In The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode uses the history and culture of the Elizabethan era to enlighten us about William Shakespeare and his poetry and plays. Opening with the big picture of the religious and dynastic events that defined England in the age of the Tudors, Kermode takes the reader on a tour of Shakespeare's England, vividly portraying London's society, its early capitalism, its court, its bursting population, and its epidemics, as well as its arts-including, of course, its theater.
While the age of Shakespeare overlapped with the both the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Kermode's compact, erudite appreciation of the Bard is less about Shakespeare's private life and turbulent times than his theatrical milieu and the worlds he created for the stage. Quick summaries of the pressing political issues of the Protestant Reformation and the successor Queen Elizabeth are followed by up-to-date surveys of the debates over Shakespeare's possible crypto-Catholicism and his "missing" years. But ermode hits his stride with the plays. His breakdown of Shakespeare's rtistic development and mature achievement by the various acting companies and theaters he was associated with from the Lord Chamberlain's Company to the renamed King's Men, from the Theatre and the Rose to the Globe and Blackfriars proves a satisfying structure to match the swift pace. Inevitably, the brevity of the Chronicles format can't provide equal time to all of Shakespeare's million-plus words of dramatic poetry, and Kermode prefers the tragedies and romances over the histories and comedies (to say nothing of the sonnets). Occasionally shifting to lectern manner, he also revisits some of his favorite tropes, which he explored in Shakespeare's Language, such as rhetorical doubling and pairing in Hamlet and the theme of equivocation in Macbeth. While Ben Jonson declared, "[Shakespeare] was not for an age, but for all time!" Kermode pleasurably shows how he and his works were of their age and also transcended it. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode
The first task of one who sets out to write briefly on Shakespeare and his age must be to move the focus back from the life of the playhouse and say something about the greater world of national politics. One dominant concern in that world throughout the Tudor period was the precariousness of the royal succession. If this now seems a relatively remote and unimportant matter, it is worth recalling that Shakespeare's history plays, a good quarter of his entire output, dealt with anxieties, indeed with civil wars, about succession, and even portrayed the events leading up to the dubiously valid accession of Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth's grandfather. The succession was a matter of concern to everybody, not only because the monarchy then had more personal power than it has been able to keep, but because in Tudor times the whole issue was bound up inseparably with religious differences, and religion could mean war. The expansion of the empire under the Protestant Elizabeth inevitably caused conflict with Catholic Spain and allowed her the triumph over the Spanish Armada; but there were still English Catholics who had been instructed by the Pope that Elizabeth was an illegitimate usurper and that one could be forgiven for eliminating her. The plots against Elizabeth of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary's Catholic followers were a serious recurrent anxiety.
By the date of Shakespeare's birth (1564) Elizabeth had been on the throne for almost six years, and the "Elizabethan Settlement" had established the Church of England as Protestant. Though "Anglo-Catholic" (to apply a later description), the English church was now entirely severed from Rome.