Reviewed by James Longenbach
Artists' lives are not automatically interesting. However wild the nights, an artist's days are dominated by solitary devotion to the medium: the texture of paint, the measure of syllables. Without that devotion, an artist will have no life as an artist. Along with it, an artist may engage in activities whose subsequent availability to storytelling is far more immediate. Arthur Rimbaud had an affair with Paul Verlaine. Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the Ouse. The Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe, who also worked as a government agent, was stabbed to death with a twelve-penny dagger. But such stories, however fascinating, do not tell us what we really want to know -- how and why A Season in Hell, Mrs. Dalloway and Tamburlaine got written.
About Marlowe's exact contemporary, a man christened on April 26, 1564, as Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare), we know almost nothing. We do not know his date of birth. We cannot be sure how many plays he wrote, and neither do we know precisely when he wrote the plays that have been preserved. When multiple versions of his plays have come down to us, we cannot know for certain which version is authoritative. Shakespeare may have been a cuckold, a homosexual or a secret Catholic during a time when Catholics were persecuted in England. But the evidence for such conjectures ranges from slim to implausible. Far less precarious is the presumption that, like Rimbaud or Woolf, Shakespeare spent long, unglamorous hours devoting himself to the measure of syllables. As George Bernard Shaw said a century ago, "everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch."
Understandably, we want more than that. We want to know how and why Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Tempest got written. We want to know about every imaginable ingredient -- social, aesthetic, psychological, physical -- that was distilled into this artist's passionate but inauspicious devotion to his medium, a devotion so intense that it permanently altered the medium. Shakespeare coined the word "inauspicious," riffing on the Latin auspicium, the art of telling the future by observing the flights of birds: "And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars." Finally, whether we're fascinated by an artist about whom we know a lot or a little, an artist whose exterior life was brilliant or boring, we want a biography of the mind. In Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, the British scholar and literary critic Jonathan Bate has set himself this challenge.
What does a biography of the mind feel like? Although Woolf's exterior life was plenty interesting and fully documented, the best biographies of Woolf (such as those by Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee) read like biographies of her mind, accounts of how and why she wrote the books that made her interesting to us in the first place. This is because Woolf's inner life was as meticulously preserved as her social life; a biographer has access not only to her voluminous letters and diaries but to the intricate and multiple drafts of her novels, manuscripts that help us imagine her devotion to her medium. A biographer of Keats has less to go on, but lives of Keats still feel like biographies of the mind. So do the best lives of Dr. Johnson.
Earlier than that, the going gets rougher and rougher. We know what Milton thought about a lot of things -- divorce, the Trinity, king-killing, blindness -- but we don't know what Shakespeare thought about anything. The quality of any biography has as much to do with the tact and ingenuity of the biographer as with the available material, but as the quantity and (even more important) the quality of the material recedes, a biographer requires the tact and ingenuity of an artist, especially if the goal is to narrate the inner rather than the exterior life.
Jonathan Bate has written brilliant literary criticism about Shakespeare's plays and poems; his Shakespeare and Ovid is, in addition to being what its title suggests it is, one of the canniest books ever written about Shakespeare's imaginative power. But Bate possesses neither the imaginative power nor the writerly craft essential to the extraordinary challenge he has set himself in Soul of the Age. To say so is not stern criticism. I'm not sure that anyone could meet that challenge, and part of what's perplexing about Soul of the Age is Bate's desire to bury his brilliance beneath a project so blindly ambitious, so wholly incapable of being realized, that it is destined to dissatisfy.
Soul of the Age is not organized as a narrative. Instead, the book is divided into seven large categories of human experience, categories borrowed from Jacques's famous speech in As You Like It ("All the world's a stage") about the seven ages of man: Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Justice, Pantaloon, Oblivion. Each of these seven categories is divided into several chapters, and most of the chapters comprise a series of very brief analyses of a particular facet of Shakespeare's life and work: the fact that Shakespeare's father oversaw the whitewashing of the frescoes in the Stratford-upon-Avon Gild Chapel, for instance, or the likelihood that Shakespeare learned his Latin from William Lily's Short Introduction of Grammar. Connections between these juxtaposed fragments of analysis, some brilliant, some dull, are left mostly implicit. And chronology does not govern the progression of the fragments: for instance, an uncharacteristically lengthy analysis of The Tempest (the last play Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator) appears in the section on Shakespeare the Schoolboy, since the play has to do with learning of many varieties.
The brilliance of any particular swatch of analysis is due to the manner in which a very large world is seduced from strategically meager evidence; the dullness of too many other swatches seems to be driven merely by the need to flesh out the seven-part schema, regardless of the availability of useful material or compelling argument. Bate says that his method avoids "the deadening march of chronological sequence that is biography's besetting vice," and while that may be true, every method's strength is potentially its weakness. The architecture of Soul of the Age is so atomized, its component parts so brief and so disparate, that the cumulative experience of the book is like reading hundreds of pages of haiku -- exhausting, no matter how bright the occasional gem. "I like to think that Shakespeare would have adopted a similar procedure if he had been commissioned to write his own biography," says Bate. This seems to me unimaginable.
Bate's narcissism, explicit in this statement, is elsewhere implicit -- as perhaps it must be, given the scope and ambition of his project. A similar hubris infects Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt's recent account of the dialectical relationships between Shakespeare's life, work and times. Like Bate, Greenblatt notices that Shakespeare's father, acting as chamberlain in Stratford-upon-Avon, oversaw the "reparations" of the Gild Chapel -- meaning that its medieval frescoes were whitewashed in accordance with the new Protestant regime. Then, through a sequence of insinuations too intricate to describe, Greenblatt proposes that John Shakespeare remained, despite his official duties, a Roman Catholic. The proposition leads to a question: "Did John Shakespeare's eldest son know the truth?" This question breeds another: "Could he have been sure which was the 'real' father?" The second question provokes a supposition: "He might have sensed that his father was playing a part." The suppositions multiply: "He might have overheard whispered arguments between his father and mother and observed furtive acts." And the suppositions are crowned with an observation that is, in itself, undeniably true: "Shakespeare's plays provide ample evidence for doubleness."
However outlandish the argument, Greenblatt's book is a pleasure to read -- in part because of the outlandishness. His webs are spun on the grandest scale, stretched suspensefully over many pages of extended observation and analysis. Reading them, one feels one's resistance to the method overwhelmed by the ingenuity of the argument and the sheer delight of vividly rendered detail. The power of the book lies in the almost absurdly sustained length of its game of "what if," a game that any artist would have to admire.
To say that the design of Bate's book undermines the possibility of such pleasure is not simply to dress up preference as judgment. Throughout the long section on Shakespeare the Lover, a topic that inevitably invites the most prurient kind of speculation, Bate takes pains to squelch any urge to play "what if." Discussing Shakespeare's sonnets, he scorns the effort to identify the young man to whom the early sonnets are addressed or the dark lady who invades the later sonnets. "It may be granted that we would be on fairly safe ground in assuming that Shakespeare's 'dark lady' is not an allegorical representation of King's College Cambridge," says Bate with clarifying hyperbole, "but we cannot rule out the possibility that she is not so much a real person as an embodiment of Venus. Or that she is Shakespeare's conceit and portends nothing beyond her reality in the text itself."
This prudence is justified, but it stands curiously at odds with sentences like this one: "I have an instinctive sense that the wooer whom Shakespeare most resembles is Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice." There's no evidence for such speculation, and without the amplitude of Greenblatt's argumentative extravagance, this small extravagance falls flat. "We must tread carefully here," cautions Bate in a discussion of Shakespeare and venereal disease, but his brief discussion culminates in this admonition: "we cannot rule out the possibility that [Shakespeare] became infected himself. King Lear's disgust at his daughters does seem a little overfixated on the female genitals as the source of universal corruption and damnation." But might not King Lear, like the dark lady of the sonnets, portend nothing beyond his reality in the text? Must his sexual disgust be Shakespeare's?
Listen to the end of Lear's speech about female sexuality:
"Lear's disgust," says Bate of this passage, "is such that in the final lines he cannot maintain the equilibrium of his iambic pentameter verse -- the speech collapses into prose." And the implication is that Shakespeare, the maker of those pentameters, was similarly overcome. But while the final lines of this speech are set down as prose in the 1623 folio text of King Lear, they are set as iambic pentameter lines in the 1608 quarto text. Two compositors set the language down in different ways, and we have no way of knowing which version is correct (if either of them is) or if Shakespeare preferred one version to the other. Bate's argument about the psychological ramifications of a poet's formal choices would seem corny even if we could be certain that Shakespeare wanted the passage to degenerate into prose.
At moments such as these, Bate seems like the victim of his book's organization. Later, in a brief discussion of Shakespeare's relationship to Stoic philosophy, he discusses King Lear again, forcing himself to admit that "Lear's words may not, after all, come from some personal disgust at women on Shakespeare's part." But if that's the case, why offer the slapdash biographical argument at all? It's as if Bate, having made a few interesting observations about sexuality and venereal disease, feels that he has only another ten seconds to finish this bit of analysis before charging on to the next: the rush forces him into an unimaginative sort of analysis that he elsewhere disdains.
"Where are the truly happy marriages in Shakespeare?" he asks. That's a provocative question, one worth pondering, but there's no time for pondering, so Bate simply points to a well-known passage in Coriolanus in which the character Aufidius admits that he takes more pleasure in dreaming of wrestling with Coriolanus than he took on his wedding night:
"The imagery here is, to say the least, suggestive," says Bate. End of section. Time to move on. The dark lady of the sonnets may be nothing but Shakespeare's imaginative confection, but if a man is capable of imagining homoerotic desire, then, well, you know, that's suggestive.
Soul of the Age is a frustrating book, not simply because it contains these swatches of lackluster argument but because one feels that it didn't need to. For when Bate is good, he is very good. Discussing Shakespeare the Soldier, he offers a fascinating and intricately developed account of the Essex Rebellion (a botched uprising against Elizabeth I's government), debunking the long-treasured notion that Elizabeth was referring to Shakespeare's play when she said, "I am Richard II." Discussing Shakespeare the Schoolboy, he notes that the speech from As You Like It about the seven ages of man is based closely on a passage from a poem by Marcellus Palingenius; then he offers these acute comments on Shakespeare's originality:
Often when we think Shakespeare is being original, he is actually voicing the commonplace thoughts of his age. Where he was unique was in the vigor and invention with which he turned traditional "themes" into living drama. He took Palingenius's hint of linking the succession of ages to the metaphor of life as a play. But he was the first to prove the truth of the metaphor by including the discourse within a play as opposed to a treatise or sermon. He was also the first to assign particular dramatic parts to each age. In all versions, the infant cries. Only in Shakespeare's does it do anything so theatrical as puke --indeed, no writer had ever used the word puke as a verb before.... Instinctively, Shakespeare dramatizes, individualizes, converts archetype into image, idea into action.
This is by no means an unfamiliar argument, but it is expressed here with an economy and precision that makes it feel like news. We feel the force of the lines "the infant,/Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms" because we've been alerted not only to the crucial presence of the verb "puke" but to the fact that this is Shakespeare's word. We feel viscerally that Shakespeare was indeed an artist who converts archetype into image. We feel, however tentatively, that we have discovered something crucial about the mind of this artist, about the way he thought. We want this argument to continue, but all we get is a page.
What did Shakespeare think about thinking? Near the end of The Tempest, when everything finally seems to be going well, the exiled magician Prospero stages a pageant, a play within the play, to celebrate the impending marriage of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand, the prince of Naples. "Let me live here ever," says young Ferdinand. But suddenly the play stops -- Prospero has had a thought, one that cannot be ignored: Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are still plotting Prospero's death.
Thought in Shakespeare is what interrupts us, turns us, changes us, makes us move. This is why all the great speeches feel like dramatizations of the mind in motion. And this, in turn, is why we feel so acutely that we know Shakespeare's characters from the inside out, as if we had access to their minds. "Our revels now are ended," says Prospero to the startled Ferdinand after the pageant has evaporated.
What has happened to Prospero's urgency? Rather than running off to subvert Caliban's plot against his life, he ruminates on the illusion he has created, and his thoughts move from the impermanence of artistic creation to the impermanence of human life. Then another thought pierces him:
Does Prospero need to take a stroll because he's upset about Caliban? No, that thought has passed, like the pageant it interrupted: instead, Prospero has been shaken by his unexpected thoughts about his own mortality. Who could have seen it coming? More than anything, Prospero's thoughts have been undone by thought itself, the mercurial process through which the beating mind makes itself known over time.
Soul of the Age, but to remember what a great biography of the mind might feel like, listen to Prospero, Hamlet and Lear.
Books mentioned in this post