Will, we hardly knew ye - and still don't

By William E. Cain
June 21, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

By Jonathan Bate
Random House, 496 pp., illustrated, $35

It cannot be done: There is not enough material about William Shakespeare to write a biography of him. Everything we wish we had to reconstruct his life is nowhere to be found. He left behind no letters, journals, manuscripts, or notes on his reading, next to nothing save for the plays and poems themselves.

We have only meager references to Shakespeare by his contemporaries. But because he is the greatest writer in the English language whose works of transcendent power are studied and staged throughout the world, biographers continue to attempt the impossible.

Park Honan, Stephen Greenblatt, Katherine Duncan-Jones, and Peter Ackroyd, among others, have in recent years produced engaging books about Shakespeare, but ultimately these are not the biographies they profess to be.

At their best, these books are cogent overviews of 16th- and 17th-century culture and history: They educate us about Shakespeare’s era. Where they go awry, and become unhelpful and irritating, is when the biographer, lacking plentiful facts, fills pages with assertion, guesswork, and speculation about how his or her overview pertains to Shakespeare’s life.

Jonathan Bate, a Renaissance literature scholar and professor at the University of Warwick, has come forward with his own contribution to this ever-expanding field. His title derives from a poem by Ben Jonson, included in the First Folio of 1623, which praises Shakespeare as “soul of the age.’’ Taking a further cue from Jaques’s “seven ages of man’’ speech in “As You Like It,’’ Bate presents seven chapters that survey Shakespeare from infancy to old age.

Bate thus offers us a biography but, he explains, with a difference; this is a biography of “the mind’’ of Shakespeare, an account of the dramatist and poet in “cultural context.’’

Such an approach sounds promising, as though Bate were recognizing the challenge of writing the life itself and were choosing instead to concentrate on the rich complexities of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. This, however, both is and is not what Bate does, and the result is an intermittently enlightening but often confusing book.

Bate does treat a number of topics adroitly and with a brisk command of a range of sources. The impact of the plague on London and its theater scene; English county and nationalist identities; the flowers, plants, and herbs of rural England - a favorite line of imagery in the plays - the curriculum of the grammar school, especially in Latin; Ovid, Plutarch, Seneca, Epicurus, Montaigne, and other authors whom Shakespeare studied or with whom his work can be compared; laws and court cases involving sex, marriage, adultery, and divorce; the earl of Essex’s failed rebellion in early 1601 against Queen Elizabeth; Moors, Turks, and the issues of geography and race: Readers will benefit from Bate’s commentary on each of these.

Like others before him, Bate repeatedly succumbs to the temptation to imply or state connections between his contextual description and Shakespeare’s life - that is, to the life he strains to impute to Shakespeare.

Reading “Soul of the Age’’ requires much patience, in order to endure Bate’s penchant for guessing, speculating, and surmising. In one of his early chapters, in the span of just two pages you will encounter phases such as: seems to have been, it is highly probable, this was usually, it is highly probable, it is a fair inference, would probably therefore. It all amounts to a fragile fabric stretching across a void.

Bate’s engagement with the poems and plays is scattered and uneven; readers seeking sustained, fresh points of view will be obliged to go elsewhere. He only touches on Shakespeare’s major Jacobean rivals (e.g., Thomas Middleton and John Webster), and barely skims the surface of the conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Even more of a problem is Bate’s lack of clarity and precision about his intended audience. Sometimes he lends a hand to newcomers in need of guidance, yet on other occasions he pursues highly specialized matters that a general reader will not be able to grasp and might not need or care to know about.

The urge among researchers and scholars to write the life of Shakespeare, revealing the day-to-day activity and the character and temperament of the man himself, cannot be stopped. But the more biographies of Shakespeare we are given, the more irrelevant they seem to our experience, as readers and theatergoers, of his writings.

It could be that biographies of this unknowable person are a diversion, a refuge, a place to which we retreat when we want to free ourselves from the intellectual and emotional intensity of Shakespeare’s literary work. This work is, after all, both thrilling and disturbing: We wonder how anyone could have written it, for in its artistic brilliance and totality of perception it strikes us as beyond the human even as we find our own humanity reflected everywhere in it.

William E. Cain teaches in the English Department of Wellesley College.

SOUL OF THE AGE: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

By Jonathan Bate

Random House, 496 pp., illustrated, $35

Latest Entertainment Twitters

Get breaking entertainment news, gossip, and the latest from Boston Globe critics and A&E staff.