BY THIS POINT, we know quite a lot about William Shakespeare. We know, for example, a great deal about his contemporary reputation; readers and playgoers as well as his fellow artists left many expressions of praise and criticism, admiration and jealousy. We know that he was fond of money and position. While he grew quite prosperous and purchased a coat of arms and a great deal of real estate, including a mansion called New Place in his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon, he gave little to charity, either in Stratford or in his London domicile in the parish of St. Olave, where he often failed to pay his taxes. (In her well-regarded 2001 biography, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life, Katherine Duncan-Jones points out that the £10 Shakespeare left to Stratford’s poor was less than he paid the lawyer who wrote his will.) We know he was a hoarder of malt and grain in times of shortage, and — especially considering the extent of his own wealth — failed to adequately support his wife, whom he kept in Stratford while he spent most of his adult life in and around London.

But however much we learn about Shakespeare’s biography, we will always be ignorant on the subject of his inner life and how it informed his plays and poetry. We’ll never know the precise experiences that were combined with a specific literary and theatrical sensibility and transmuted into Hamlet, The Tempest, As You Like It, or, for that matter, The Taming of the Shrew. It’s all the more important, then, to comprehend the world he lived in, to become familiar with the external facts — the people, events, the artifacts such as books and plays — that, in conjunction with the unknowable inner pressures, resulted in what remains the greatest body of theatrical literature in the English-speaking world.

Luckily, we have James Shapiro. In a series of books that include Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare; Shakespeare and the Jews; and A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, Shapiro, who is a professor of English at Columbia University, demonstrates just how much we know about Shakespeare’s world and the ways that it contributed to the creation of his plays. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is Shapiro’s latest, and his best yet. His mastery of detail and overarching themes is such that, although he sticks to the facts and rarely deals in speculation, this work of biography, cultural history, and criticism has all the richness of fiction.

In The Year of Lear, Shapiro sets himself a deceptively simple question: where did the inspiration for the three great plays Shakespeare wrote in 1606 — King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra — come from? Shapiro is assiduous in collecting the material that fed into these masterpieces and brilliant in weaving together multiple sources and facts to demonstrate his major theme: in responding to contemporary cultural questions and crises, Shakespeare provided his audience the opportunity to confront them refracted through the lens of art. His craft of sifting and shaping his material threw the issues of his time into high relief; his humanity and art deepened and complicated them.

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1606 was something of a miraculous year for Shakespeare. In the course of 12 months (or a bit more: he probably began King Lear in the autumn of 1605) he managed to produce three of his greatest works, even as his country was experiencing a series of crises. These included the unsuccessful attempt of King James I, formerly James VI of Scotland, to persuade Parliament to combine England and Scotland into a unified Britain; a new outbreak of the plague; and, overshadowing all others, the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and the trials and executions of the men who were found guilty early the following year.

Of course Shakespeare drew on literary sources as well as current events. In the summer of 1605, the publisher John Wright put out The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, an anonymous play first performed in the 1590s by the Queen’s Men. Shapiro believes that Shakespeare might have been among the audience who saw it at the Rose Theatre on London’s South Bank (Duncan-Jones, for her part, suggests that he may even have performed in the play). But by the time Wright published it in 1605, the story of an aging monarch’s division of his kingdom among his children had a new relevance: the issue of unification was then being hotly debated. The previous year, a one-pound coin called “the Unite” was issued, which identified James as the King of Great Britain. In his 1599 book Basilikon Doron, James urged his son Henry to leave his kingdom to his eldest son. His other children, James advised, should be left private possessions. “Otherwise,” James wrote, “by dividing your kingdoms, ye shall leave the seeds of division and discord among your posterity.”

Shakespeare’s own position on unification was murky. King Lear contains enough evidence, Shapiro tells us, to support both the pro- and anti-unification positions. But either way, he tapped into the identity crisis that James, in his insistence on union, forced on the nation: If Parliament were to approve unification, would English and Scottish identities be replaced by a single one called “British”? And what would that mean?

Shapiro carefully takes us through all the changes that Shakespeare wrought on Leir above and beyond this question. While retaining much of the original plot, he complicated the characters by adjusting subtle details and, most importantly, adding the Gloucester subplot, which he lifted from a story in Philip Sidney’s 1590 Arcadia. Crucially, he replaced the original moralizing ending — in which Cordella and Leir, at the head of a French army, are victorious — with a crushingly tragic one, which leaves both characters dead. The latter, Shapiro suggests, was the change that would have shocked the 1606 audience the most.

Throughout The Year of Lear, Shapiro demonstrates just how engaged with his times Shakespeare was, and the degree to which it and his far-ranging reading found their way into his work. Never far from the surface of Lear or Macbeth, the play that followed, was a reflection of the long-simmering Protestant paranoia of Catholicism and fear of a Catholic coup d’état. Shapiro points to 80 passages in Lear that scholars have identified as being indebted to A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, a 1603 exposé of fraudulent exorcisms allegedly carried out by Catholic priests, written by Samuel Harsnett, a chaplain of the Canterbury Cathedral. Shakespeare borrowed words and phrases (including “propinquity,” “auricular,” “carp,” and “asquint”) from Harsnett, as well as the names of many devils supposedly exorcized, including Flibbertigibbet, Puff, Pure, and Frateretto, which he used in scenes between Lear and Edgar, masquerading as the mad Poor Tom). Indeed, Shapiro tells us that Shakespeare, who coined hundreds of words, took more from Harsnett than he did from any other single source. More important, though, was the way “[t]he unrelentingly vicious, scabrous, and manipulative world of the Declaration — a world in which what people do to each other is more cruel than anything thought up by devils — acts like a varnish that seeps into and stains the dark play.”

The most momentous event of 1605, of course, occurred — or failed to occur — in November, when a plot by a group of Catholic aristocrats and gentry to blow up Parliament, along with the King, his sons, the Queen, and heads of the Church of England, was foiled at the last minute. Shapiro provides a detailed account of the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath, including an abortive Catholic uprising in the Midlands and the trials and grisly executions that quickly followed. All this was terrific material for Shakespeare, though he had to tread carefully. As Shapiro delineates, he had family and business ties to many Catholics, including to some of the plotters; and at a time when it was illegal not to take communion in the Anglican Church, his eldest daughter, Susanna, refused to do so.

Nonetheless, in April or May, his company, The King’s Men, produced a new play about the assassination of a Scottish tyrant, Macbeth. This work, like Lear, borrowed from Harsnett’s Declaration (the invisible dagger Macbeth sees before him originated in an account of a false demonic possession) as well as James’s book Demonology — although whereas James identified the source of demonic energy in demons, Shapiro reminds us, Shakespeare located it in people.

The Gunpowder Plot and its attendant persecution of Catholics led Shakespeare to drop any further portrayals of supernaturalism or Catholicism in his work. There would be no more ghosts like that of Hamlet’s father, who is experiencing the torments of purgatory, and no more kindly Friar Laurences dispensing advice in Romeo and Juliet. In May, an act of Parliament called the “Act to Restrain Abuses of Players” further restricted the playwright’s freedom by outlawing profane or jesting references to the Almighty. Oaths like “by God,” “by my troth,” “’swounds” (“God’s wounds”), or “’sblood” (“God’s blood”) were now forbidden. The act applied to existing as well as to new plays, which meant, as Shapiro writes, that “every theater company now had to search carefully through the promptbook of every old play and eliminate each instance of blasphemy in order to avoid steep fines.” The law wreaked havoc on actors, too. Theater companies kept as many as 20 plays in their active repertoire, and the players were forced to weed out of their memories all of those unlawful oaths they had memorized. Finally, the law had implications for where Shakespeare would now lay his scenes: Antony and Cleopatra was just the first of seven plays that would take place in a pre-Christian world.

The Year of Lear is rich in such historical details, and Shapiro’s prose is always graceful and, even in long discursions, direct and to the point. He can be moving, too, as in a tale he relates near the end of the book concerning Shakespeare and Marie Mountjoy, his landlady in St. Olave’s parish. The story involves a marriage proposal, a dispute over a dowry, and the plague, and features a court document discovered in 1909 that contains one of the very few records we have of Shakespeare’s spoken words. While the story finally creates more questions than answers, it also confirms, as Shapiro puts it, “that there are records out there, if we can piece them together, that can tell us more about what [Shakespeare’s] life was like.” The long bibliographical essay at the back of the book provides evidence of just how many records and facts Shapiro has pieced together to create this seamless, inventive, and fascinating narrative.

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Michael Paller is the dramaturg and director of Humanities at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.