The issues of the early years of King James reign were succession of the crown, the union of Scotland and England, plague and the Gunpowder Plot which threatened to kill the King and all of Parliament. Shapiro shows that Shakespeare took these themes and molded them into his great works of that year.
King James of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth (last of the Tudor family) and was desirous of uniting the two countries under the name of Great Britain. While there was relief that the succession took place without a war,neither Parliament nor Scotland were really keen on uniting under one flag. Shapiro points out that “Shakespeare had never found an occasion to use the word ‘British’ before
James’s accession; the first time that audiences hear it in one of his plays was in King Lear, where it occurs three times. Similarly, the word ‘Britain’ which had appeared only twice in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan drama, occurs that many times in King Lear alone, and twenty-nine times in all in his Jacobean plays.” (Loc 654)
King Lear of course takes on these topics where the King divides his kingdom among two daughters and disowns a daughter who leads a fight to reunite the kingdom – with disastrous consequences.
Shakespeare did not develop his stories from whole cloth; he drew from an earlier play, King Leir, as well as Holinshed, Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey of Monmouth (Loc 748)
Macbeth takes on the themes of assassination of a king and equivocation. These themes were on the minds of then entire kingdom following discovery of the Gownpowder Plot in November 5, 1605 where a group tried to blow up the Parliament building when the King would be addressing parliament. The Privy Council happened upon the plot just days before it was to have taken place. The entire court was at wits’ ends to determine who was behind it. The result was a serious crack down on the Catholics who used equivocation (partial truths) as their defense when questioned by the Crown. The result was the grisly execution by hanging, dismembering, disembowlment, decapitation and quartering of the accused. The idea that people would not speak the truth in discussion was an enormous concern; who could the authorities believe
Shapiro shows that “equivocation permeates the play” (Loc 2782). The weird sisters equivocate when they tell Macbeth “‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’ while assuring him that he shall never be vanquished until ‘Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane 2788 / (4.1.79-81, 93)'” (Loc 2788 ). As Macbeth discovers, this foretelling may be true but only to the strictest wording. “By the end of Macbeth even the most admirable characters swear and lie, muddying the moral landscape. (Loc 2975).
Shakespeare is responding to the issues of the day as well as everlasting themes
“Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written not for posterity but for contemporaries like … playgoers drawn to a post-Gunpowder Plot tragedy that in its exploration of the source of unfathomable evil – be it human or diabolic – touches on, and, to a surprising degree, exploits deep cultural anxieties that had now risen to the surface.” (Loc 2878)
In tackling Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare relies on Plutarch’s “Life of Antony”. “Such indebtedness to a single source is unusual for Shakespeare, who when tackling a new play habitually read everything on a subject that he could get his hands on.” (Loc 3480) A big reason for this was “the absence of anything approaching a genuinely alternative take on the lovers or the politics behind their story.” (Loc 3480)
By the time Shakespeare wrote this third play in 1606 people were looking back at better times: before plague, the possibility of regicide, and political conflict “Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy of nostalgia, a political work that obliquely … expresses a longing for an Elizabethan post that, despite its many flaws, appeared in retrospect far greater than the present political world.” (Loc 4048).
Shapiro brings this world of more than 400 years ago to life. He does an excellent job of tying the political, the social and the artistic together. He brings the stories to life, making them more than just words on a page without context.
If you read the biography I suggest you read a short synopsis of each play before diving into the history.
I apologize if the location citations are not 100% accurate; Kindle e-book locations are confusing and difficult to locate with precision.