"It’s like if 'When Harry Met Sally' ended with everybody getting hit by a truck": Inside the "Year of Lear" and the terrorist plot that changed Shakespeare

Salon talks to James Shapiro about the artistic aftermath of England's 1605 Gunpowder Plot

Published October 5, 2015 8:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Elaine Thompson/Salon)
(AP/Elaine Thompson/Salon)

Terrorist attacks are not unique to our age. Near the end of 1605, a group of radical, disenchanted Catholics plotted to overthrow the British government by blowing up the House of Lords, killing King James I, and wiping out the nation’s religious leadership, which had in recent generations become Protestant.

Due to an intercepted letter, the 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered, and the plotters, including Guy Fawkes, arrested, tried, and grotesquely executed. It was more than just one of the more colorful chapters in British history: The Gunpowder Plot helped shape the work of the most celebrated playwright in the English language. In the “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606,” scholar James Shapiro describes the way the plot and other events of the day influenced the three important tragedies the Bard completed that year – “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

We spoke to Shapiro -- a Columbia University English professor who is also the author of “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare” – from New York City. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Lets’s start with 1606 – what was happening in Britain at that point, and what was happening in the life and work of William Shakespeare?

There’s a way in which I face an obstacle talking about this stuff because people think of Shakespeare as a dead white guy, and that his plays don’t matter to us unless we want to cozy up to someone at a cocktail party. And that’s just not my Shakespeare, and that’s not why I spent 10 years of my life working on a book about 1606 and before that, 15 years on 1599. If so, it was a wasted life.

So what’s happening in 1606? What’s happening is England has just confronted a massive – luckily, stopped in time – terrorist attack that, if it had succeeded, would have cut off the head of the government, the king, [his] family, religious and political leadership, rolled back religion 70 years, would have probably killed one out of seven Londoners in the explosion.

This is really the first time, in the Anglo-American world that I study and live in, that you’re dealing with how to make sense of violence of this kind: Where does it come from, is it the Devil? Is it from hearts of men? Does it come from people who harbor religious views that are radically different? How do you spot those people? Is the danger over? So that’s what’s happening to England at this time.

Throw in another outbreak of plague. Throw in King James opening up a national identity crisis by saying, You’re all Brits now; people had thought they were either Scottish or English.

So it turned out to be a really bad year for England. But as a result of that, a really good one for Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was in a different phase of his career than he was during the Elizabethan years, I think…

Yeah – we imagine Shakespeare turning out his two plays a year, going home to the wife and kids, being steadily productive… I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met an artist who is [that] steady. I was watching “Amy” on a flight home from London last night, and was riveted by the way she had inspired bursts. And 1606 was an inspired burst that followed about four or five lean years for Shakespeare. I’m not suggesting that he had a coke and heroin problem that kept him from his plays the way Amy Winehouse was interrupted from her songs, but he was already the oldest major playwright working in England at this point. I’m sure the young guys were saying, “He’s Neil Simon, he just is a guy who wrote for the Elizabethan age… We’re young, edgy playwrights.” We know he felt that pressure, because he started teaming up with playwrights who were 15 years younger. He knew he had to find his footing in this new regime.

Let’s talk specifically about the Gunpowder Plot. What motivated it, what were the instigators like, and what impact did it have on Britain?

It’s funny – the legacy of that now is you go to a protest, and you see people wearing these anonymous Guy Fawkes masks. I laugh when I see that – 400 years later, he’s still the symbol of speaking truth to power, trying to overthrow the established order.

Back then, he was part of a group of disaffected Catholic gentlemen, who thought that with King James coming to the throne – a man who was married to a Catholic, whose mother was a Catholic – he would take the boot off the head of Catholics in England and let them practice more openly, and without fear. James didn’t do that, and they figured: He’s going to live a long time – let’s act. They didn’t get authority from the pope or Rome to go ahead with it; they claimed authority on their own. And they came pretty damn close to succeeding.

They also had a Plan B that no one is really aware of: Ride 100 miles north, to Shakespeare country, where they suspected there were a lot of people who still had the old faith in their hearts. So Shakespeare was at the center of both the almost-attack in London, and then the armed insurrection that petered out: His next door neighbor was the bag man with Catholic relics, who was caught and sent to jail. This is like someone who lived in New York who knows people on both sides of the 9/11 attack. Shakespeare was connected through his mother's line with a number of the conspirators, and he’s connected in Stratford with those who suppressed the uprising.

How widespread was that level of frustration among English Catholics at the time?

To ask that question is akin to asking, How disappointed are Americans today with their political leadership? Everyone knows they are, but will they go with a Donald Trump?

Nobody knew the answer to that question. The government was nervous enough about it to mobilize an army to crush that short-lived uprising. And the conspirators thought: Everybody’s grandparent was a Catholic. So why not? And they were shocked when they’d ride into a town and servants would say, “We’re for the country, but we’re also for the King.” It was disheartening to them.

But nobody knew when you put together a rally in New York against business interests whether you’ll get a million people, or a hundred people.

The uprising didn’t get a lot of followers. It’s like the Occupy movement: Those who are behind the movement think the world is about to change. Those who are against it are nervous: Hey it might be these forces that are going to threaten us.

Those are the forces of drama. And Shakespeare started infusing plays like “King Lear” and “Macbeth,” even “Antony and Cleopatra,” three pretty amazing tragedies he rattled off this year.

What was the effect of the Gunpowder Plot on Shakespeare’s work – both in specific ways and in broader thematic ways?

Shakespeare figured out that there was a new buzzword in the air – it was the word “equivocation.” It was the word associated with a how-to book about teaching Catholics how to lie. It was written by the religious mentor – his name was Henry Garnet – to the plotters. And Shakespeare writes a play in which [Macbeth] keeps talking about equivocation, and a drunken porter goes on again and again about equivocation. And everybody swears, and lies – which is what equivocation is. Good people and bad. So “Macbeth” is the great Gunpowder Plot play – it captures just how… there are no clean answers. How these kinds of shocks change a culture, and erode the kind of trust that exists and needs to exist between people.

“King Lear”… half of it was written before the plot, half of it after. It’s a play that begins with characters talking about division of the kingdoms – at a time when King James is eager to unite the kingdoms. And the Gunpowder Plotters were trying to send the Scots home – they were playing into nationalism and anti-immigration [sentiments] – that play speaks powerfully to a political leadership reduced to ashes and a family destroyed.

I can’t imagine what it was like for King James, at Christmas, to sit through a production of ["King Lear"], the grimmest play imaginable. [Because “Lear” was based on an earlier play, “King Leir,”] it had always had a happy ending. It’s like if “When Harry Met Sally” ended with everybody getting hit by a truck.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Guy Fawkes Shakespeare Terrorism