with Shakespeare in his 40’s. It was a tumultuous and a dramatic period of English history with a plague, gunpower plot and rumor that King James had been assassinated which sent the streets of London into panic until set right amongst the people with word from court that King James was alive and well. Shapiro shows how ‘forces threatening the king and kingdom’, forces both real and imagined surface just months before the first performance of ‘Macbeth’. Owing to public jitters, Shapiro thinks, Shakespeare didn’t need the witches or other references to the supernatural to evoke a sense of fear (those parts of “Macbeth” may have been added later, when things seemed to have settled down). Shapiro is terrific at analyzing the thematic and stylistic differences between these three great tragedies by moving the timeline of play and playwright month by month through difficult periods.

So the Lear theory? It’s not impossible! We know the play was acted in front of King James I on Boxing Day 1606, the first performance on record, and it’s a decent bet that it was scripted that year or the year before. As the theatre historian James Shapiro points out, there was a major plague event in London in the summer of 1606, which led to the Globe and all other London theatres being closed. We also know there was an outbreak of the plague three years before that killed more than a 10th of London’s population where Shakespeare’s own home personally experienced devastation with the outbreak claiming the life with his landlady, Marie Mountjoy.

Examining The Bard’s business operations the stress of keeping two playhouses and a company together during periods of shutdown and vilification would have been immense, let alone the effect on the bottom line and whether there was even any point in producing new scripts if unable to stage them. We know there were periods of isolation which would have been challenging for The Bard as it’s widely reported that he worked intimately with actors, his most trusted collaborators and isolation wasn’t a preferred working model to produce the next production.

It’s worth noting at this point that during a previous terrible plague outbreak in June 1592, when the theatres were closed for nearly six months, a young Shakespeare turned to poetry: his long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were both composed during this time. Imagine if the playhouses had stayed shut and his pandemic-forced career as a poet had taken off, there might have been no Lear or Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, or any of Shakespeare’s best works.

So while our current situation of working from home, enduring isolation and social distancing due to the impacts of COVID-19 surround us it might not be the time to dust off that novel or play you’ve never started or finished, it might be a opportune moment to delve into ‘The Year of Lear’ by James Shapiro – it’s awesome, filled with convincing and inspiring argument about the dramatic world of The Bard, a 42-year-old playwright, his life and the life of others unfolding around him.

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