The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown and Company, 2015) explores the Salem Witch trials, during which the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed 14 women, five men, and two dogs. Schiff covers not only the trials, but also the everyday life of the Puritans, touching on the dynamic between the average citizen and those in authority.
Known for her previous work—Cleopatra: A Life and 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)—Schiff seeks to create a comprehensive account of the events of 1692.
The first chapter creates a solid summary of the mass hysteria, and the last several chapters provide some context and possible explanations. The sections in between, however, become bogged down as Schiff tries to recreate the minutiae of Puritan daily life.
Schiff is brilliant at creating a scene, and her descriptions in The Witches are no exception, as she lays out the culture of piety and monotony. The average Puritan “absorbed some 15,000 hours of sermons” in their lifetime.
With an overwhelming emphasis on the spiritual world, Puritans were continually reminded by their ministers that Satan was waiting to devour them. Schiff purports that, given this environment, the accusers’ stories, filled with vivid yellows and reds, created a desired excitement and distraction from the monochromatic life of Puritan society.
Schiff demonstrates that in many instances those accused were involved in land disputes, questions of inheritance, or defiance of the accepted norms for women.
The Witches: Salem, 1692 is a fresh scholarly account of the deadly moral panic, but at times excessively detailed and footnoted. ★ ★ ★
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2015) examines three of Shakespeare’s best known plays—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra—in the context of the political and social events of 1606.
Well respected in academic circles, Shapiro is known for 2010’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which tackles the various theories of Shakespeare’s true identity, and the bestselling 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, for which he was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize.
Continuing the theme of micro-history, The Year of Lear opens in January of 1606 with a court masque at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, celebrating the marriage of Robert Devereux, Third Earl of Essex to Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, who sat on the commission that condemned the groom’s father to death. The marriage was arranged by King James in an effort to unite the two factions and heal previous wounds.
Shapiro is quick to lay the scene of William Shakespeare as a has-been. In the three years since King James succeeded Elizabeth I to the English throne, Shakespeare only produced one play, a sharp contrast to the time when creating three or four plays in a year was not unusual.
Late in 1605, Shakespeare purchased a copy of The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and decided to use it as a catalyst for the tragedy we now know as King Lear.
Gradually, Shapiro lays out the events of 1605 and 1606, the impact of which can be seen within the three plays. A plague in the summer of 1605 had become serious enough by October that it closed the playhouses of London and sent Shakespeare’s company on tour.
During March 1606, a rumor surfaced that King James had been assassinated. Though quickly discredited, the rumor resulted in a panic and instability within the kingdom. Finally, in November, the Gunpowder Plot (known today as Guy Fawkes Day) was revealed.
Shapiro explores the political climate, from the persecution of Catholics to King James’ efforts at uniting the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Shapiro reveals not simply the historical ramifications of these events, but also their personal impact on Shakespeare and their reflections in his work.
Numerous books have explored the life and works of the Elizabethan playwright, but few have explored William Shakespeare the Jacobean playwright. Much is known about Shakespeare’s life during this time period, but little is known about his reaction to events beyond what has been speculated from reading between the lines of his writing. Shapiro gives the reader plausible insight into those reactions by pinpointing where they occurred in relation to where Shakespeare lived and worked at the time, and how they directly impacted his associates.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 is a must-have for any history or Shakespeare enthusiast. Shapiro presents historical events in a way that is easy to understand and relatable in comparison to modern events. He writes clearly without expecting the reader to have an extensive knowledge of the history or events.
I recommend readers explore Shapiro’s other books, beginning with Contested Will and continuing to A Year in the Life, in order to steep themselves in the events leading up to The Year of Lear. ★ ★ ★ ★