After three years of tests—tree-ring dating (to determine the age of the wood frame), x-ray examination at Cambridge University, and infrared reflectography—Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Institute unveiled earlier this year a new painting of Shakespeare, the Cobbe portrait (1610). Scholars and non-scholars alike eagerly gathered around computer screens and televisions to see for the first time what might well be the dark-eyed, youthful, intelligent, and finely featured face of William Shakespeare, age forty-six. When it comes to Shakespeare, new evidence is hard to find, and everyone is interested. (Having caught that morning’s news, as I had not, my dentist informed me in the chair of the momentous discovery.)
All the more welcome then, must be Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind, and World of William Shakespeare, an intellectual and cultural biography of the Bard. Having mastered the enormous bibliography of scholarship on Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and his age, Bate examines what we know from a fresh perspective and brings some new documents to bear on old issues. Following his The Genius of Shakespeare (1998), a study of the poet’s development and reputation, The Soul of the Age asks two related questions: 1) “What was it like being Shakespeare?” and 2) How do “Shakespeare’s works embody—or rather ensoul—the world picture of his age?” Like David Bevington in Shakespeare (2002), Bate structures his inquiry on Jaques’ Seven Ages speech, considering in turn the Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Justice, Old Man, and Age of Oblivion.
Bate keeps a triple focus on the life, the works, and the age, striking many sparks and throwing up odd angles of illumination in all directions. The “Third Age: Lover” section, for example, examines the documentary records of Shakespeare’s marriage, the church consistory court (“the bawdy court”) that adjudicated matters of adultery, prostitution, drunkenness, and the like, and the perplexities of love in the sonnets and the plays. Examination of actual court records puts into interesting perspective the fornications, prostitutes, pregnancies, broken marriages, adulteries, accusations, and defenses of sexual misconduct in the poetry and plays. Bate sensibly refuses to play the old game of reading the sonnets as unified autobiography but at times indulges in a bit of speculation: Shakespeare may have contracted syphilis; the rival poet may have been John Davies.
Throughout the work Bate writes with fluency, a deep love of Shakespeare’s language, a skeptical attitude toward received opinion, and a talent for imaginative concatenation. The “Fourth Age: Soldier” section, for example, begins with Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury predicting “a famous victory,” then moves to The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, then to Shakespeare’s and Heywood’s related history plays. This chain of associations ends finally in a corrective recounting of the Essex drama and its supposed connections to the performance of Richard II. Bate offers an alternative reading to the usual narrative: The performance was not meant to plant the idea of rebellion in the minds of the audience; the object of Essex’s later rebellion was to remove those who had caused his downfall after the Irish expedition not to overthrow the Queen; the deposition scene in Shakespeare’s play was not censured in the early editions but added later. Bate’s attention to primary sources and willingness to consider evidence anew offers a refreshingly plausible account of politics and theater in Shakespeare’s time.
Bate continually challenges received opinion, adjusts perspective, and brings both the man and his plays into sharper focus. All the biographers and scholars who say Shakespeare disappears from the archival record between 1585 and 1592 (the so-called “lost years”) are wrong, he declares: In Michelmas term, 1588, Shakespeare’s name twice appears in a complainant bill for a case before the Queen’s bench in Westminster, London. An examination of the Stratford-upon-Avon parish records for sixty years shows only one teenage husband with pregnant bride, William Shakespeare. A review of the careers of eight contemporaries throws into relief Shakespeare’s singularity: his maintenance of a marriage and family by writing, the business acumen evident in his becoming a shareholder in the acting company and in real-estate investments, the versatility in adopting ancillary occupations, actor and poet. This acumen and versatility served Shakespeare well in times of plague, Bate observes, an overlooked fact of Elizabethan life that erupts often and unexpectedly in the plays, in Romeo and Juliet, for example, where the plague causes Friar Laurence’s all-important letter to miscarry. And these qualities, along with Shakespeare’s abiding identity as a Warwickshire man, probably led him to semi-retirement in Stratford much earlier than usually supposed.
Weaknesses? Not many. Bate’s Latin wobbles a bit here and there—he translates incepit as a present tense, humanitas and feritas as adjectives. He occasionally lapses into bardolatry—the vapid assertion that Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever known or that he read Marlowe’s plays better than Marlowe. Bate’s only real deficiency, probably of interest to readers of First Things, is that he continually undervalues the living traditions of Catholicism and consequently misses their possible relevance to his subject. I am not speaking of biography here—the popular fantasy that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, which Bate sensibly wastes little time on, curtly dismissing the Lancashire thesis (the idea that Shakespeare spent formative years at the Catholic home of the Hoghtons) as introduced in the 1930s, revived in the 1990s, and discredited in the early twenty-first century. I am speaking, however, of Catholic beliefs and practices, doctrinal, devotional, and literary.
Bate flatly maintains, for example, that the old religious drama was “dead and buried” when Shakespeare began to write, but it lived on spectacularly in the transformed figures of the Vice in Falstaff, Herod in Richard III and Macbeth, and in Shakespeare’s scenic construction, as Emrys Jones, Beatrice Groves, and others have demonstrated. Bate argues that Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale departs from its source in Robert Greene to set Leontes’ fit of jealousy in Sicily, and thus to take advantage of that place’s Spanish and Catholic associations of cruelty, irrationality, and blasphemy. That standard reading of anti-Catholic stereotypes, however, blinds Bate to the pervasive recuperation of Catholic elements in the play’s Delphos, isle of sacrifice, ceremony, and theophany. And Bate likewise misses the important Catholicity of the final scene, which also departs from Greene to take place in a chapel and to feature a confessed and reformed penitent in a healing ritual of reconciliation.
Finally, however, there is much more to praise than to blame in this book and its many insights far outweigh its few faults. Bate brings us closer to the man, his work, and his age. Throughout the journey he consistently offers interesting solutions to notorious Shakespearean puzzles and cruces. Perhaps Shakespeare gave Jonson the famous “purge” as an actor playing a role in Dekker’s Satiromastix, rather than as a writer. Perhaps the puzzling, apparently anti-theatrical epistle to Troilus and Cressida is not an indication of private performance but a marketing ploy for the playtext. And so on and on. Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age is an original, engaging, and learned contribution to Shakespeare studies.
Robert Miola is Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor at Loyola College in Maryland and editor of Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources.