Near the end of his 2015 book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University, notes:

One of the odd facts about the surviving shards of Shakespeare’s life is that we know more about what words passed between the playwright and Mrs. Mountjoy than we do about any conversations he had with his own wife.

For four centuries, Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52 in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616, has been a fascinating figure.  It is a fascination rooted, in part, in how much we know about him.

His thirty-eight (or so) plays and his poems — totaling about a million words —are towering literary achievements, head and shoulders above the work of anyone else who has written in the English language.  Works such as Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Macbeth and Othello have been revered by poets and writers down the centuries and around the globe and have been treasured by generations of playgoers.

And even those who have never attended a Shakespeare play use his writings in everyday phrases such as “What’s done is done” from Macbeth, and “All that glisters is not gold” from Merchant of Venice, and in words he invented, such as excitement, exposure and priceless.

But the fascination with Shakespeare is also rooted in how much we don’t know about him.  Although new biographies seem to be published every year or so, the facts about his life are few and far between.  That’s what Shapiro is referring to when he writes about “the surviving shards of Shakespeare’s life.”

“A good one for Shakespeare”

Who was this guy who wrote such great works?  How could anyone be that talented?  What experiences in his life formed him?  What sort of education did he have?  What was he like as a person?

Such questions aren’t ever going to be answered adequately, but that hasn’t stopped centuries of Shakespeare experts and fans from trying.

It is possible —scholars have done this — to study the plays and poems closely enough to get a good idea of what Shakespeare had read before and during his writing of them. And it’s possible to see in a general way how the social and political changes of his world affected what and how he wrote.

The Year of Lear is Shapiro’s attempt to carry out fine-grain analysis of what was happening in 1606 and how that was reflected in three of the playwright’s great plays: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.  Shapiro writes:

The year 1606 would turn out to be a good one for Shakespeare and an awful one for England.  That was no coincidence.


“So gifted at understanding”

Shakespeare, “so gifted at understanding what preoccupied and troubled his audiences,” had started his career during the declining years of Elizabeth I, a time of national fractures and succession fears as the unmarried Queen moved inexorably toward death.

The danger of civil war was avoided when, after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, her cousin James VI of Scotland was offered and accepted the English crown as James I.

Nonetheless, there was much in late 1605 and throughout 1606 to disconcert the English people. One was the question of union.  James, who united both kingdoms in his own person, wanted Parliament to move forward on his legislative plans to knit the two nations more closely together on a permanent basis.

The English, however, bristled at the thought of having to interweave their law and culture with the Scots, who had often been their enemies in the past. (The union that James sought — the United Kingdom — wouldn’t occur until a century later in 1707 with the ratification of the Treaty of Union and Acts of Union.)

The talk of union was disquieting enough, but then religious tensions suddenly rocked the nation.

“Close to home”

On the night of November 4, 1605, nearly a ton of gunpower, planted by Catholic dissidents, was discovered in the great vault underneath the House of Lords in the palace of Westminster.  It was enough gunpowder to have killed the king and the nation’s entire leadership at the State Opening of Parliament the next day. 

The plotters had hoped that the blast, which also would have killed thousands of other Londoners nearby, would spark a Catholic uprising.  Shapiro notes:

The plot and its aftermath in the Midlands touched close to home for Shakespeare; some of his neighbors were implicated, for his hometown abutted the safe houses where the plotters met, weapons for the intended uprising were stored, and a supply of religious items for the hoped-for restoration of Catholicism were hidden.

Over the next year, the national paranoia over Catholic activities in England would even put Shakespeare’s 22-year-old daughter Susanna in danger when she initially refused to take Communion at Stratford’s Anglican church.  She ultimately conformed.

“Inviting audiences to imagine the deaths of kings and queens”

The Gunpowder Plot, remembered today as the Fifth of November, was, in its way, an odd crisis inasmuch as the gunpowder never exploded and no one, except for the plotters later, died.  Shapiro points out that the government worked hard to get the English people to imagine the assassination of the king and leaders so as to recognize the gravity of what took place and what might have.

Shakespeare…had been inviting audiences to imagine the deaths of kings and queens for his entire career, and would do so again this year.  Shakespeare also grasped the dramatic potential of popular reaction to the plot: a maelstrom of fear, horror, a desire for revenge, an all-too-brief sense of national unity, and a struggle to understand where such evil came from.  This too profoundly shaped the tragedies he was now writing.

For the English, the theater was a place where deep national questions and emotions could be examined through old or newly made stories, particularly the stories that Shakespeare told.

Shapiro writes that there is a paradox here.  Shakespeare didn’t write about his life or inner life, so we know little about him.  Yet, in his plays, he was able, as Hamlet says, to give “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”  Even so, the scholar adds that “it would test the resources of a dramatist as gifted as Shakespeare to make sense of a year like 1606.”

“Fraught cultural moment”

In The Year of Lear, Shapiro looks closely at three of Shakespeare’s plays in the context of the questions, issues, fears and hopes of England at the time:

  • King Lear, the story of a king who decides to divide his realm among his daughters and ends up losing his own kingship, perhaps his mind and, in the end, his life.  Started in the autumn of 1605 and finished after the exposure of the Gunpower Plot.
  • Macbeth, the story of a military leader, who kills the Scottish King and takes over his throne, prompting a civil war and bloodbath that kills him and his wife.  Written in 1606.
  • Antony and Cleopatra, the story of two lovers who are also rulers and who are crushed by political circumstances.  Written in 1606.

Shapiro recounts the great unsettling issues of the day and, through a close reading of these plays, suggests how those issues may be seen in the story and action of the dramas.  He writes:

For the Jacobean Shakespeare, who had struggled to find his footing in the early years of the reign [of James I], no year’s output would be more extraordinary than that of 1606.  The three tragedies he finished this year — King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra — form a trilogy of sorts that collectively reflect their fraught cultural moment.

The plague and Mrs. Mountjoy

And there is one other issue that was always in the background, at least, in the early seventeenth century and had a particular impact on theaters, actors and playwrights — the plague.

Shapiro tells how the end of 1606 was shadowed by outbreaks of the plague in London, and this is where Mrs. Mountjoy, mentioned earlier in regards to the “shards” of Shakespeare’s life, comes in.

Marie Mountjoy was Shakespeare’s landlady in Cripplegate.  At the end of 1606, several deaths in that area were caused by the plague, and one of the victims might have been Mrs. Mountjoy.

Scholars have a general sense of the relationship between Shakespeare and Mrs. Mountjoy because she felt able to ask him to intervene to urge her daughter and another boarder to get married.  And he felt obliged enough or friendly enough to do so. All of this, including their conversations, is spelled out in the record of a later court case having to do with the girl’s dowry. 

“Close to killing him”

In October, 1606, Mrs. Mountjoy died, but no cause was mentioned.  Shapiro suggests that, given the plague deaths nearby, there is “a good chance” that she was a victim as well.

If so, the plague must have struck closer to home for Shakespeare than we realize, especially if local authorities ordered the quarantining of infected houses in what was one of the last pockets of plague during this outbreak.

The plague, Shapiro writes, had a deep impact on Shakespeare’s professional life, and not only in negative ways.  Nonetheless, if his landlady died of the plague, what did that mean for someone like Shakespeare who was living in the same household?

Shapiro suggests that the outbreak of plague “may also have come close to killing him.”

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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