A Great Writer, Stealing

January 12, 2016

Some say T. S. Eliot came up with the quote, “Good writers borrow; great ones steal.”  Others say the line came from Oscar Wilde.  Either way, every fiction writer knows that their finished work is based in part on the experiences and stories of others that they’ve heard about and read and the best way to avoid a copyright or invasion of privacy suit is to take the base material and then change it until it becomes something you can use for your story.  Do a good job and you’ll win the lawsuit, (although you may not be forgiven).  Do a great job and academic types will study your work and reverse engineer it to detect the roots of the story you wrote.  That’s what James Shapiro has done in The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.   Whether you like history or theatre, this fascinating book puts a great man’s work back in the context of his time.

Shapiro points out the author and the play are not the the creations we assume we know.  Younger Shakespeare is remembered for writing the comedies and historical plays that entertained Queen Elizabeth I but the times and the man have changed.  The author of Lear is an older man, retired from acting, and now writes full-time for the King, James the I.  A theatrical company like Shakespeare’s was supposed to produce twenty new plays each year as well as revive twenty more old favorites (well, this was before TV and the internet).  So writers were scrambling for new material to fashion into plays that would divert the court and put audiences in the seats.  Everything was up for grabs including the play someone else invented last season.   Oh, by the way, did I mention Bill stole the basic plot and characters we thought he created for Lear?

The Most Famous Chronicle Historye of Leire King of England and his Three Daughters had been produced 12 years before by Shakespeare’s company but it is wildly different from the Lear that we know.  The King still makes the moronic mistake of dividing his land between the daughters that lied to him and disinherits the dutiful daughter but in the original, the King is ultimately saved from his mistake.  The “Good Daughter”, with the help of her husband, rescues Lear and his kingdom and puts Lear back on the throne.  All ends well.  Shakespeare wasn’t only a brilliant playwright on his own, he was a collaborator and a first rate play-doctor in the bargain and he saw the weakness in this structure.  With Lear and Cordelia well and triumphant at the end, the whole episode lacks consequences.  Let one good character die and make the other one triumph is a standard formula today.  Kill both along with Reagan and Goneril (Stinking Sister One and Stinking Sister Two) and now the country has no government and is likely to fall apart.   That’s consequences.  That’s believable and (of course) that’s our well-known King Lear.

Mr. Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s Lear was political propaganda as well.   While Elizabeth was the Queen of England, her heir, James, ruled both Scotland and England and unifying the two countries (plus Wales and Ireland) into Great Britain was a thorny proposal James was trying to get Parliament to accept.  It wasn’t a popular idea in Parliament or Glasgow (Given Scotland’s referendum two years ago, the idea still has its detractors).  Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s tragedy starts when a King of Great Britain willfully divides his empire.  Unified, the country has a strong central government.  Divide it between sisters that can’t and don’t trust each other and eventually the whole island falls apart.  It’s a subtle lesson but one that would have easily understood by the audiences who saw those first performances by Shakespeare’s company, the aptly-named, “King’s Men”.  Their objective wasn’t just to entertain the Court; it was to support and impart the King’s policies.

Bill the Scribe

So much more of what happened that year appears in this famous play.  A woman pretending to be possessed is exposed  and the recipe of the potion she drank to create her altered state is paraphrased in the play.  An anonymous letter exposes the Gunpowder Plot (remembered now on Guy Fawkes day) and another anonymous letter kicks off the sub-plot of Lear where a powerful man chooses to believe the wrong son.  Shapiro recounts the episodes of paranoia, happiness, intrigue and change that Shakespeare witnessed during this year and then ties them to incidents in Shakespeare’s Lear, Macbeth and the Tempest so a year in the life of the playwright becomes a key to understanding the man and his work a little better.

And, in the end, it is the work that matters.  We don’t remember Lear because it started life as a play with a happy ending or that Bill the Scribe wrote his strongest, darkest pieces when he was old enough to see that older, more powerful men, can make larger, more disastrous mistakes.  We remember the work because it is good, because it moves us and the emotional truth of the piece informs our own lives. Lear is the story of families that come to grief after flattery is mistaken for love.  That is nearly a universal experience recreated in deathless lines that intelligent actors love to declaim.  The Year of Lear gives Bill’s tragedy context that enriches our understanding of the play.   But Lear, even standing alone, is a devastating, brilliant gift that writers have been stealing from ever since.

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