This is the year of Shakespeare and as part of what I call the Seminal Papers Series I want to make some brief considerations on two books by Jonathan Bate, who I believe is one of the most knowledgeable and prominent Shakespearean scholars of our times. On the top of it, Bate is a gifted writer himself. His writing manages to be at the same time erudite, intellectually engaging, and entertaining. Above all, he is capable of making scholarship accessible to the general reader without ever sounding patronizing. To the specialist reader, his research and positions often offer new ways of looking at texts that have been analysed to exhaustion.
I will start The Genius of Shakespeare. Originally published in 1997, it received a second edition in 2008. The book is divided into two parts: the first one deals with some biographical aspects of the writer bate likes referring to from time to time as ‘the man from Stratford’ or ‘William of Stratford’ whereas the second is an exploration of the impact of Shakespeare’s work in his own time and in the centuries that followed his passing.
The first part – perhaps inevitably – contains a whole chapter dedicated to the authorship controversy and as far as I am concerned this is one of the most articulated and convincing pieces written on the subject. The following chapter on Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare is fascinating and illuminating; as it is chapter six in part two where Bate meticulously look at the idea of ‘genius’, where it comes from, how it has been constructed and metamorphosed since Ancient Greek to our times. It greatly helps us understand how ‘Shakespeare’s genius’ came to be and where his originality really lies.
The second book I consider essential in Shakespeare study library is Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare, published just over a decade later. In it, Bate revisits some of the issues discussed in the publication discussed above, reviews some of his positions, and extends others further. The book is ingeniously organized following ‘the seven ages of man’ trope that serves as the framework for Jaques famous speech in As You Like It. The amount of knowledge Bate displays here is staggering, not only in terms of Shakespeare’s life and works, as written on the tin, but also of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages as a whole.
I particularly like ‘Second Age: Schoolboy’ and I strongly recommend it to those who still argue that a country lad from Warwickshire could not possibly possess the knowledge of the classics and of the world embedded in Shakespeare’s work. Having a very strong strain of New Historicism flowing on my own veins I also really enjoy the ‘Forth Age: Soldier’ where the court politics and geopolitics of England are examined.
For those perhaps feeling the this years’ celebrations have made them more curious about Shakespeare himself, his life, work, and legacy, these two books are indeed seminal with the added advantage of making for extremely engaging reading.
- Bate, J. (1997) The Genius of Shakespeare. London: Picador.
- Bate, J. (2009) Soul of the Age. London: Penguin.