Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

Photo: Book's cover (and the Chiandros portrait) from

Mostly-fascinating collection of essays, thoughts, theories and placing-you-there Elizabethan history that attempts to understand nothing less than the very mind of Shakespeare, as a man of his time, and--as Ben Jonson famously wrote--as a man "not of an age, but for all time."  Besides a couple of chapters about the politics and religion of his time that I found a bit too dry, the book succeeds at doing so.  It is at its best when it sticks to the literary and theatrical stuff: his plays, his theatres and the people he knew.  If anyone doubts the existence of a non-university man who got a woman eight years his elder pregnant, married her, and left them behind to find his glory and future in the theatres of London, England, let them read this, and they will doubt no more.

This book brings Shakespeare to life like few things I have read.  Michael Wood's book and a couple of others are just as good, in different ways.  And they all delve into the man and his time using their own conceits.  The conceit of this one is to break the book down into sections that correspond to Shakespeare's famous "Seven Stages of Man" speech from As You Like It.  (This is the one that begins with the even-more-famous line, "All the world's a stage.")  And so Bate chronicles the life of and mind of Shakespeare by breaking his life up into the seven parts that we all supposedly share.  I got the feeling that Bate had much of the book written already, via separate speeches and chapters, and tied them all together with the conceit of the seven stages, but whatever.  It doesn't matter, because it works.

The narrative is at its best when it brings us pell-mell into Elizabethan England.  We see it as Shakespeare may have, and we witness things, and become aware of city-wide and nation-wide news that he would have been aware of.  We meet the Burbages, and Heminges, and Condell, and the theatre and publishing climates of the time.  We see him as one of the many in these realms, and as one in the businesses he was in.  He is placed firmly in his time, and yet the book works well also when it shows him to be a chronicler of his time.  Shakespeare is renowned as being perhaps not just the best writer of our times, but also as the best mirror to his own time, without blocking the visage with his own image.  He is within his world, and yet surprisingly intellectually and philosophically detached from it, so he can show it to us, and paint a picture of our human nature, and yet not include his own views and preferences in it--all at the same time.

In short, we know what Hamlet thinks--but we never know what Shakespeare thinks.  Of course, no writer is his character, and no character is its author.  We know all of one, and very little about the internalization of the other.

But Bate's book gets us closer to it than perhaps anything I've read before.  The best compliment I'd give to this book is that it shows you something different about Shakespeare and his England, even if you thought you'd read it all before, like I have.  If you enjoy that kind of literary history, and a biography of him (a little) and of his time, and of his place in his time (a lot of that), then you'll enjoy this.

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