(Simon & Schuster)

Shakespeare, as James Shapiro reminds us, was “the true ‘Mirror of Great Britain,’ ” reflecting in his many dramas “the fears and aspirations” of a histrionic and paranoid age. In “The Year of Lear,” Shapiro takes a closer look at the political and social turmoil that contributed to the creation of three supreme masterpieces, all written in 1606: “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, doesn’t waste time outlining the action of these three tragedies and presupposes that the reader will be familiar with Shakespeare’s plots and characters. His 40-page bibliographical essay, moreover, is thick with references to specialized articles, further suggesting a work intended for a sophisticated, if not precisely an academic, audience. So it’s heartening that a largely commercial trade house, Simon & Schuster, would bring out “The Year of Lear,” no doubt because of the popularity of Shapiro’s earlier works, notably “Contested Will,” an exploration of the authorship question. His new book is certainly exciting and sometimes revelatory.

Shapiro begins by reminding us that Shakespeare, the archetypal Elizabethan dramatist, might have been having some trouble adjusting to the new Jacobean age. In 1603, King James of Scotland acceded to the English throne, and in the nearly three years since then the usually prolific man from Stratford had apparently composed only two plays, the dark and bitter “Measure for Measure” and the misanthropic “Timon of Athens.” Neither was Shakespeare acting as much as usual with his theater company. Now in his 40s, he may have been feeling old or tired: After all, he’d been cranking out work steadily for at least 15 years. Still, the era’s theatergoers expected to see a different play every day, so the chief writer for the King’s Men acting ensemble couldn’t rest for long. At some point in 1605, Shakespeare acquired a copy of “The True Chronicle History of King Leir” and decided to use this earlier drama as the foundation for his bleakest, most searing tragedy.

The action in “King Lear” turns on the consequences of national and family disunity. When the aged Lear divvies up his kingdom between two of his three daughters, having disowned his youngest, the seemingly ungrateful Cordelia, these rash acts soon transform ancient Britain into a hell on earth of madness, lust, murder, torture, civil war and near-total despair. Yet, as Shapiro points out, the nightmarish “King Lear” was deeply topical: Its imagery reflected recent visitations of the plague, the contemporary mania over demonic possession, and, above all, King James’s arguments for a permanent unification of Scotland and England. As Shapiro writes, “Any play that turned to Britain’s distant past to explore the consequences of a divided kingdom would have been seen as part of the conversation.”

Author James Shapiro (Mary Cregan/ )

Shapiro’s own realm wasn’t just divided into two separate nations, it was also riven by religious differences. Catholic recusants secretly practiced their faith; Jesuits roamed the country incognito; and zealots didn’t shrink from terrorist acts. The Gunpowder Plot — the plan to blow up Parliament, followed by a Catholic insurrection spearheaded by a small cadre from outside of London — proved to be the defining event of late 1605. Or rather nonevent. Guy Fawkes and his comrades were discovered and foiled, so that the Fifth of November has been celebrated ever since as a day of deliverance. Yet, as Shapiro indicates, the tiny Catholic army of liberation — quickly tracked down and captured — operated in the countryside around Stratford, and Shakespeare would have known at least some of the people involved. Indeed, “it would be hard to find many individuals in Jacobean England more intricately linked than he was to those whose lives were touched by the Gunpowder Plot.”

The conspirators were ultimately hanged, then, while still alive, eviscerated and quartered and their decapitated heads mounted on poles. Such cruelty was intended to send a message to all those, secular or religious, who would threaten the state. Like ours, this was an age of suspicion, vividly depicted in a book Shakespeare knew, Samuel Harsnett’s anti-Catholic diatribe, “A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures”:

“While ostensibly an indictment of fraudulent Catholic exorcisms, the ‘Declaration’ is also, unwittingly, a portrait of the many ills besetting mainstream English culture in the early seventeenth century: a world of callous and self-righteous male authorities, of casual violence and willful deception, a brutal world in which young people are abandoned and mistreated, the physically or psychologically ill are abused, and those who give the ‘wrong’ answers are punished — a disturbing social universe not all that far from the one imagined in ‘King Lear.’ ”

“The Scottish play” — as superstitious actors refer to “Macbeth” — further explored questions of royal succession and national unity while also generating immense dramatic power from the ambiguous pronouncements of the weird sisters. Shapiro notes that “equivocation” — “concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another” — had recently emerged as a vogue word since Catholics were encouraged to employ its ruses when under oath. In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, the authorities even discovered a Jesuit handbook on how to “equivocate.”

Most simply, you could just say that “a priest ‘lyeth not in my house,’ since he wasn’t telling lies there.” More subtly, you could employ “mental reservation,” declaring “ ‘I didn’t see Father Gerard . . .’ while finishing the sentence in your head with the words ‘hide himself in a well-concealed priest’s hole.’ ” The government quickly recognized that widespread equivocation would inevitably lead to “a nightmarish world where words belie intentions and honest exchange is no longer possible,” in essence, to Macbeth’s Scotland, a quicksand realm where there is no secure foothold. Why should an upstart king worry when “none of woman born” can harm him?

“The Year of Lear” touches on much else in its survey of 1606, including Shakespeare’s testimony in a civil suit, sermons by Lancelot Andrewes and other influential preachers, and even King James’s partiality for handsome young men. The gaudy spectacle of a new dramatic genre — the elaborate court masque — as well as the sumptuous royal visit of James’s brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark, soon led Shakespeare to fashion his most sheerly gorgeous play, “Antony and Cleopatra,” in which a middle-aged adulterer and an Egyptian strumpet achieve apotheosis as emblems of transcendent love.

As Shapiro persuasively shows, the tragedies of 1606 refract the real-life dramas of the Jacobean Age. Still, while knowledge of historical and textual parallels obviously adds to our appreciation of Shakespeare’s three masterworks, Shapiro admits, near the end of his fine book, that it is ultimately the wondrous poetry that gives “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” their immortality: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”; “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more”; “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

Michael Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”

the year of lear
Shakespeare in 1606

By James Shapiro

Simon & Schuster. 365 pp. $30