"One man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
In this illuminating, innovative biography, Jonathan Bate, one of today's most accomplished Shakespearean scholars, has found a fascinating new way to tell the story of the great dramatist. Using the Bard's own immortal list of a man's seven ages in As You Like It, Bate deduces the crucial events of Shakespeare's life and connects them to his world and work as never before.
Here is the author as an infant, born into a world of plague and syphillis, diseases with which he became closely familiar; as a schoolboy, a position he portrayed in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which a clever, cheeky lad named William learns Latin grammar; as a lover, married at eighteen to an older woman already pregnant, perhaps presaging Bassanio, who in The Merchant of Venice won a wife who could save him from financial ruin. Here, too, is Shakespeare as a soldier, writing Henry the Fifth's St. Crispin's Day speech, with a nod to his own monarch Elizabeth I's passionate addresses; as a justice, revealing his possible legal training in his precise use of the law in plays from Hamlet to Macbeth; and as a pantaloon, an early retiree because of, Bate postulates, either illness or a scandal. Finally, Shakespeare enters oblivion, with sonnets that suggest he actively sought immortality through his art and secretly helped shape his posthumous image more than anyone ever knew.
Equal parts masterly detective story, brilliant literary analysis, and insightful world history, Soul of the Age is more than a superb new recounting of Shakespeare's experiences; it is a bold and entertaining work of scholarship and speculation, one that shifts from past to present, reality to the imagination, to reveal how this unsurpassed artist came to be.
Ben Jonson claimed that Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time!" Conversely, noted British Shakespeare scholar Bate (The Genius of Shakespeare) attempts to prove that the Bard effectively represents the politically and socially complicated 16th-century environment and that his work can then--theoretically--illuminate his mysterious personal life with the notable exception of his marriage. While much is conjectured here, the scant biographical resources are well-used to painstakingly define Shakespeare's careers as actor, poet and playwright and to refute popular myths such as his purported retirement from writing. Bate's approach is more successful in confirming that Shakespeare typifies his age than in providing substantive biographical information based on hints hidden in the prolific body of work. Even so, Bate offers an excellent resource for students of English literature and the Elizabethan era in this thoughtful, well-researched and even playful explication of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets as they resonated in both the Elizabethan sphere and the less austere Stuart court while remaining relevant today. Illus. (Apr. 17)
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April 05, 2009
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Excerpt from Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate
Chapter 1 STRATFORD 1564 Here begins the plague ... Exit pursued by a bear: antigonus is torn to pieces. a clownish young shepherd witnesses his death on land and many more losses on the sea as a tempest-tossed ship is swallowed by the waves. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” little Prince Mamillius has said, before being struck by death himself. But Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale veers from tragedy to comedy. Young Shepherd’s breathless description of heavy matters is counterpointed against Old Shepherd’s amazed discovery of new life in the form of the abandoned baby Perdita. “Thou met’st with things dying,” he serenely remarks to his son, “I with things new born.” In Shakespeare’s England, birth and death went cheek by jowl. Each entry in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon- Avon, is encoded with a single letter: C for christened, M for married, and B for buried. A ceaseless procession of birth, copulation, and death: human life stripped to its essentials. Shortly after the entry that reads “1564, Apr. 26. C. Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere”—April 26, 1564, christened, William, son of John Shakespeare—the entries marked B begin to thicken on the page. There were no more than twenty deaths in the first half of 1564, well over two hundred in the second. The population of this small but prosperous market town in the English Midland county of Warwickshire was about fifteen hundred, so more than one in seven were taken in those few months of devastation. The cause is duly noted in a marginal annotation opposite the burial entry for Oliver Gunne, apprentice: hic incepit pestis. Here begins the plague. In August, the town council met in emergency session in the garden of the Gild Chapel, hoping that the outdoor air would be less contagious than that of the Gild Hall. They discussed relief for the plague victims. “Burgess” (councillor) John Shakespeare gave a generous sum of money. The horror faced by the townspeople may be glimpsed from a contemporary account of a plague outbreak in London. If just one member of a family was struck down, the rest would have been closed up in the house to prevent the spread of infection: What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house? Hung (to make it more hideous) with lamps dimly and slowly burning, in hollow and glimmering corners: where all the pavement should, instead of green rushes, be strewed with blasted rosemary, withered hyacinths, fatal cypress and yew, thickly mingled with heaps of dead men’s bones: the bare ribs of a father that begat him, lying there: here the chapless hollow skull of a mother that bore him. The previous year, John and Mary Shakespeare had lost their infant Margaret at four months, and sometime before that, another girl, Joan. Cause of deaths unknown. But the loss not uncommon—everyone knew infant mortality. They were doubly lucky this time. William was what every respectable couple wanted: a son to maintain the family name and estate. His sex was their first stroke of good fortune. Second was his survival of the plague. What John and Mary could never know was that he would not merely survive, but make the Shakespeare name live as long as humankind has books and stories. Plague was the single most powerful force shaping his life and those of his contemporaries. John Stow’s annals of English history summarized the key events of the year of Shakespeare’s birth. The previous autumn, Londoners had suffered terribly: “Forsomuch as the plague of pestilence was so hot in the city of London, there was no term kept at Michaelmas: to be short, the poor citizens of London were this yea