“1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” is the third volume in James Shapiro’s historical / literary amalgam, each book focusing on a single year and setting Shakespeare’s output in the context of contemporary events. In the case of “1606”, the ramifications of the Gunpowder plot (Shakespeare was really close to the action – but not in as much peril as Ben Johnson!), King James’ desire for union between England and Scotland, and the persecution of Catholics.
For me, as a former literature student (but do we ever stop being this?!) such contextual placement is fascinating, primarily because it adds an additional layer of meaning onto the Bard’s words. Not only that, but perhaps it focuses on the most pertinent layer, for surely when the plays reflected the political landscape of the times they were closest to what Shakespeare ‘meant’; a meaning more fundamental and actual than any manufactured academic theory.
It is interesting, for example, when Shapiro points out how individual words would have resonated with the contemporary audience, words that a reader four centuries later would in all probability simply skip across, taking it at face value.
The other big takeaway for me is this notion of the contemporaneous. Was there such a different between Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Hemingway when they were all writing about the world around them, the world they saw, and the world they were trying to translate..?