It’s funny how often SF writers predicted the future. Verne imagined exploring space and the ocean floor, Bradbury predicted earbuds and my favorite, Robert Heinlein foresaw the Cold War, the Internet and helped invent water-beds. Still the development Heinlein predicted that I enjoy the most was in his novel Time Enough for Love. In that book, Heinlein not only foresaw the development of the e-reader, he predicted the difference between the traditional “paper” book fans and the screen readers. However, I doubt if he realized how silly that battle would get.
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.
|The plural of genius: Kaufman & Hart|
- Reading New Books – After checking various electronic records and the drain that sucks up my spare income and phone space (Amazon Kindle) I can safely say I read at least one new book every week this year, which was sort of like making a new friend every week. Some of them, like A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ocean at the End of the Lane went straight to my heart and onto my re-reading list. (I am a re-reader of books). Others were nice and interesting for the interval but not a lifetime love. A couple, like The Forsyte Saga, could only be defined as “new” books because I hadn’t read them before and one or two I read not from paper or through a book-friendly program, like Kindle, but as text files on a screen simply because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. While each new book may not life up to its hype, each unread book brings new hope when it’s opened.
- Re-reading Old Books – When I was in Girl Scouts, we used to sing a song.
- Well loved books are like old friends and I have to stay in touch. Wherever I go, they go with me and yes, I’ll put down the new books to re-acquaint myself with the prose and poetry that I’ve known for decades. If that makes me weird, so be it. I just wish I had more time to spend with them. Still only part of this word year was about reading
- 2015 is, for me, the year I stopped writing in short, painful bursts (and re-writing, re-writing and hiding the finished product in shame) and began the discipline of printing something at least twice a week. Something the public could see and criticize. I still have an enormous amount to learn but I’m not as afraid of failure as I was a few years ago. Instead of thinking, “Oh what if I fail!” and then scrambling to hide under the bed, I’ve learned to think “Of course, I’m going to fail; so what!” I learned I can survive being rejected. I can’t recommend it as a life-experience but learning I don’t implode after hearing “No” was heartening. I even learned I can write something new to submit for rejection. Amazing.
Reading, to me, is honest-to-God magic, a way to climb inside someone else’s soul and understand their feelings and thoughts. Because of words, I know the voices of so many people I’d never have the chance to hear, sometimes voices of people who died long before I was born. Writing then becomes the act of sending out a new transmission, adding my own voice to the chorus. Amazing. Words are a human creation but, arranged well, they bring us into the family of mankind.
Winter is the Season with the strongest ties to Home and Hearth. Spring and Autumn may pull us to work in our yards and Summer is for Adventure and Travel but Winter, with its long nights and bleak weather, is the time when people sub-consciously pull closer to the places that comfort and protect them and settle in for the Season. While the winds blast across the open ground and temperatures plummet, we can feel safe as long as we have dry, warm rooms, comfortable seats and a selection of Winter Books to re-read. If there are Summer Authors (and I think there are) that invite the heart toward roaming, there are also the writers that celebrate hearth and home and these are a joy to re-read. While the Winter stories are rarely in high demand (Winter tales have pages you want to mull over, not rip through) their appeal is eternal and simple. Winter Stories insist on a mindful awareness of the joys and trials of everyday life. They celebrate what is real.
New England is one of those places that seems to have a copyright on Winter and Gladys Taber is still one of New England’s best-loved “home-and hearth” Winter Writers. Robert Frost could scribble out poems about people who underpin their friendships with fences and allow the hired man home to die. That’s fine for Robert Frost, but it isn’t much comfort during Winter. Instead, readers turned to the woman who fell in love with a 15th century farmhouse named Stillmeadow and made her life there with kids, cats, dogs and twin devotions to the written word and the natural world. She supported herself by writing about domestic life and no one has written more skillfully or with more mindfulness about the Winter.
“We have an appointment with winter and we are ready. The wood is stacked with seasoned applewood and maple, the snow shovel leans at the back door, the shelves are jammed with supplies. When the first innocent flakes drift down, we put out more soot and fill the bird feeders. When the snow begins to come in all directions at once and the wind takes on a peculiar lonely cry, we pile more wood on the fire and hang the old iron soup kettle over it, browning the pot roast in diced salt pork and onion. As the blizzard increases, the old house seems to steady herself like a ship against a gale wind. . . Snow piles up against the windowpanes, sifts under the ancient sills, makes heaps of powdered pearl on the ancient oak floors. But the house is snug in the twilight of the snow and we sit by the fire and toast our toes feeling there is much to be said for winter after all.”
Ms. Taber may have been my mother’s favorite writer; I’m sure she’s the only one Mother trusted enough to write to and Ms. Taber’s handwritten reply was one of Mama’s treasured possessions. It was enough for me to watch Mama’s reaction as she pored over one Ms. Taber’s volumes. She would sit quietly, with one hand on the edge of the pages and a small smile would appear on her face. Pages were turned with deliberation. After spending twenty minutes with Ms.Taber and Stillmeadow, Mama would return to our world, a happier, more serene person.
As for me, I followed a southern star and my favorite hearth writer became Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, that Florida transplant and author of The Yearling and Cross Creek. Ms. Rawlings described the rough but wonderful life she found in the backwoods of Florida and how winter can be a wonderful thing in a place where it’s still seen as alien.
“For all our battles, winter at the Creek is the cozy time, when fat pine fires crackle on all the hearths. I take my dog for a walk up the road at sunset and the wind blows in our faces. I turn back to walk westward home as the red sun drops behind Orange Lake. The dusk comes quickly and we turn in at the gate and shut the house door behind us and drop down in front of the hearth fire in the living room. A fresh log of fatwood thrown on the slow-burning bed of oak coals catches and blazes and roars up the big chimney. The flames light the old white-walled room so that there is no need even of candles, though one or two over the bookshelves are always pleasant, for candlelight on books is one of the lovely things of this world. The ruby-red velvet sleepy hollow chair glows in the firelight. The dog groans for comfort and turns his belly to the heat and stretches out his paws in the ultimate luxury. Only a hunting dog or a cat can share man’s love of the open fire, and if I had a whole kennel full of dogs, on winter nights I should let them all come in to enjoy mine with me.”
In a number of weeks, we will venture out into Spring and run forward again, with our futures. Take the time this season to be aware of your life and enjoy the comforts of home. Settle in with a winter book.