When I picked this book up at Luton airport, as I was about to board a plane, I thought I was going to read a historical novel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All the same, this historically accurate account of the events that occurred in that year, and the ways in which they affected Shakespeare and his contemporaries, reads like an exciting detective story, taking the reader along an uncharted route in which previously hidden connections are established and mysteries resolved.

James Shapiro, who is Professor of English at Columbia University, New York, displays a breadth and depth of knowledge that left me astounded. Linking together the hiatus caused by the succession of King James the First, the son of Queen Elizabeth the First’s cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and the resultant Union of England and Scotland, Shapiro shows how the opening scene of King Lear alludes to this event. The life and livelihood of actors and playwrights could be precarious at that time, so Shakespeare and his fellow-playwrights had to tread very carefully when writing about current events.

In addition to the possibility that plays which were considered politically threatening could be banned by the Lord Chamberlain, who acted on the monarch’s behalf, the theatres of London were periodically closed for reasons such as Lent (the period leading up to Easter), fears of the recurrence of an epidemic of plague, and apprehensions regarding political unrest. This was a time when religious rivalries were still rife, with the Catholic faith being regarded as subversive, even treasonable. In this connection Shapiro devotes a particularly learned and fascinating chapter to the concept of equivocation – a rhetorical technique used by persons suspected of Catholic leanings to avoid being apprehended and forced to confess their crime.

This was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, the infamous attempt by Guy Fawkes and his associates to blow up the Houses of Parliament just when the king and his court were in attendance. The fortuitous way the plot was uncovered and the ramifications of this and the subsequent trials and executions of the considerable number of conspirators undoubtedly left a deep impression on all strata of English society, both urban and rural. The extent to which the date is still commemorated in England today is just one indication of the widespread effect of the event and its consequences throughout the land.

But for me, an avowed devotee of what may be considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, it came as something of a shock to find that the Bard based the text to a considerable extent on a previous play, ‘The True Chronicle History of King Leir,’ written by an unknown hand and performed by a rival troop of actors known as The Queen’s Men. From Shapiro’s careful analysis we learn that Shakespeare must have not only seen the original play performed on stage but also had the printed text beside him while he wrote, as there are several clear parallels between the wording in both plays. There is, of course, much in the play that is Shakespeare’s own invention and it is no simple matter to disentangle the text that is Shakespeare’s and what he has cribbed from the previous version. This is made even more complicated by the changes that were made to the text between the publication of the first version of the play (the 1608 quarto) and the later one (the1623 folio), some substantial, others inconsequential, with omissions and additions in various hands, possibly due to the exigencies of staging the play at various venues.

The fact that a Scottish king was now on the throne of England created new problems for Shakespeare as well as providing him with inspiration, most prominently for Macbeth. Once again, he had to tread a fine line between courting favour with the monarch, a prominent consumer of dramatic plays, and employing terms and creating situations that would not be taken amiss by those in power. In that same year Shakespeare also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra, and Shapiro reveals the similarities between those two plays as well as their relevance to the general situation at the time.

This book is both mind-blowing and eye-opening, and I can only sit back and admire the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding that has gone into writing it. We all know that Shakespeare relied on historical sources for the plots of many of his plays, but here we see the creative process taking shape and form before our very eyes, and the revelation is both enriching and empowering.