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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Shakespeare and Depression

Was Shakespeare depressed when he wrote King Lear?

Simon Russell Beale, as King Lear

The great actor Simon Russell Beale has recently suggested that Shakespeare may have been depressed and may have "temporarily lost faith in human nature" when he wrote the play, and while he wrote Timon of Athens, which may have been written at the same time.

You can read the full article here:

Mr. Beale points to Shakespeare's "savage rewriting" of the ending of the Lear story, which traditionally ended with Lear and Cordelia alive. He wonders why Shakspeare would  "obliterate a happy ending entirely" and write a version that has Lear and Cordelia die.

Mr. Beale is quoted as saying: "I wonder if he was going through a bad patch. I know it's a dangerous game to play, but I can't believe you do something so violent to your source material as that without a personal investment of some kind."

John Lithgow as King Lear

I find these kinds of questions very interesting, and very healthy to ask.

Mr. Beale has every right to consider this, considering that he recently played King Lear at the National Theatre (here is my review) and has performed Timon on stage.

Some people may think that Shakespeare's plays should be read just as plays, and nothing beyond the words written in the plays should be considered. I appreciate that argument, but I think it is a disservice to Shakespeare, whose biography is as compelling as the plays he wrote.

Also, if we can understand Shakespeare's life and the frame of mind he was in at the time he wrote the plays, it will help in understanding the plays better.

This question of depression and Shakespeare also comes only a few weeks after the suicide of Robin Williams, who suffered from depression.

Can any of us ever watch a Robin Williams movie again without thinking of his death? Perhaps I am only speaking for myself, but I won't be able to stop thinking that there are clues and signals to his depression in the films he made.

The life of the artist is as important as the art he creates. Or, as the brilliant film director Federico Fellini said: “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.”

Is Mr. Beale right? Was Shakespeare depressed when he wrote Lear and Timon?

Michael Pennington as King Lear

I think it is possible, but I do not think that he was depressed while he wrote these plays.

How do I arrive at these conclusions?

First, I look at the time in his life that he wrote the plays, and the events surrounding him. Secondly, I read the plays very closely to sense what he was writing and why. It is a combination of homework and empathy.

There are other plays that seem to indicate that he was in a very sad, and darker, state of mind.

When I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice, I sensed a greater despair and sadness.

He wrote the play during arguably the worst time in his life. His only son Hamnet, who was 11 years old, had just died.

Shakespeare had spent years of hard work to build his reputation in order to create a lasting legacy for his family and heirs, and with the death of Hamnet, he had lost his only male heir. It must have devastated him.

But how did he respond to this tragedy? He wrote a new play.

Charles Macklin as Shylock

What is fascinating about Merchant is that it is such a funny comedy. He had written other comedies before, all of them funny, but this one was different. It is dark and angry, and the humour is sharper and much bawdier than anything he wrote before or after.

As I re-wrote the play and solved the problematic tone of the play, I realized that he was desperately trying to find meaning at a time when he felt his life had become meaningless.

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1601 he was probably at the second lowest point in his life.

Shakespeare's great friend and patron, the Earl of Essex, had just been executed earlier that year, and Shakespeare's future was very uncertain.

And to make matters worse, his father died.

If ever there was a time in Shakespeare's life when he might have packed up and retired to Stratford, it was in 1601.

As I wrote my version of Hamlet, I sensed a great deal of depression. 

Of course, Hamlet famously considers suicide. It is impossible to think that Shakespeare could have written such speeches without intimately understanding the darkness of depression.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet

But what is remarkable about Hamlet, is that instead of harming himself or ending his life in some fashion, Shakespeare wrote a play.

Time and again, Shakespeare responded to adversity with his writing, with his art.

It was probably the one and only effective method he had to treat himself for any depression he may have suffered.

When it comes to King Lear and Timon of Athens, Shakespeare may have been depressed.

They were written at a time when he was the official royal playwright to King James. It would not have been a happy and stress-free work environment. Shakespeare may have bitten off more than he could chew, in writing and performing for King James, and he may have been overall very down.

King James had just survived the attempt on his life, on 5 November 1605. He and his family could have been killed at the hands of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes, and others.

King James, in 1606, around the same time as Shakespeare wrote King Lear

It must have been a frightening time for the country, and for Shakespeare, as the king's servant. It could have contributed to any depression Shakespeare may have suffered.

But what is more interesting perhaps is that while King James had survived the Plot, he was suffering the humiliation of having been the target of the greatest terrorist plot in Britain's history.

In this historical context, any depression Mr. Beale and others might sense in these plays might not be an indication of Shakespeare's mind, but rather of King James himself.

As I read and study the plays Shakespeare wrote during King James's reign, the plays are clearly written for King James and are all about King James. 

King James, in 1606

If there was a time that Shakespeare was most depressed it may have been when he retired to Stratford around 1611-2.

If writing plays was what sustained him, and helped him manage his emotions, then this retirement may have hit him rather hard.

He died not long after, in 1616. He was only 52.

It is sad to think that he suffered from depression in his final days.

But he would have died knowing that his plays were still played at the Globe, and audiences still flocked to them.

For a man who dedicated his life to the theatre, there may have been nothing more gratifying to him than that. It is very likely that he died knowing that his life had had meaning and that he had touched the lives of so many of his fellow Englishmen.

What do you think?


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