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Illuminating the Intellect of Our Greatest 'Play-Maker' Hot

Cynthia Greenwood
Written by Cynthia Greenwood     March 08, 2010    
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Illuminating the Intellect of Our Greatest 'Play-Maker'
  • Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare
  • by Jonathan Bate
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Published in April 7, 2009
  • 5

In his masterful Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate maps the fertile imagination of our greatest “play-maker,” whose prolonged writing and theatrical career is partly attributed to his instincts as a political chameleon. Soul of the Age bills itself not as a conventional study of Shakespeare’s life, but as a biography of the dramatist’s intellect. Scholars and enthusiasts will appreciate the fresh questions Bate raises about the assumptions literary historians hold dear.

Illustrating how Shakespeare and other Elizabethan schoolboys became practiced rhetoricians by today’s standards, Bate elegantly explores what the sonnets, poems, and plays reveal about the poet’s memory and intellectual growth. Rather than using the “deadening march of chronological sequence” as his organizing principle, Bate grants himself (and the reader) more critical freedom of movement. Noting in his introduction that “the events of Shakespeare’s life feel cyclical, not sequential,” Bate divides the book into parts that correspond to “the cultural moment and broad themes” subsumed under the “seven ages” of man elucidated in Jaques’ speech from As You Like It.

“Infant,” “Schoolboy,” “Lover,” “Soldier,” “Justice,” “Pantaloon,” and “Oblivion” – each of these section-title allusions allows Bate to move back and forth throughout the period of Shakespeare’s lifetime, painting a rich, intellectual landscape. Bate posits which poets, dramatists, and prose historians enlightened Shakespeare; that he held a realistic view of marriage; why he may have been sensitive toward the toll of battle; the provenance of Shakespeare’s legal knowledge, and the myth of his early retirement. The “seven ages” metaphor allows Bate to make intriguing deductions about the poet’s life, motives, and work, while being mindful of the speculative nature of his endeavor.

Bate plausibly suggests the extent to which Shakespeare, “the schoolboy,” would have been instructed around the clock in Latin grammar, the classics, and the art of composing Latin verses at the King’s New School in Stratford. He probes what plays such as The Merry Wives of Windsor reveal about Shakespeare’s Warwickshire origins. Moving beyond the likely ways in which Shakespeare was trained, Bate explores the breadth of literary and dramatic influence on the plays. He singles out Ovid’s huge impact on the comedies, and investigates Plutarch’s monumental influence on the Roman tragedies.

Mindful of how the plays reflect the culture and cosmology of Elizabethan England, Bate also explores Marlowe’s influence upon how Shakespeare conceived Richard III, Iago, and other great villains. He imagines what books Shakespeare is likely to have read and consulted, and which ones he may have carried back and forth between London and Stratford. For conspiracy theorists who deny that the Stratford poet wrote the thirty-eight plays in the Shakespeare canon, chapters devoted to “Second Age: Schoolboy” serve as a cogent argument in favor of the Stratford-born player’s authorship of the First Folio.

Shakespeare, “the lover,” was unique beyond his legacy as a literary artist. Bate delves into Stratford parish records to learn that out of 100 men between 1570 and 1630 whose age could be ascertained at their first marriage, three-quarters tied the knot between twenty and thirty years of age. Only three men mentioned in the record married in their teens, and of those, Shakespeare was the only one whose bride was pregnant on her wedding day. Bate insightfully contrasts how Shakespeare “broke the mold” in his choice to marry at a young age and pursue a stable business career as a theatre shareholder, compared to twelve of his dramatist peers, including George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd, and George Chapman, each of whom died poverty-stricken.

In “Third Age: Lover,” Bate also ponders how Shakespeare’s involvement as a witness in the Belott-Mountjoy court case provided rich inspiration for his probing of sexual transgression in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. As part of the book’s colorful lesson in the sexual, marital, and divorce cases heard by the church consistory or “bawdy” courts, Bate argues that the “legal vocabulary of the consistory courts bleeds into Shakespeare’s plays.” Bate then posits what effect the language, theatrics, and gossip surrounding incidents aired in the Stratford bawdy courts would have had on Shakespeare’s imagination.

In “Fourth Age: The Soldier” Bate explores how Shakespeare might have escaped being imprisoned after the February 7, 1601 rebellion that occurred on the exact date of a commissioned Globe Theatre performance of Richard II, a 1595-96 play featuring the controversial deposition of an English monarch. Here, Bate composes an engaging five-act drama of his own about details of the rebellion incited by Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex, a once-favored courtier of Queen Elizabeth who represented the old baronial order reluctant to cede feudal-era power to a central monarch. In coming to terms with how deeply Shakespeare’s Richard II may have been implicated by the queen in fomenting public unrest, Bate argues that it was in the interest of the queen’s counselors—Robert Cecil, Attorney General Edward Coke, and Francis Bacon—to frame Essex and his followers for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth. (Bate suggests there is strong evidence that Essex merely intended to rescue the queen from the enemy Cecil faction, not overthrow her.)

Reviewing events before and after the date of the rebellion, Bate makes a case that Thomas Hayward’s prose history of Richard II, England’s first deposed king, used Shakespeare’s Richard II as a source. If true, this fact combined with Hayward’s dedication of his work to Essex allowed Cecil to implicate Essex and his steward for commissioning a play with deliberate intent to incite public opposition to the court. In an intriguing conclusion, Bate alleges that prose historian Hayward, imprisoned in the Tower for his association with Essex, “took the rap on Shakespeare’s behalf, leaving the dramatist free to write more plays.”

In “Fifth Age: Justice,” Bate discredits scholars who maintain that Shakespeare is absent from the archive between the so-called “lost years” of 1585 and 1592. He discusses how Shakespeare’s involvement in Shakespeare vs. Lambert, a case involving his father that was heard before the Queen’s Bench at Westminster on October 9, 1589, may have required the twenty-four-year-old William’s presence in London to meet with an attorney in 1588. Reviewing case and jurisdiction details, Bate raises an important question: Could 1588 have been the year when Shakespeare opted to “try his fortunes on a larger stage than that of the small provincial town where his father was still struggling?” The notion that biographers might be able to place Shakespeare in London around this time is a thrilling, albeit speculative prospect.

Bate devotes a subchapter to a careful review of the legal terms, themes, and “conundrums” that continue to fascinate audiences today. He persuasively concludes that Shakespeare’s grappling with matters of property, ecclesiastical, and natural law was informed by the playwright’s attention to the language of the “street and the tavern, from reading and the experience of litigation.”

In “Sixth Age: Pantaloon,” Bate debunks the popular myth that Shakespeare retired to Stratford in 1611, after he wrote The Tempest. Using a royal list of “Players of Interludes” that includes members of the King’s Men without listing Shakespeare, Bate infers that the playwright may have stopped acting as early as 1607. Noting that his pace of writing slowed down during this period, Bate surmises that Shakespeare could have interspersed visits to Stratford before 1611 with stints in London after 1611. He proposes: “Shakespeare may never have fully retired, but he may well have semi-retired much earlier than we suppose.”

Soul of the Age is an expansive scholarly effort that took the author ten years to prepare. As a rule, the dearth of life records means that the Shakespeare biography has become as frustrating for the reader as it is for the writer. But Bate’s review of royal and law court records casts fresh light for enthusiasts on many important questions, including how Shakespeare may have avoided punishment over controversial matter in his plays. Perhaps the book’s greatest value lies in its highly accessible critique of the multifarious literary and cultural influences that enriched Shakespeare’s tales of kingship, court intrigue, love, marriage, family, war, and inheritance.

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare (Hardcover - April 7, 2009) will be released in trade paperback on October 12, 2010.


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