So I thought I’d share my review of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro to get a wider perspective on the year that saw Shakespeare give a title character in one of his plays many of the behaviors and symptoms of advanced cognitive impairment and Lewy Body dementia.
This book explores how the world around Shakespeare (beginning with the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605 – now commemorated annually in England as “Guy Fawkes’ Day” – which had deep political and religious roots) during the early part of the reign of King James I, with an especially tumultuous year in 1606, influenced his writing that year.
Much of what was going on politically, socially, and emotionally in England at the time is reflected in the lines of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all of which are among Shakespeare’s tragedy plays and all of which Shakespeare wrote in 1606.
The Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 triggered much of the political and religious climate that overshadowed 1606. The plot, engineered by English Catholics who feared greater persecution – they got it – and more “do-or-die” pressure to abandon their Catholicism – a prescient fear even they didn’t realize the extent or depths of of James I – underscored the continued intense subterranean battle between England’s Catholics and Protestants.
While the plot was thwarted by the usual treachery and intrigue (it would have obliterated much of the heart of London government – buildings and people – and would have significantly changed the overall physical landscape of London), James I – as King of Scotland first, he was viewed as an interloper by much of the English population – reacted ferociously with a wide net that touched every English citizen, including Shakespeare, determined to have his will – the union of Scotland and England under one umbrella – no matter what he had to do to make it happen.
It seems James I did everything he could to alienate his English subjects, including moving, by disinterring, the graves of the royals in Westminster Abbey.
Most notably, he disinterred Elizabeth I and buried her on top of Mary I (“Bloody Mary,” the religiously-fanatical daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, whose main accomplishment on the throne was a religious pogrom against Protestants, of whom Elizabeth I was one), then moved his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots (one of Elizabeth’s staunchest rivals for the English throne), into Elizabeth’s grave and giving her a greater position of status in the cemetery.
Shakespeare, who lived in the heart of London most of the year, had a front row seat to all of this as part of the King’s Men, who were patronized by the crown, as they had been during Elizabeth I’s reign.
1606 was a year of fear (the plague hit London particularly hard during 1606, adding to the political and religious fear that was rampant in the city) and division (political and religious) and nostalgia (although by the end of her long reign the English believed Elizabeth I’s rule had become stagnant, the actions of James I made them long for her “good old days”) that punctuated the year.
I highly recommend this book even for people who may not know or really appreciate the incredible talent and acute, heart-of-the-matter insight that Shakespeare brought as a writer to his plays. Perhaps it will be a catalyst to go and read at least these three plays through the eyes of 1606.
William Shakespeare, the playwright, was one of the most intuitive and astute observers of the human race. A careful reading of his body of plays – especially the histories and the tragedies – show an author who intimately understood human nature and human folly at their very core manifestations.
In King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most gut-wrenching plays, Shakespeare gives us an in-depth look at what dementia – and, most likely, based on the symptoms, Lewy Body dementia – looks like in action in his portrayal of King Lear.
The summary of King Lear is fairly straightforward. King Lear, a monarch in pre-Christian Britain, who is in his eighties and aware of his own cognitive decline, decides to abdicate the throne and split the kingdom among his three daughters, with the promise that they will take care of him.
The first sign of Lear’s dementia is his irrational criteria for how he’s going to decide which daughter gets the largest portion of the kingdom: not by their abilities, strengths, rulership experience, but by which one professes the greatest love for him.
His two oldest daughters are duplicitous and try to outdo each other with their professions of love for their father (they don’t love him, but they want the lion’s share of the kingdom).
King Lear’s youngest daughter, who genuinely loves her father and who is his favorite, gets disgusted with the whole thing and refuses to play the game.
King Lear, in a sudden fit of rage, then disowns his youngest daughter completely. When one of her friends, the Earl of Kent, tries to reason with the king, King Lear banishes him from the kingdom.
King Lear’s youngest daughter then marries the king of France and leaves King Lear in the hands of his two devious older daughters.
Both daughters are aware of King Lear’s vulnerability because of his cognitive decline and are intent on murdering him so that they can have everything without the responsibility of having to take care of him. They treat King Lear horribly in the process of formulating their scheme to end his life and be rid of him.
The youngest daughter comes back from France to fight her sisters, but loses and is sentenced to death instead.
While she is awaiting execution the two older sisters fight over a man they both want. The oldest sister poisons the middle sister, who then dies.
The man the two sisters were fighting over has been fatally wounded in battle and he dies (but he reverses the execution order of the youngest sister before he dies). After his death, the oldest sister commits suicide.
Meanwhile, the youngest sister is executed before the reversal order reaches the executioners. And King Lear, upon seeing his youngest daughter dead, dies too.
Woven throughout the plot are signs that King Lear has dementia, that he knows something is cognitively wrong, and we watch him actually go through the steps of dementia throughout the play.
King Lear exhibits deteriorating cognitive impairment, irrational thinking, sudden and intense mood changes, paranoia, hallucinations, and the inability to recognize people he knows.
Lewy Body dementia seems to be evident in King Lear’s conversations with nobody (he thinks he sees them but they aren’t there) and the sleep abnormalities that are brought out in the play.
A few poignant lines spoken by King Lear give us a glimpse:
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!”
“I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
“You must bear with me:
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.”
Everyone around King Lear knows he’s not himself, including his deceptive daughters, who note after he disowns his youngest daughter, how bizarre his behavior was toward someone he loved so much and how quickly his temperament changed. King Lear see
As the play progresses, King Lear’s dementia continues to be revealed in his frequent rages against fate and nature, in his disregard for personal comfort or protection from the elements, and in his eventually having fewer and fewer lucid moments in which he recognizes people and knows who he is.
If you haven’t read King Lear in a while or you’ve never read it at all, it is an entirely different experience to read it now with the knowledge of dementia as a backdrop. It’s even more tragic than we even imagined.
I think this research could give some good insights into this particular facet of Lewy Body dementia, which always fascinated me and intrigued me to watch and listen to when Mama was experiencing it.
The last movie Natalie Wood made before her death in 1981 was a forgettable movie, despite a high-profile cast that included Christopher Walken (who has the creepy eyes of a villain, no matter what character he’s playing) and Louise Fletcher, called Brainstorm.
The movie is about a bunch of scientists who are trying to develop a device that will record everything happening in someone’s brain so that someone else can fully experience the same thing right down to the emotions and physical sensations (much like the virtual reality simulators we have today).
Louise Fletcher’s character is wearing the device when she experiences a fatal heart attack and all her brain activity is recorded.
After her death, Christopher Walken’s character uses the device to walk through Fletcher’s last minutes on earth, but almost dies in the process because he experiences the sensation of a fatal heart attack just like she did. The scientists decide the device is too dangerous and the project is scrapped.
While the movie was awful, the subject was fascinating because neurology is still so incomprehensible for the most part and unlocking all its secrets are, in my opinion, truly beyond the grasp of humans.
So any time we’re able to get just a sliver of a glimpse into how the brain works, it’s another piece of the puzzle, which we’ll never finish, that we can put into place.
There are some facts from the Huffington Post article about dreams that I found interesting, and may be a slightly-ajar door into understanding R.E.M. behavior disorder.
Our bodies react to dreams the same way they would if we were awake and experiencing those things and we dream in real time.
R.E.M. behavior disorder shows us that because we hear it and see it external in speech and motion and there’s a general sense of what’s going on the dream just by what our loved ones are saying and doing.
And as someone who dreams vividly most of the time, I can also attest that this is true.
If I’m falling in my dreams/nightmares (a little more on nightmares later), I literally feel the sensation of falling, which is what jolts me awake. All the fear in the dreams/nightmares is evidenced by my greatly-accelerated heart rate, profuse perspiration, and a long exhalation of breath that I began to hold just before I woke up.
The same thing happens when I’m running (these are my two default nightmares) away from something that’s either dangerous or chasing me. I jolt awake. My legs are tired, I am struggling to catch my breath, and I turn on a light to make sure nothing and nobody is there that I need to run from. All that happens in perhaps a second.
But the next fact about dreams that is fascinating comes into play here. I can’t go back to sleep because I am literally replaying the dreams/nightmares – I do this with other dreams, especially the ones that have meshed people and places and things that don’t belong together in them – too when I wake up and I can see them and go through them awake to try make sense of them or figure out why I dreamed them – almost frame-by-frame.
And there is a cadre of dreams and nightmares I’ve had over my lifetime that I recall just as vividly and in detail right now – I see them in my mind’s eye, if you will – as when I first had them, some of which go all the way back into early childhood.
Research has found that people who can recall their dreams regularly have a higher level of spontaneous activity, both in sleep and in wakefulness, in the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction of the brain than those who seldom remember their dreams.
The temporoparietal junction of the brain is a key player in processing both information from within the body as well as external information, while the medial prefrontal cortex is responsible, in part, for cognition (strategy, decision, actions) in environments where uncertainty (awake or asleep) exists.
Alzheimer’s Disease research shows a greatly-reduced metabolism rate in the temporoparietal junction in general and it appears that all types of dementia affect the medial prefrontal cortex.
One of the primary areas where medial prefrontal cortex research has been done is in PTSD and there is strong evidence to suggest that PTSD is the result of neurological changes within the medial prefrontal cortex.
It would, therefore, probably not be surprising to see a higher incidence of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease eventually occur within people who have been diagnosed with PTSD.
My thinking, though, of the higher activity in the temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex in those of us who usually can recall our dreams, is that it’s actually hypersensitivity of both of these parts of the brain, because research also shows a high sensitivity to sounds when “high recallers” are awake.
I am definitely much more sensitive to sounds, both in frequency, pitch, and patterns, than most people, to the point that they really bother me or I can’t be around them very long because they literally hurt (I can’t exactly explain that in tangible terms, but I experience an almost-unbearable intense sensation of both auditory and neurological pain).
Sudden sounds, whether they’re loud or not, make me jump. Extended exposure to high-volume sounds makes me physically uncomfortable. And a lot of sounds occurring simultaneously overwhelms me.
The impact of this particular research for our loved ones suffering from Lewy Body dementia and R.E.M. behavior disorder, because they do not remember their dreams at all, could lead to a closer look at the medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction regions of the brain and the role that Lewy Body proteins play in how they function.
A third fact in the Huffington Post article that I found intriguing is that nightmares aren’t always about fear, but other underlying emotions like failure, worry, sadness, or guilt. My guess is that we morph all those other emotions into whatever foundational emotion underlies all of them.
I believe that underlying emotion is the primary emotion we’re most familiar with, understand the best, and either know how to escape (in my case, running) or know it is what will finally do us in (in my case, falling off something high enough that it will kill me, usually the road or bridge that turns into a high-wire I realize I’m on over the middle of the stormy waves of an ocean with no way to get to either end safely and I look down, lose my balance, and start falling).
The last fact I’ll discuss about dreams surprised me because I’ve never heard anyone say this out loud, although I’ve experienced it. You can die in your dreams and live to tell about it.
I never died in my dreams, always waking up before inevitable death, until I was in my late 20’s.
I clearly remember my first dying dream and the sensation of knowing I was dying and then actually, in what seemed like slow motion, going through the process of dying.
How I died was not the way I would ever die in real life, but what I remember most was that once I realized I was dying, it wasn’t scary. In fact, it was, although what killed me was extremely violent, peaceful and easy, with the last sensation I had being one of relief.
I’ve died on a regular basis in my dreams since then, but the most striking similarities among these dying dreams are that they aren’t scary and there is a profound sense of relief before it all just fades to black.
I suspect because death has been on the doorstep of my life – not me personally, but with my dad first and then my mom – since my late 20’s, the dying dreams are my way of coping with that.
I also suspect that because they haven’t been traumatic experiences for me, they equipped me to better handle the dying processes of both my parents.
And they’ll continue to equip me to handle well the inevitable conclusion to my own life whenever and however it comes.
After all, dreams are just another part of the incredible, albeit mostly out of the reach of humans, complex neurological system of reasoning, thinking, understanding, and responding that our Creator endowed us with.