Monday, July 13, 2009

'Soul of the Age' by Jonathan Bate.

Up until recently, it was generally accepted that William Shakespeare’s final play was The Tempest; there was some historic evidence, not least that it was the first play to appear in the Folio that was published just after his death and how best to commemorate a genius than with their latest, perhaps last work. There’s also the romantic notion that Prospero’s final speech isn’t simply concluding the play but the writer’s career, one final humble exclamation to his audience before retirement:

“[..] Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

Sadly, as Jonathan Bate’s brilliant biography, Soul of the Age, demonstrates, Shakespeare’s retirement was a myth. He continued working right through to his death, his hand potentially seen all over the place, his final work most probably the collaboration with upcoming playwright John Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen. After all, the man died at the age of fifty-two. He was wealthy, he didn’t need to work, but like similarly successful artists across the years, the impulse to create overwhelmed the potential for leisure.

Bate’s motive here (just as it was in the RSC complete works completed simultaneously) is mythbusting, though he comes not bury Shakespeare but to praise him. Taking Jacques’s seven ages of man speech from As You Like It as a backbone (“All The World’s A Stage…”), he traces through Shakespeare’s life extrapolating him onto those ages, but rather than offering a straight biography, he instead charts his external world, his historical context, gathering the collective miscellany of experiences he must have had in order to write the plays, poems and sonnets.

For example: many biographies give short shrift to his school days; they aren’t well documented and often there’s a preference to motor on to the juicy gossip, his marriage to Anne Hathaway and thence to London. Instead, Bate, using what evidence is available and applying a curriculum from a similar school, conducts a forensic year on year investigation into how Shakespeare may have been educated listing the books he must have studied and then, and here’s where it gets interesting, demonstrates how that learning blossoms within the plays, notably Plutarch (Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus).

From there he sets about attempting to construct the personal library Shakespeare must have kept, suggesting books he must have read in translation and in their own language providing yet more examples from the texts, even to the point of suggesting which edition of the bible he would have had to hand, the heavily annotated Genova. The point he returns to again and again, is that far from the words and ideas popping into the bard’s mind, he was instead a literary magpie, grabbing snatches of language and ideas and themes and slotting them in to fit his own aims.

In other words, he was a writer. The effect should be to decrease our appreciation of the man and his work because it slowly becomes apparent that his original thought was rather less and the legend suggests. But curiously it simply increases our appreciation because though Shakespeare would often take old plays and texts and rewrite them, hammering in all of these allusions, the taste with which this was accomplished and the psychological, thematic and dramatic depth that shimmers through them is breathtaking.

And so Bate continues, explaining how the court scenes will have been influenced by his own brushes with Stratford law in cases related to land rights and how sexual scandal, which appears to have been rife in town, bubbles under in the likes of Measure for Measure. We’re given a thorough description of his contemporaries, his rivals and friends and so the circumstance in which many of the plays would have been written or revived, forever underscoring that though Shakespeare was the greatest writer of most times, he was also a businessman.

Though the cover suggests that it’s from the popular history genre, Bate never shies away from intellectual rigour; in places it reads like one of Stephen Fry’s deviations on QI, as he enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of his knowledge and simply lets fact after fact spill out on top of one another. Sometimes that can lead the text into areas that are difficult to pursue without a strong knowledge of the text (most impenetrably in a passage about The Tempest which I read twice and still couldn’t quite follow).

But turn a few pages and there’s something new; a useful discussion of the sonnets which, simply by unfurling the publication history (posthumous, exploitative) untangles the idea that in their present form they tell a biographical story of the artist’s amorous extra-marital entanglements, suggesting that there may have been more than one boy, who the dark lady might be and that in any case that these poems may not have been expressing Shakespeare’s own feelings but those of a fictional construct no more realistic than Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet or Falstaff ...

No comments: