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Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 7, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
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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Whereas the recent crop of Bard biographies makes quite clear how obscure are the whereabouts of Shakespeare’s body during lengthy periods of his 52-year life span, Bate’s fifth Shakespearean book demonstrates that it’s much easier and no less fascinating to account for the poet-playwright’s mind. Using Jaques’ famous Seven Ages (i.e., life stages) of Man speech in As You Like It to plot the book, Bate runs to ground the sources of the ideas about and the concerns of each age that appear in the plays and poems. Shakespeare’s education, material circumstances, reading, and political and intellectual context affected him about equally overall, Bate shows, though each more or less greatly depending on the stage of life that was his immediate topic. Seasoned Shakespeareans already will know about how the works of Ovid, Plutarch, and Montaigne affect the poems and plays, but do they know how epicureanly skeptical Shakespeare was and from where that came? A book in which Bardolators may gratefully immerse themselves. --Ray Olson
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Top Customer Reviews
First off, this is not a biography for the casual reader of Shakespeare. This book assumes a certain amount of knowledge of Shakespeare’s work, and of the historical period of his life in general. If you are not already inclined to be interested in Shakespeare, this text will not create that interest in you.
As someone who usually devours most things Shakespeare related, I have to admit that the first 146 pages of this book just dragged for me. They are tedious at best. Mr. Bate examines what educational and literary influences the young Shakespeare would have encountered and it is a lot of Latin and Greek, and frankly just too much of it for me to care. Interesting thoughts are presented here, but they are at best conjecture, and thus not as important as Bate seems to emphasize. The author states too many times that such and such a book Shakespeare would have no knowledge of, or that he would not have owned a copy of this or that book. Mr. Bate, you (we) don’t know! Period. Which you acknowledge when you point out theories about Shakespeare from others that you don’t agree with. “Physician, heal thyself”.
There is a bit of conjecture in this text, which any book about Shakespeare will have. I don’t mind that, usually. In this book, it bothered me. Maybe because the author rarely admitted when he was doing it?
When we get to the third age of man (Lover) the text picks up in earnest and I began reading with an eagerness and interest. The book keeps this momentum going (for the most part) from this point in the text to the end.
I’m glad I read “Soul of the Age”. Mr. Bate is an intelligent and close reader of Shakespeare. It has earned a place on my bookshelf. I just wish I had enjoyed it a bit more.
Bate, too, is a far more accurate reader of Shakespeare's plays than the authors of many new books on the Bard's "ideas" that have appeared in the last few years. As an antidote to the widespread, fashionable anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist readings of the plays or to those unduly freighted with considerations of only race or ethnicity, Bate persuasively redresses balances, reintroducing, for instance, the often ignored centrality of religious implications in the works of this essentially secular playwright. He accurately reminds readers, therefore, that Shakespeare's "Lear," unlike its source, is set in pagan, not in Christian, Britain, that his character Othello is not left the stereotypical Muslim outsider of the source, but is turned in fact into a Christian convert, and that "The Tempest" has more to do ultimately with worldly renunciation than with either colonialism or imperialism. In the case of "Lear" however, Bate in my view does not speculate with adequate depth as to why Shakespeare might have so changed his source material, but it's undeniably refreshing at any rate that he points it out.
Further, however, even in the best parts of his book, Bate occasionally slips into demonstrably inaccurate readings, and as I'll argue, when he nears the end of his lengthy work, he does worse than just slip; there he reveals, sadly, that his usual brilliance is linked to a surprisingly contradictory, nearly total departure from his earlier sweet reasonableness regarding "propaganda and positions." Early on, Bate makes an admittedly minor slip in his claim that Shakespeare's better treatment of doctors in the plays after a real life daughter's marriage to one is supported by the character of the Doctor who comes to treat Lady Macbeth. The Doctor's closing couplet Bate ignores - "Were I from Dunsinane away and clear/Profit again should hardly draw me here." Why this stereotypically greedy Doctor of classical and European literature reveals an improved character when set against his laughable predecessors remains for Bate to clarify. More troublesome a slip is his contention that Cordelia "has to learn to lie," and that her magnificent "No cause" is just such a lie. Scholars less novel in their assessments would probably argue that the "natural Christian" Cordelia in fact has no cause to hate her father, but at best just an excuse for a cause, unless they mistakenly adopt the ethic of the World, as Bate apparently does here, that we should do unto others AS they do unto us. Just as troublesome, and a harbinger of more serious difficulties to come, is Bate's reading of Prospero and Caliban. In defiance of the clear thrust and proportion of "The Tempest," he presents a rigid Prospero who is the character with the most to learn and a Caliban who is regarded much too leniently, solely because Caliban speaks the "best poetry in the play." Surely the potential rapist Caliban, whatever his sensitivity to the music of the island or his final resolution to sue for grace, remains at best a pretty rough diamond. I'd argue that a helplessness before poetic splendor is Bate's own "fatal Cleopatra," were it not that the character of the wily Egyptian herself is later given that honor.
All in all, Bate's strongest suit - as well as his weakest - is his treatment of Shakespeare as a Counter-Renaissance artist. In "Julius Caesar," for instance, the glories and miseries of Stoicism and Epicureanism are set forth in the characters of Brutus and Cassius, with both philosophies questioned as guides to the good life by these characters' very inconsistencies and defections. Similarly, the Renaissance Humanist notions of the wisdom of folly and the importance of love are present in the pagan world of "King Lear," though they, too, by themselves, are questioned as adequate grounds for making life worth living. So far, so good. But then, unfortunately some passages from Montaigne in defense of certain observations by the bad boy Epicurus catch Bate's attention, leading him to fashion a Falstaff and a Cleopatra, admittedly fascinating characters, as each a species of Shakespearean beau ideal. Speaking of not advocating "positions!" Why Falstaff is irresistible but at the same time, and with increasing clarity, a "false staff," Bate ignores. Why a reader should have to choose wily Cleopatra (the pleasures of the Flesh) over cold boy Octavius (the power of the World), Bate never makes clear. Perhaps to Shakespeare, both of them - given their different glories and limitations - represented necessarily partial, and therefore inadequate perspectives concerning any notions of the good life.
So carried away does Bate become with his idea that Shakespeare may well have endorsed Epicurus' idea of "living in the moment" that he finally - and absurdly - berates Hamlet for being "bitter" at the fact of Gertrude's hasty marriage. Hamlet, to Bate, lacks the necessary Epicurean tragicomic perspective which might have taught him not to take things too hard but, like the rest of the court, to "go with the flow." Unfortunately this is the position advocated at its direst by Edmund the Bastard - "men are as the time is." In "Hamlet," it is best fulfilled in all its vulgarity by Gertrude and Claudius, the very exemplars of "mirth in funeral." In my view, Bate's largely brilliant book ends up revealing a sizeable hole in its head; his undeniably novel "take" is also a glaring reductio ad absurdam.