Getting creative. Did Shakespeare write King Lear in lockdown?

The title page of the First Folio, 1623

When lockdown was first imposed, in March 2020, it was pointed out that Shakespeare had written King Lear while under lockdown himself during a period when the theatres were closed because of plague, in 1605-6. James Shapiro discusses this as well as much else to do with Shakespeare’s relevance at the moment, in this interview. Andrew Dickson, too, asks if it’s likely in this Guardian article. It seemed like a bit of a challenge: if Shakespeare could write King Lear, what can you achieve given a few uninterrupted weeks?

As the weeks have turned into months, though, there has been a real shift. During Mental Health Awareness Week back in May the message was that we shouldn’t expect too much of ourselves. I do know people who have been learning a new language or remodelling their garden, but I also know people who’ve been struggling. Anxiety levels are particularly high among those who are isolated and for some, it’s enough to just get through the day. Maybe the idea that Shakespeare shut himself away and wrote a masterpiece while the plague killed many of his fellow-citizens is looking a bit optimistic.

We know very little about how and when Shakespeare wrote, but I’ve always thought it likely that when writing for the theatre Shakespeare needed a deadline. Many of his plays show signs of being completed in a hurry, with loose ends tied up in a rush in the final scene of the play. For someone who was used to living under pressure a long period of uninterrupted time might in itself have been worrying. King Lear, though, is full of the feeling that the familiar world is changing, a feeling many of us now share. Gloucester identifies the symptoms:

“Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father … we have seen the best of our time.”

Shakespeare wrote about the workings of the mind in a time of isolation. He gives the deposed King Richard II, in prison, a speech in which he talks about the challenge of being alone.

Samuel West as Richard II

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world.

Many creative people have been active in recent months: some composers have been commissioned to write music for lockdown for instance. Maybe you too have been busy getting creative. If so, you have just enough time to enter the King Lear Prizes. These prizes are intended for older people stuck at home because of Coronavirus (over age 70, but there is one category for over 60s) who are not professional writers, musicians or artists, to create new works of literature, poetry, music and art. The closing date is 19 June 2020 and each prize is worth £1000. They are of course named after the idea I’ve already mentioned that King Lear was written during a period of plague.

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