Book Review: 'Soul of the Age,' a Shakespeare Biography by Jonathan Bate

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By Louis Bayard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

By Jonathan Bate

Random House. 471 pp. $35

"Soul of the age" is Ben Jonson's coinage, but "A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare"? That's the brazen agenda of British scholar Jonathan Bate, and them's fighting words.

On one side of the quarrel: the school that squeezes the Bard's work like tea leaves for every last drop of autobiography. Shakespeare's wife becomes Kate the shrew; Shakespeare's daughter becomes Rosalind; Shakespeare himself becomes Prospero. . . . Literalism holds court, and metaphor sulks into exile. If the sonneteer speaks of being "made lame by Fortune's dearest spite," get plates on the cart that ran him over.

On the other side stands the agnostic reduction of George Bernard Shaw: "Everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch. He was a very civil gentleman who got round men of all classes; he was extremely susceptible to word-music and to graces of speech; he picked up all sorts of odds and ends from books and from the street talk of his day and welded them into his work. . . . Add to this that he was, like all highly intelligent and conscientious people, business-like about money and appreciative of the value of respectability and the discomfort and discredit of Bohemianism; also that he stood on his social position and desired to have it affirmed by a grant of a coat of arms, and you have all we know of Shakespeare beyond what we gather from his plays."

Let's be grateful, at least, that Shaw gave us that final loophole, for it is exactly the opening through which Jonathan Bate wriggles, emerging with this beauty of a book, rich in insight, immaculate in scholarship, a work that is destined, like Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World," to become one of the standard sources on its subject.

Bate's particular tack is to come at Shakespeare's life through the seven ages of man, as enumerated by the cynic Jaques in "As You Like It." At first blush, this seems counterproductive. Shakespeare was, obviously, an infant and a schoolboy and a lover, too (but of whom?). Nothing in the record, though, suggests he was a soldier or a justice; and, dying as he did at the age of 52, he didn't enjoy much of a breather between "the lean and slippered pantaloon" (not a pair of trousers but an old stock character from the commedia dell'arte) and that final act, "second childishness and mere oblivion."

In fact, Jaques's speech is just the scaffolding for a dazzling exploration of Shakespeare's "world-picture." In one chapter, Bate analyzes the Christian-Islamic geopolitics that informed the writing of "Othello." In another, he combs the records of Stratford bawdy courts to see how they colored the trial of Queen Hermione in "The Winter's Tale." Everywhere, he samples the intellectual stew from which Shakespeare's plays and poems bubbled up: Plutarch, Chaucer, Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (source of 90 percent of Shakespeare's mythological allusions), not to mention the Ciceronian orations that infuse Marc Antony's rabble-rousing and the still-bracing essays of Montaigne, whose intellectual journey uncannily mirrors Hamlet's. (Bate also speculates, deliciously, that Shakespeare may have read and enjoyed the first English translation of "Don Quixote.")

Through it all, Bate stays squarely within the realm of known facts. Which is to say he tiptoes 'round the minefield of Shakespeare's marriage, surely one of the least documented alliances in literary history, and recognizes at every turn the elusiveness of his subject's religion, politics and sexual orientation. Rather than simply guess at the identity of the sonnets' "fair youth" and "dark lady" and rival poet, for example, Bate raises the possibility that they may never have existed. But steering clear of "wild surmise" doesn't stop Bate from making inferential leaps of his own: "Shakespeare is often praised for sympathizing equally with all his characters. But he did not. There are some characters with whom he fell in love. Falstaff and Cleopatra are preeminent among them."

Bate's erudition and engagement have at least two ancillary effects. First, they put paid to the notion that Shakespeare's plays, with their rural nature scenes and their understanding of mid-English "types" like Justice Shallow, could have been written by anybody but a grammar-school boy from Warwickshire. Indeed, Bate suggests that Shakespeare's provincial status as the son of a failed glover and grandson of a yeoman farmer "may go some way to explaining why he was so fascinated by outsiders such as Shylock the Jew and Othello the Moor in Venice."

"Soul of the Age" also reminds us of the powerful role contingency plays in art's survival. To cite one example, if John Hemings and Henry Condell, Shakespeare's former colleagues, hadn't troubled themselves to reconstruct and publish the Bard's plays -- the author himself never bothered -- we would have lost nearly half his canon, including "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar," "As You Like It," "Twelfth Night" and "The Taming of the Shrew."

Or ponder this historical near-miss: On Feb. 8, 1601, the Earl of Essex mounted a rather half-hearted insurrection that may or may not have been directed against Queen Elizabeth. The uprising was soon quashed, but when authorities learned that Essex's allies, the day before, had watched a Globe Theatre production of Shakespeare's "Richard II" -- a play that, in baldest terms, documents the overthrow of an English monarch -- the man who commissioned the performance was executed. If the play's author had met a similar fate (and it now seems slightly miraculous that he didn't), he would not have lived to write "Hamlet." Or "King Lear." Or "Othello." Or "Antony and Cleopatra." Or "The Tempest."

The longevity of Shakespeare's work, then, has something to do with the longevity of Shakespeare. He was, in Bate's words, "the great survivor . . . the one dramatist of his generation never to be imprisoned or censored in connection with his work . . . the one dramatist who eventually ended his career out of choice, not by force of circumstance." By purchasing shares in his own theater companies, Shakespeare earned enough money to buy his wife the second-largest house in Stratford and to end his days in comfort.

A serene bourgeois existence, we might call it, and here contingency gives way to mystery, for how many serene bourgeois wrote like this? As Bate reminds us, the seven ages of man were already a commonplace trope by Elizabeth's time, but in earlier iterations, the infant merely cries. "Only in Shakespeare's does it do anything so theatrical as puke -- indeed, no writer had ever used the word puke as a verb before. There is a specificity to the schoolboy, with his satchel and 'shining morning face,' that is lacking in the generic children of previous versions. . . . Uniquely too in Shakespeare, who made his living from his actors' powers of articulation, each age is a voice: the infant mewling, the schoolboy whining, the lover sighing, the soldier swearing, the justice preaching, the old man piping and whistling, his voice turning again toward childish treble. And only at the last oblivion comes the rest that is silence."

Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."

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