Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
Jonathan Bate is one of the great Shakespeare scholar/editors of the late 20th-early 21st century. He belongs in the company of such early 20th century greats as E. K. Chambers, J. D. Wilson and Alfred Harbage; capable of speculation, but with an unerring centrifugal instinct to fact and truth. Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare is a groundbreaking summation of the perception of Shakespeare's works, his Arden Third Series edition of Titus Andronicus is the best I know, and his (and Rasmussen's) masterful RSC Complete Works is, well, masterful. With a buildup like that, it would be hard to say his latest, Soul of the Age, is anything but a very good book, and indeed it is. That is not to say great. Great books on Shakespeare are extremely rare, but very good from this scholar is nearly as good as it gets. The only caution I would suggest is that it is not a beginner's book. Considerable familiarity with the works of the period and the various controversies over Shakespearean biographical details would be helpful to the reader. Following the close arguments in several of the set pieces throughout the book would be quite challenging without at least a basic understanding of 16th and 17th century British history and literature.
This book purports to answer the dual questions, "What was it like being Shakespeare? and, What are the most telling ways in which Shakespeare's works embody—or rather ensoul—the world-picture of his age?" It does so by using Jacques' Seven Ages speech from As You Like It as a substrate on which to build expanding notions of Shakespeare's consciousness and historical notions of the significantly intersecting Elizabethan and Jacobean "moments." Bate's goal is nothing less than to create an "intellectual biography of the man in the mind-set into which he was born and out of which his works were created." At first blush the Seven Ages devices would seem a poor fit, but in practice it works well. Not each "age" is intimately connected with Shakespeare, as we will discuss below, and Bate often shows the Shakespearean moment to transcend the "age." The approach is not nearly as chronological as the structure might suggest, and the material not neatly, demonstrably internal to the mind of Shakespeare. It is, however, nonetheless fascinating.
The infancy section, for example, has almost nothing to do with infancy. It ranges widely to encompass Galileo, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Pythagoras, the Reformation, Elizabeth and Simon Forman, the plague, the legal year, the importance of maps in Elizabeth's reign, Florio's World of Words, Leonard (both of them) and Thomas Digges, the Copernican universe, Horace's distinction between negotium and otium, with their obvious parallels to Shakespeare's business and country lives, and so on. The broad brush strokes that prepare the canvas are followed by the detailed strokes that paint the life of the theatre beginning in the 1580s leading to Shakespeare's eventual emergence some time near the end of that decade. A fascinating section deals with English "chorography"—"or the geographical and historical description of a particular region." Bate cites William Lambarde's Perambulation in this respect, and not for the last time do we meet Lambarde in the course of the book.
Of course Bate does not neglect biographical certainty where it can be obtained, such as the many Warwickshire allusions in the works that make them certainly the work of the boy who grew up in Stratford; but neither does he overdo this obviously well worn material. His is a fresher, more detailed, more intriguing approach. He notes, for example, mention in the induction to The Taming of the Shrew of Marian Hacket, the fat ale-wife of Wincot, and then reveals that there actually was a Hacket family living there in 1591. So it goes. A grand synthesis of overarching trends of the age combined with intimate details of the mental life of our playwright from his known history.
The second age is that of the schoolboy, and while this is the section that has the greatest correspondence with biographically known probabilities, it also broadens to embrace Renaissance humanism's theories of education and government, and moves from there to one of the book's several long set-pieces: an analysis of The Tempest. Finally it ends in a fascinating discussion of the books likely to have been owned by Shakespeare, one of the best sections of the book.
Among many other specialties, Bate is an Ovid specialist of sorts, and has contributed a great introductory essay, "Shakespeare's Ovid," to Nims' definitive modern edition of Golding's 1567 translation of The Metamorphoses. We get much of Ovid along with a description of Shakespeare's education in the King's New School in Stratford: "...it is demonstrable from his work that of all the writers on the syllabus Ovid was the one who appealed to him most strongly, and whom he sought out—albeit mostly in English translation—after he left school." And again, "Scholars have calculated that about 90 percent of Shakespeare's allusions to classical mythology refer to stories included in that epic compendium of tales."
Bate also notes the often overlooked fact that Shakespeare's first acting experience probably occurred in his grammar school: "...there is no reason to suppose that a pageant of the deserted Ariadne, probably based on the poem written in her voice in Ovid's Heroides, might not have been staged in Stratford in an earlier year, with one of Shakespeare's schoolfellows in the title role. Or even Shakespeare himself." In addition to acting, Shakespeare would have been exposed—exposed is probably too tame a word—to Latin to English, English to Latin translation. "Shakespeare's provincial grammar school education gave him sufficient Latin to base his Rape of Lucrece on a story in Ovid's Fasti that was not translated into English in his lifetime."
From Ovid we are also treated to an analysis of the influence of Seneca on the English tragedy and the importance of Jasper Heywood's translations. After Ovid, however, no more important source for Shakespeare's works exceeded that of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and Bate duly considers his influence on Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.
The lover's age must embrace Shakespeare's marriage and his self-revelations, if any, in the Sonnets. With regard to his marriage, Bate brings forth the remarkable fact, which I cannot remember to have seen stated elsewhere, that among Shakespeare's contemporaries (based on examination of Stratford parish records for 1570-1630) "only three were in their teens when they married" (which may be a bit deceiving because the age of all men at marriage cannot be determined based on the parish records, but never mind that). Even more remarkably, there is "only one identifiable teenage Stratford husband in the whole sixty-year period whose bride was pregnant on the day of their marriage: the glover's son, eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare." In other words, the shotgun wedding supposition seems to be myth, at least based on social norms, and a teenage boy-older pregnant woman "was a very unusual combination." In his marriage, as in all else, Shakespeare seems to have been unique. Bate suggests sexual precocity as a possible explanation for Shakespeare finding himself the father of three before age twenty. Certainly his virtuosity with the language of sex in his works suggests an abiding concern, if not obsession.
While noting the tendency of biographers to flights of fancy regarding Shakespeare's sex life, and possible venereal diseases, Bate's discussion is restrained and fair minded. Shakespeare clearly imagined himself to have been the victim of marital infidelity, but the operative word is imagined, as Bate points out. There is no way to know the reality of his sex life based on his language in the plays or the poetry. The perennial conundrum is the bequest of the second best bed in the will, and it remains a conundrum. More perplexing is absence of mention of the Blackfriars gatehouse, purchased in 1613, or Shakespeare's shares in the Globe, but here again, so much has been swallowed by silence, and Bate is too cautious a scholar to fantasize. After a thoroughgoing discussion of the sonnets, Bate tentatively identifies—though hardly insists upon—the rival poet as John Davies of Hereford, spinning a unique interpretation of Mr. W. H. being flattered by Davies' famous penmanship. Bate admits the possibly fanciful nature of this guess, but it is indeed charming.
Since there is no evidence Shakespeare was ever a soldier (despite some strained theorists) this section is largely concerned with things militaire: Elizabeth as warrior and her great "Tilbury" speech (which Bate says may have been inauthentic, after expanding on it for several pages!); the Armada year; the history plays with their multiple battles and warrior-poets; and more. This section is home to the book's longest set-piece, where Bate attempts to prove that Shakespeare's Richard II was a source for John Hayward's controversial The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV, dedicated to the unfortunate Lord Essex whose head suffered much for it. Bate calls it "A Political Tragedy in Five Acts," and it is a tightly spun, intricate argument which carries us far afield from Shakespeare biography, if not of the catchall "age". As noted above, this book is not one for beginners, and particularly this section. The uninitiated will find it heavy sledding. It may be worth noting that Bate rests his argument on verbal imagery "unlikely to be coincidence," in the manner of authorial attribution in the fifties and sixties, but ultimately it is hard to see that it much matters. This is a specialist's section.
The long argument about Richard II, Haywood and the Essex rising of 1601 is followed by an apparent afterthought on "Moorish" culture, and an after-after thought on Jacobean geopolitics which feel like remnants too good to waste but apropos of nothing in particular.
This sections concerns itself primarily with tracing Shakespeare's possible legal "training" (or "knowledge," as displayed in the plays). It has him as his fathers early representative at Clement's Inn during the "lost years," and is as good a guess as any. Shakespeare's unusually deep knowledge of legal terminology have led many to posit just such a connection, and suppose him to have been at least for a time "some sort of noverint or apprentice lawyer." One is apt to credit these arguments, even though they are based on the same sorts of fantasies that argue other matter, simply because Shakespeare so commonly adopts the neutral anonymity of a lawyer. The suppositions about law expand to politics, and Bate concludes that "Shakespeare's political beliefs are as elusive as his religion, his sexuality, and just about everything else about him that matters." It is the biographer's common lament.
The pantaloon is a stock character in the commedia dell'arte: the lean and slippered authority who thwarts the will of the young lovers, the laughable older man now the butt of jests by his lively children. Whether this fits Shakespeare in any significant way is dubious, but Bate sticks with the Seven Ages metaphor faithfully. This section does contain the best brief summary of "the contours of Shakespeare's career," that I have read, and this section alone, from pages 333-342, are worth the price of the book. Bate makes much, and deservedly so, of the fact that Shakespeare cannot be shown to have acted after 1603, when he is listed as an actor in Jonson's Sejanus, coupled with the "shame" sonnets which linguistic analysis seems to date from this same period: "The inference must be that he stopped acting around the time of the 1603-4 plague outbreak. Perhaps the sense of shame that he alludes to in sonnets 110-112, written around this time, had something to do with his decision." Of course, this is hardly proved, but the temptation to some sort of certainty is so great that even as careful a scholar as Bate gives it rather more weight than it can bear. In any event, the curative sentiments of the book that explode the "myth" of Shakespeare's retirement after around 1611 are welcome, if the mystery remains.
As with all biographers starting with Rowe, Shakespeare's biography always becomes the occasion for literary criticism. If it were not so, the biographies would be slim indeed. Never mind, because this section deals with King Lear in a delightful chapter titled "The Foolosopher" that does not need the excuse of biographical relevance.
This final "age" is interesting because it labels Shakespeare an "epicurean": "Add to Stoicism an acknowledgment of the needs of the body and the raw materiality of things, then what do you get? The answer is a powerful philosophy that had a largely bad press in the Renaissance, but that might actually have been the closest Shakespeare came to belief." These are rather startling words, but Bate goes far in supporting them. After an extended discussion of Shakespeare's love for certain of his characters, Bate says "Enobarbus might just be the closest Shakespeare came to a portrait of his own mind." Enobarbus, Bate notes, "embodies the pliable self." This biography, if more brittle in several of its arguments than pliable, is still a very good one, remarkable for careful analysis and possessing a charm in the way it teases weighty meaning out of airy events. If it is at times ponderous, it redeems itself more often in winning clarity. It is MUST reading for Shakespeareans.