Book Review: Soul of the Age, the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate (UK: Penguin Books, Ltd. Oct. 2008; published as Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, US: Random House, April 2009.)
By Richard F. Whalen
First came Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt in 2004 with Will in the World, which he admitted was an imaginary biography of his “Shakespeare” of Stratford-on-Avon. Necessarily “an exercise in speculation,” he called it.
Then in 2007 came Rene Weis of University College London with Shakespeare Unbound, his desperate attempt to find the Stratford man everywhere in the works of Shakespeare.
Now comes Jonathan Bate of Warwick University with Soul of the Age, in which he also promises to find the biography of his man from Stratford in the works of Shakespeare.
It looks like a trend, if not a movement, by Stratfordians to intensify their search for Will Shakspere in Shakespeare’s works. It’s been done before in bits and pieces, but now, within four years, three eminent Shakespeare establishment scholars have been driven to publish backwards biography. Lacking an historical biography of their man, they back into one by trying to conjure it from the Shakespeare works. Their sources for biographical facts are not historical documents; they pick what they want from the author’s creative fiction and turn it into speculative biography.
In contrast, classic literary biography shows how the known biography of an author is reflected in his or her writings, and there are hundreds of examples of such biographies. The best writers write best about what they know best, their own life. Their life experience and deepest concerns are reflected in their writings. Once the life is known, the writing is illuminated.
Apparently, these are desperate times for Shakespeare biographers. They are reduced to making up a biography of the Stratford man as the author and selling it to unwary readers. It’s not biography. It’s historical fiction, and their books should be shelved with the fiction titles. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Shakespeare being Shakespeare they get away with it, so far. Unwary readers probably believe every word of it.
Oxfordians might grasp at some straws of hope that if these three self-styled biographers were to research far enough into Elizabethan history and think hard enough about it they’d have to recognize that the works of Shakespeare reflect in many and varied ways the actual, known biography of Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. But that may be too much to hope for, given their career-long commitment to the probably uneducated, certainly untraveled, mostly illiterate commoner-businessman from Stratford.
Greenblatt is the most imaginative of the three, opening his narrative with “LET US IMAGINE” in capital letters. Weis is the most comprehensive, teasing out improbable factoids with his favorite device: “If so, then. . . “ He anticipates Bate, seeing his Shakespeare as a regular “commuter” between London and Stratford, a regular guy “no . . . different from the rest of us.”
Bate does it best. He mines the plays and poems expertly for whatever he can find that points to a grammar school “country boy” (just like him?) who became the world’s greatest writer. He repeatedly urges, “Let us imagine” (although not capitalized).
Here is Bate’s methodology in his own words: “Gathering what we can from his plays and poems: That is how we will write a biography that is true to him.” For support, he cites the critic Barbara Everett: “If his biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.” (Her emphasis.) For most scholars, evidence that is not literal is conjectural and evidence not provable is speculative. Thus, Bate endorses literary-historical biography that is conjectural and speculative. Essential to his methodology is looking for what he calls “traces of cultural DNA– little details such as a reference to Warwickshire or the knowledge of a particular school textbook. . . to make surprising connections.” But the little details in the Shakespeare works that Bate cites throughout his book are not unique to William of Stratford, and they are truly “little details.”
So for Oxfordians, nothing much new. Bate takes only three very brief, indirect swipes at anyone who thinks someone else, like an earl, wrote the Shakespeare works.
For 486 pages he retails all the supposed, little connections between the Shakespeare works and William of Stratford, bolstering them with speculations, conjectures and rhetorical questions that suggest even more outlandish bits of biography. Bate has done his homework, and he offers detailed arguments that might interest a student of the authorship issue who wants to see how far the arguments for the Stratford man can be taken and what needs to be done to counter them.
He has a full chapter on “Shakespeare’s Small Library,” wherein he discusses at length sources for the Shakespeare plays, including books in French and Italian and concluding, “These speculations are of course biographical fantasy. But the point is a serious one.” And these speculations are based in large part on speculations, namely, the Stratford man’s alleged but unproven friendship with Richard Field, the printer from Stratford, and his “very probable” acquaintance with John Florio, the London-born scholar of the Italian language. Of course there is no evidence for any of this.
For the general reader who is unaware of the historical realities and the case that can be made for Oxford as the true author, Bate will probably be persuasive. He’s a clever and engaging writer. He takes this life of “mundane inconsequence” (Sam Schoenbaum’s words), embellishes it, goes into flights of fancy and re-imagines it with multiple little details from the Shakespeare works–irony of ironies, works that were written by the 17th earl of Oxford.
More informed readers, especially those who know how proper biography is written, will no doubt be skeptical. They would not tolerate backwards biography for any other literary figure.
Richard F. Whalen is the author of Shakespeare: Who Was He?: The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon, co-editor with Professor Daniel Wright of The Oxfordian Shakespeare Series, and editor/annotator of Macbeth in the series. He is past president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and a regular contributor to the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter. This review will also be printed in the September 2009 edition of that publication.