The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0650 Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Subject: Jonathan Bate's _Soul of the Age_
The following review by Rene Weis appeared recently in the online version of The
November 14, 2008
Soul of the Age, By Jonathan Bate
Jonathan Bate sets out to write "an intellectual biography" of Shakespeare; or,
as he puts it, to explore "Shakespeare's wit in the full 16th-century sense of
the word". He loosely structures Soul of the Age around "the seven ages of man"
speech by the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It. Nothing wrong with that: it
has the merit of following Shakespeare's own potted view of the curve of human
life. But Bate, to be true to his disdain for subjective expression in
literature, ought to acknowledge that these lines, though written by
Shakespeare, are spoken by a jaded cynic whose name means "privy".
[ . . . ]
Bate announces that "Gathering what we can from his plays and poems: that is how
we will write a biography that is true to him". The truth will follow, nothing
less. To this end, he instructs us, we need subtly to "triangulate" the life,
work and world, and search for "traces of cultural DNA", or else run the
gauntlet of the "immense perils" of literalism. To firm up this rebranded New
Criticism, Bate approvingly cites an Oxford academic; never mind that Goethe,
Wordsworth and Keats might take a different view.
A mere 47 pages later, however, Bate is shifting his ground. "We must always be
wary", he warns again, "of attempts to map Shakespeare's life on to his work.
But writers cannot avoid drawing on their experience". Some "but"! Bate now
finds himself arguing that Shakespeare's portrayal of doctors after King Lear
was inspired by the arrival of Dr John Hall, who in 1607 married Susanna
Shakespeare. Later, Bate concedes further points of intersection between
Shakespeare's life and art in Macbeth. The Porter's speech directly alludes to
the real-life trial and execution in 1606 of Father Henry Garnett. Much the same
applies to the use of Gower in Pericles, to the cross-gender twins in Twelfth
Night, and to much else - including Shakespeare's reference to his friend and
publisher Richard Field in Cymbeline.
An early chapter is given over entirely to The Tempest, one of three discrete
discussions of Shakespeare's last solo play. According to Bate, it "asks a
central humanist question: what do we have to learn from books?" The play
features here only because of its links with books, just when Bate is trying to
extrapolate Shakespeare's surmised library from his education at the Stratford
grammar school. His pages on Shakespeare's schooling are generally well done,
though quite dense. Bate the professor gets stuck into Shakespeare's sources
while elsewhere warning his readers against recreating Shakespeare in their own
image. His Shakespeare belongs to the world of intellectual literary history.
For Bate, Shakespeare's plays are tame, Anglican creatures. Characteristically,
he sees a fairy-tale Ovid everywhere in A Midsummer Night's Dream when
Shakespeare here owes far more to Apuleius' brilliantly kinky The Golden Ass, as
Frank Kermode showed long ago.
[ . . . ]
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