“Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.”
In Macbeth, “1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro
In the last 2 years I've been thinking a lot about Shakespeare. One of the things that always bothers me is this: "If all of Shakespeare's works and words somehow disappeared from the Earth today (due to a Bard-targeting virus or something), it would be as if his works still existed."
I'll try not to be snarky, but please read this in your nicest teacher's voice.
The answer to the conundrum is yes. He'd still exist because his words exist in everything we have.
By contrast, if Nicholas Sparks were to disappear tomorrow, along with all his books and the movies directly made from his books, future generations would never know he existed. His influence on humanity, culture, and history has been, let's say, minimal.
On the other hand, Shakespeare's works could be reconstructed from the evidence left behind.
Meloves a good Gedankenexperiment. Imagine we could identify authors so influential that if every copy of their work disappeared from the face of the earth, their literary contributions would remain essentially intact because their innovations and ideas were reflected a hundred times over in other lesser works from other writers. Because my mind is on Shakespeare lately, he's the classic example to think of.
Get rid of "Hamlet", "Lear", "Macbeth" and the stories have still been told and retold over and over. The characters are never quite the same, the language never quite as eloquent, specific plot points evolve over time, but the essence of the tale is embedded in our literary culture so thoroughly that the loss of the original at this point would leave behind a perfect impression like a fossilized shell immortalized in stone.
Out of curiosity I searched IMDB to know whether there were any Shakespeare movies in the making as we speak. I was quite surprised with the result:
Shapiro’s book belongs to this trend of “re-writing” Shakespeare, at least of our perception of him.
Shapiro’s “theories” as usual abound. I must say, however, the only theory I found rather far-fetched was the one where Lear is based on the Leir play. There are other key moments when a connection between an "historical event" and Shakespeare's work is satisfying but rather unlikely unfortunately.
I’ve read somewhere that some authors take it for granted that Shakespeare wrote Lear after reading Leir, but it's entirely possible, as other editors have suggested, that the idea was gestating as early as 1603, and took Holinshed as its primary source. Some have even suggested, based on close reading and verbal resonances, that it was actually Leir that borrowed from Lear. I've read too many theories spun out of whole cloth to be entirely comfortable with verbal resonances alone as evidence. It's because of this that I prefer to take as literal an approach as possible rather than take as true a historical claim based upon suggestions that could be interpreted in more than one way.
We do not know too much that is definite about Shakespeare, and I often think those who try to provide more "definite information" rely as much upon their imagination as upon indubitable evidence, not to mention a willing suspension of disbelief. Sometime it's not easy for readers of Shapiro's book to determine when assumption becomes assertion.
I really don't want to be a spoilsport. As a scholastic approach it's highly readable. It enhanced and enriched, in many ways, my appreciation of Lear and Macbeth. Forget about Fassbender's movie. If after reading Shapiro's take on "Macbeth" (“his take on the origins of the word “equivocation” is quite masterful: it’s a whole new world of “equivocation”, and the disturbing concept of “the fiend that lies like truth”), "Lear" and "Antony and Cleopatra" you're not inspired to read this three great plays again and thereby to liberate their author from the chains of speculative biography, Shapiro’s valiant attempt to re-create that mysterious year will not have been justified. Shapiro’s take on the time in the reign of King James I is something worth reading, pulling us in with a fresh perspective on Shakespeare’s works that has rarely, if ever, been considered before. Greenblatt’s “Hamlet in Purgatory” comes a close second. Shapiro chose to make it more personal, while Greenblatt went for the playwright's dramas, and drew larger cultural concerns over them, rather than presuming personal influence.
NB: Incidentally, for those of you more in tune with what’s happening in the world of Shakespeareana in this day and age now, the chapter exploring the link between “equivocation” and “Macbeth” is not something really new when it comes to Shapiro. In 2012 he did a 3 episode TV Series at the BBC where one of the shows was entitled “equivocation”. This series, all by itself, is a “must”, namely because it’s easy to make a comparison between the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in terms of the Shakespeare plays. 1606 is commonly regarded as a pivot year “connecting” this change in Shakespeare.