December Books 12) The Genius of Shakespeare

12) The Genius of Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate

was kind enough to get me both this and Bate’s more recent book on Shakespeare for Christmas. Since I’m just over halfway through my absorption of the Complete Works at present, I decided to read the earlier book (first published 1997, updated 2008) at this stage and save the more recent until I’ve finished the plays (probably March given my Christmas break).

Well, it’s a jolly good look at various aspects of Shakespeare, trying to identify what, if anything. The first half includes a chapter on the documents we have relating to Shakespeare, another on the Sonnets (where, against his will, Bate identifies his own candidate for the Dark Lady), a brilliant one on the authorship question, an analysis of Marlowe’s inflience on Shakespeare, and a look at the way Shakespeare uses his other sources.

His line on the authorship question is entertainingly solid. Myself I have tended to find the sheer irrationality of the supporters of alternative candidates (the Earl of Oxford, Bacon, etc) a fairly strong strike against them. Bate points out that the Oxfordians, for instance, tend to regard every line of the plays as a work of sheer unassailable genius; while we who believe that the man from Stratford wrote them are also able to accept that he occasionally had an off day.

The second half of the book broadens out to consider Shakespeare’s impact on subsequent literarature. I wondered a bit about this – it seemed to me a bit of a stretch to credit Shakespeare posthumously for the Romantic movement in England, France, Germany and Scotland; perhaps if I knew more about literature of that period generally I could assess to what extent Shakespeare’s works really were central. I found a couple of the other stories told here more compelling – the claiming of Caliban as a heroic anti-colonial figure by Aimé Césaire, and William Empson’s linkage of quantum mechanics with shades of meaning in the plays (I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Empson before, and doubt I will read him in the future, but I’m glad he existed and made the argument). Bate also pours scorn on the likes of Kenneth Baker, the Bowdlers, and anyone else who idolises Shakespeare without really thinking.

Bate’s explanation of why Shakespeare has been so successful is a) that he is simply very good at creating characters and situations which the audience / reader can relate to, b) that as an actor himself he was better at the technical aspects of writing for the stage than most of his more academic contemporaries, and c) that he was fortunate enough to be writing at a time and place where his works were preserved and propagated after his death. He finishes by wondering if, had the Spanish won in 1588, Lope de Vega might now be the set text for literature around the world rather than Shakespeare. A postscript takes the story forward over the last ten years, when Hollywood discovered Shakespeare (Shakespeare in Love, and Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which like the rest of you he rates higher than I did).

Anyway, a good and thought-provoking book. He tends to bring in one play in each chapter to support his points, which has whetted my appetite for those I haven’t reached yet.

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