1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

A short list of events that took place in London, England in 1606:

  • King James, originally from Scotland, attempts to force Parliament into the ‘Union’ of Scotland and England
  • King James requisitions new flag for ships of both countries, which later becomes known as Union Jack
  • The union proved unpopular with the English and the Scots, along with Parliament and Scottish clergy. Union between the two countries would not take place for another 100 years.
  • Ships sailed from London for what became England’s first colony in North America. (Stopping at Jamestown, Virginia.)
  • Most of the surviving members (including Guy Fawkes) of the gunpowder plot were executed. The plot was an assassination attempt of King James and most likely all sitting members of the House of Lords by a group of Catholic noblemen and military. It was to take place November 5, 1605, opening day of Parliament.
  • Work is hastened on an English translation of the Bible, known as King James Version.  
  • The Plague returned to London, slowly at first then spiking in July, forcing quarantines of the sick and the shuttering of all play houses and all public entertainment.   
  • Shakespeare’s company performs King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, all written by 42-year-old Shakespeare during this time.

All of these events, and others in great detail, are covered in James Shapiro’s 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. He argues, successfully, that the Bard may have written plays and used plots we may think as timeless, but he was very much grounded in the realities of his time:

At many points during 1606, English men and women must have felt overwhelmed. In an age in which there were as yet no newspapers (let alone radio, movies, television or an internet), the theatre was the one place where rich and poor could congregate and see enacted, through old or made0up stories, a redacted image of their own desires and anxieties. The stories Shakespeare told this year year enabled his playing company to rise to this challenge.