Few have anything new to say about Shakespeare, even fewer the ability to say it in refreshing ways. This exceptional book does both.
Breaking from the traditional biography’s unyielding march of chronology, British scholar Bate (Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature/Univ. of Warwick; The Song of the Earth, 2000, etc.) examines the social, political and cultural forces that shaped his subject’s mind—he wants to know what it was like being Shakespeare. For his narrative framework, Bate looks to the “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It, in which “one man in his time plays many parts / his acts being seven ages”: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old man and, lastly, “second childishness and mere oblivion.” What could have been an arbitrary, imposed structure instead proves a sturdy formal platform from which Bate freely soars, offering a fresh, colorful and exciting portrait of a man whose portrait has been painted countless times before. Why so much rhetorical argument in Shakespeare’s plays? Bate points to the enduring effect of his schoolboy studies of Latin grammar. Why such sympathy for idiots and fools? The playwright felt out of place in London, a country bumpkin amid urban sophisticates. Why was Shakespeare so successful compared to his peers? Perhaps because he lived frugally, invested well and remained devoted to his family, while most of his competitors lived hard and died young. Bate’s ability to shuttle back and forth between what he calls “the Shakespearean mind” and what scholar Patrick Cruttwell usefully called “the Shakespearean moment” keeps the pace and content engaging. Occasionally, the author indulges in academic hair-splitting or wastes time criticizing those who doubt William Shakespeare was a real person who wrote his own plays. (Does anyone care about that debate anymore?) More often, though, Bate is generous with his learning, insight and wit, and more than willing to explain thoroughly.
Lucid, rich and erudite—essential for libraries, students and Bardolaters.