Sitting in writing classes while adults tried to teach us how to craft copy that didn’t suck, we were shown the tried and true fundamentals. Use the active voice. Craft short, punchy sentences. Write what you know. Some of these we understood and adopted right away, some we understood and ignored, and some we thought we understood but did not until years later. “Write what you know” falls into that last category. Used generally to correct writers who spin tales about people and things so far beyond their ken that the work is unbelievable and absurd, its misunderstanding invariably leads to mundane laundry lists of the modern detritus that clogs our lives, in stories about young writers sitting in writing classes as adults teach them the fundamentals.
It was not until years later that we realized that this advice should not be “write what you know” but “you will always only be able to write what you know.” That the problem with bad early writers is that they invariably ARE writing what they know, just transporting it to places where their utter ignorance stands out like a series of sore thumbs. The fact is, all we can write is what we know. Literally. Which is why, on the one hand, it behooves every writer to be endlessly curious and try to know everything. And why on the other hand, books like James Shapiro’s terrific The Year of Lear are so valuable in helping us understand what a great writer was thinking about when he was crafting some of his most complex and resonant works.
Now, of course, with Shakespeare, there is necessarily conjecture. He left no notes, made no chat show appearances like the ones Dick Cavett was so adept at hosting. So instead Shapiro takes 1606, the year Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra (not a bad output, that), and illuminates for us all the things that were swirling around that any human would have been navigating, let alone one as sensitive and perceptive as Shakespeare.
Like what? Well, let’s start with Unification. In 1606, good Queen Bess had been succeeded to the throne of England by Scotland’s James the sixth, son of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots (who Elizabeth had executed when Mary plotted to kill her). So James was king of two separate nations – two separate peoples who remain fierce rivals to this day. But more than that, he was the heir to a genealogy that had been personally involved with the challenges of division (this is what happens when your great grand uncle decides to break away from Rome and turns a Catholic nation into a Protestant one overnight). Thus he spent much of his early reign trying to get Parliament to bring the two kingdoms together, to avoid adding to the chaos that Henry VIII had generated nearly a century earlier. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work).
And thus what might otherwise be seen as a tedious bit of side politics makes a play in which one kingdom was disastrously divided into multiple parts (King Lear), seem not only a lot more understandable, but also a lot more relevant to the audience who would be watching it.
What else? Well, how about the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament and assassinate the King? Yeah, that happened in November of 1605 and Fawkes and his crew were executed in January of 1606. And the legacy of both actions hung heavy over England throughout 1606, driving draconian laws and purges that would linger for decades. Thus a play about the murder of a king – a Scottish king at that – and the usurpation of his throne feels a lot less abstract, doesn’t it?
Anything else? Well, how about the plague? Shapiro reminds us that there was an outbreak during each of the first seven years of James’ reign. In the summer of 1603 Londoners were falling at the rate of a thousand a week (stunning for a city estimated to have a population of 200,000 at that time). In the summer of 1606, London’s playhouses were closed again due to another outbreak. Put that fact alongside those other two and you can understand why Shakespeare might write a play (Antony & Cleopatra) that Shapiro describes as:
“… a tragedy of nostalgia, a political work that obliquely … expresses a longing for an Elizabethan past that, despite its many flaws, appeared in retrospect far greater than the present political world”
It’s this last event that drove home the relevance of these external forces to us most strongly. For we have strived as we have written The Agency Review, to craft essays that were evergreen, that evoked neither the tribulations we were personally enduring, nor those that our city, nation, or planet was. And yet, we cannot deny that reading this particular book at the particular time we read it resonated uniquely for us. As the planet dealt with the rise of Covid-19, as schools, playhouses, businesses closed, as the hospitals filled up, as the morgues filled up, as we all fundamentally altered nearly every aspect of our lives, the impact of outside events upon the personal lives of simple creative people in 1606 illuminated a truth for us that we are ashamed we needed to be reminded of. And it’s this:
We are, all of us, vessels of our time.
Sure, poets and novelists and painters. But advertisers too. We express the zeitgeist because we, like they, breathe it in and breathe it out. We just use it differently. Often more crudely, no doubt because of the nature of commerce and, one supposes, the rapidity with which we must turn things out. But vessels nonetheless. We are expressed by our times as much as we seek to express them.
Why that wasn’t one of the fundamentals they tried to teach us in writing school, is, as the fella says, a mystery.
The Year of Lear by James Shapiro was published by Simon & Schuster on 10/06/2015 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).