Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Jonathan Bate's biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age

In a brief but dazzling short story about the life of Shakespeare called “Everything and Nothing”, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges portrays Shakespeare as a man without a personality. “There was no one in him,” writes Borges, and this explains why Shakespeare could put himself in the shoes of hundreds of myriad-minded characters, imagine them all from within. Thus the paradox: Shakespeare was not fully a man, and yet “nobody was ever as many men as that man.” At some point, "before or after dying", Shakespeare finds himself before God and makes the demand for a stable, discrete personality, for a “myself”. God’s reply comes: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons – and none.”

In his new biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate attempts to take the measure of how a man of such unpromising circumstances – the son of a small businessman, brought up in an insignificant market-town, educated in an ordinary school – managed to expand his mind, his language, and his imaginative and worldly power to become, as the book’s title asserts, the soul of the age. Or, to adapt Borges, how did a man who should have been nothing end up encompassing everything?

Bate has worked on two previous books that involve Shakespeare: he is the author of The Genius of Shakespeare (1998) , and the co-editor of The RSC Shakespeare (2007), a new edition of the complete works. As would befit such a writer, Soul of the Age is itself founded upon a Shakespearean structure. Bate organises his material around the concept of the “seven ages of man” – infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice (or householder), and then two levels of old age, the latter being “a second childishness” – so vividly described by the character Jacques in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. Making fertile connections between Shakespeare’s plays, what is known of his life, and the beliefs and practices of his times, Bate comes as close to achieving a sense of Shakespeare’s felt presence as any other biographer ever has.

Since he left so few traces of himself, and since so much other evidence has been lost or destroyed, Shakespearean biography has never been a matter of simply collecting and interpreting the sources. Yet there are dozens of other extensive documents left behind by Shakespeare: the plays and poems themselves. Bate quotes approvingly the critic Barbara Everett, who argues, in an essay called "Reade him, therefore" published in the TLS in 2007, that “if [Shakespeare’s] biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.” Much of what Bate posits is a result of interpretation, correlation, juxtaposition. But if his method is speculatory, the result is a very rich, educated, and revelatory speculation.

For instance, is it not significant that in Shakespeare’s earlier works, doctors are usually comic figures, but after the marriage of his daughter, Susanna, to a widely respected doctor called John Hall, the doctors in the plays become “dignified, sympathetically portrayed medical men”? If this is one direction taken by Bate in his exploration of medicine in the world of Shakespeare’s plays, then in another sally he takes note of the wealth of plants, herbs, and flowers named in the plays, demonstrating Shakespeare’s deep engagement, as someone who grew up in the country and had a "field education", with “the herbal economy of rural England”.

This then leads Bate into a meditation on how, although Shakespeare is always identified with the London stage, he always had one foot in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. He always lived in rented lodgings in London, and many of his plays shuttle, just as he himself did, between the worlds of city and country. When the London theatres were closed for periods of a year or more because of the plague ("Plague," Bate reminds us, "was the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare's] life and those of his contemporaries"), Shakespeare returned home. "It is unlikely to be a coincidence," remarks Bate, "that Shakespeare turned to pastoral romance in the plague years around 1607-10: of all of his plays, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are the ones to have the most distinctive air of having been written back home in Stratford." Bate dwells on some of the specific descriptions of flowers or plants in Shakespeare, such the mole on Innogen's breast in Cymbeline, "cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/ I'th'bottom of a cowslip", and asks, "Is there any other English poet, save John Clare, who has such an eye as this?"

Imagine such an approach being replicated with respect to Shakespearean politics and statecraft, Shakespearean language (such as the relationship between Latin, the "high" language of schooling, and English, which was not the self-confident world language that it is now), Shakespearean cosmology, and Shakespeare’s use of both ancient and recent history, and you have some notion of the wealth of ideas and associations in Bate’s book. Bate's discussion of love in Shakespeare, particularly as it is explored through the sonnets, is one of the best I have ever read, and his brilliant analysis of how King Lear enacts a critique of conventional rationalistic philosophy on the subject of suffering and asserts instead, via Shakespeare's reading of Erasmus and Montaigne, the value of the path of "love and folly" in human affairs kept me thinking for several days.

Nor is Bate an unredeemed bardolater. In fact, in one of the best and most surprising moments of The Genius of Shakespeare, he argues that the profusion, range, linguistic depth, and artistic worth of Shakespeare's work were matched in his own lifetime by a contemporary, born two years before him in 1562: the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Lope wrote hundreds of plays and sonnets, and was, like Shakespeare, "wily in his aspectuality". Like Shakespeare, Lope's characteristic form "was a mingle of tragedy and comedy, high and low, the poetic voice accordingly shifting from elegance to coarseness." Perhaps, Bate suggests, it was the politics of empire and of language that played a role in Shakespeare's preeminence:

[Lope] answered to every element of my prescription of a world-genius in literature. But Spain went into decline and Lope was not translated. The whole of Shakespeare has been translated into scores of languages; less than ten per cent of Lope's surviving plays has ever been translated into English.
Twentieth-century physics has made the idea of the co-existence of "alternative universes" easier to comprehend. Picture an alternative world in which Spain triumphed over England. Lope then would have triumphed over Shakespeare and I would be writing a book called The Genius of Vega. What do we learn from our picture? That the apotheosis of Shakespeare was and was not a matter of historical contingency. It was a contingency insofar as it happened to be Shakespeare, not Lope. But it was a necessity because the chosen one had to be a particular kind of genius and could therefore only have been Lope or Shakespeare.
Among the aspects of Shakespeare’s nature that emerge most clearly from Bate’s book is his prudent business sense. Making a survey of the dramatists who were Shakespeare’s competitors – Marlowe, Greene, Kyd, Nashe, Dekker – Bate shows that many of them died young, or in penury. In contrast, Shakespeare not only lived frugally, he was also the first playwright of his time to become a joint-stockholder in a theatre company, thereby ensuring his financial stability through a share of gate receipts, and his indispensability as the company’s in-house dramatist. Even though he never bought a house in London, he acquired and consolidated a massive property back home in Stratford, as if wishing, after his years of physical and mental roving, to retire as a big fish in a small pond. It is these homely details, as much as the evidence of his subject’s genius, that make us warm to Bate’s book, and leave us feeling on such intimate terms with Shakespeare that we too can address him, as God does in Borges’s story, as “my Shakespeare.”

A list prepared by Bate of more than a hundred of the best books on Shakespeare is here. Of these, the two I would most like to read are recent ones with very similar titles but different approaches: AD Nuttall's Shakespeare The Thinker and Phillip Davis's Shakespeare Thinking. And one excellent book Bate doesn't mention, but which I enjoyed enormously, is Allan Bloom's set of resplendent readings of individual plays called Shakespeare on Love and Friendship. Here is an essay by Bate about the authorship controversy associated with Shakespeare: "Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist", and another recent piece on one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, "The mad worlds of Thomas Middleton", which you should read closely if you are interested in issues of textual scholarship. Among the books mentioned in this essay is "Gordon Williams’s magnificent three-volume compendium of filth, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature", which currently retails on Amazon at just over $500). And Bate offers a short tour of the room in which he works here, as part of the Guardian series on writers' rooms.

And here are two old posts: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare" (which also has links to about a dozen excellent essays on Shakespeare), and "Memories of Borges and the old Twentieth Century bookshop". A review of another recent major literary biography, Patrick French's book on VS Naipaul, is here.

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