I am going to talk to you today a little about context – such a critical concept for any study. At Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, where some of you will remember Jim Cooper is now studying, there is a senior lecturer in Polish Studies in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. This may seem to some of you rather an obscure post, and indeed it is, but Dr Stanley Bill’s most recent work, like I suspect almost all of his work, has thrown up some interesting conclusions due to his sensitivity to context. He has been studying a man called Bruno Schulz, a Polish-Jewish artist and writer who is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of 20th Century Polish culture. In 1938, Schulz was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature’s prestigious Golden Laurel award; in 1942, he was shot dead in the street by a German SS officer. During the Second World War, Schulz’s home town of Drohobycz was in fact occupied by the Soviet Red Army before it was taken over by the Nazis. In 1940 and 1941, Schulz worked as an illustrator for a local propaganda newspaper entitled Bolshevik Truth – and in 2016 his illustrations, many of them glorifying Stalin, Lenin and Soviet military power, finally emerged from the archives in Ukraine.
What has emerged from Dr Stanley Bill’s studies back in Cambridge this year, however, is that, far from being a communist, Bruno Schulz’s work for this newspaper formed part of a survival strategy of artistic and ideological mimicry. It seems that Schulz hid secret messages in his illustrations which were, in fact, subversive to the Soviet machine. Schulz’s work, in other words, so ostensibly pro-communist, yet in reality anything but, cannot be separated from the context in which he found himself – which was essentially one of forced labour, and a desire to survive.
Another more famous example illustrates something similar. Virgil’s Aeneid remains controversial to many even today, 2000 years after it was written. Virgil had been commissioned by the first and greatest of all Roman emperors, Augustus, to write an epic poem about the Foundation of Rome itself. He took for his literary context the greatest of all Greek epic poets, Homer, and produced one of the finest poems of all time, the Aeneid, based upon Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which he then bent to his own historical context. The result is undeniably clever, and on the outside, at least, makes a claim for Augustus, the new Emperor and Virgil’s own patron, to be in effect one of the great Founders of Rome himself. However, scholars still argue over whether or not Virgil had included subversive passages, some hidden in his poem and some more overt, to indicate to future generations that in fact he did not wholly approve of the way Augustus had come to power. Of course, context was everything here – Virgil could not be overtly critical of Augustus, the great new emperor who commissioned him, but in the eyes of some, his poem secretly does exactly that.
Finally, a different take on context. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, on at the Barbican at the moment, finds the great love story from Verona told in a modern brutalist setting. You will know the storyline. Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two lovers from rival families, the Capulets and Montagues, families whose rivalry spills over into fighting and results in death by stabbings to three of their members, Tybalt, Mercutio and Paris, before Juliet kills herself with a dagger too. This was a play whose context had something to say about knife crime even when it was written – Shakespeare’s own friend, Christopher Marlowe, had been stabbed to death in a London brawl only a few years before he wrote the play in 1597 – and the play is now revived in London itself at a time when the capital city is in the midst of a knife crime epidemic. Appallingly, last year alone, there were over 40,000 offences involving a knife in the UK, almost 300 of which resulted in death. So here is an example of how great art remains great for centuries because historical contexts repeat themselves.
Ultimately, context is one of the reasons why academic study is so important. It may seem obscure to us that the study of Bruno Schulz’s newspaper articles can provide a job today for somebody to research in Cambridge, but from that we can learn all sorts of things, and not least about the human condition and the way it reacts to extreme stress. It might seem odd that a Shakespeare play is still being performed today: but by studying context, it too serves to remind us that we can learn from it even now – the futility of gang fighting is so absurd when set against the love that two young people can inadvertently find for one another, regardless of background. And it is not just in Shakespeare’s own land that his plays still find meaning. A number of productions of Romeo and Juliet in recent years have portrayed one family as Palestinian and the other as Israeli, with Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another crossing that cavernous divide. At certain times, and perhaps most obviously, this has been read as an example of how the fighting in that part of the world must end; but in the Gaza strip itself, just two years ago, the play was banned from schools on the grounds that it did not want to encourage cross-religious relationships or indeed suicide.
So, in summary, every book you read, every play you see, every single interaction you have with another person in this room or anywhere else, has context. That makes study, careful thought and an ability to see things from different eyes and different angles truly important.