The Bard in his time

A third of the way through Jonathan Bate's new biography, he sets up one of the pivotal moments in English history: the stunning 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. It deserves our attention because it illustrates the kind of foundation on which Bate's biography of Shakespeare's mind rests.

Introducing this episode, Bate ranges from the April 1775 skirmish at Lexington Green that launched the American Revolution, back through a survey of Tudor history from the beheading of Sir Thomas More in 1535 to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587, and into the remote future, when in June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, bracing his nation for the Battle of Britain, famously declared before Parliament that if the British people prevail, history will declare that "this was their finest hour."

With these events in mind, Bate recounts how on the eve of the great 1588 sea battle, Elizabeth appeared on horseback before her assembled troops at Tilbury and declared: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England." While the connection between Elizabeth's Tilbury speech and William Shakespeare may not be immediately apparent, the connection becomes clear from a contextual perspective.

Elizabeth loved plays -- Shakespeare's acting company was regularly invited to perform at court -- and so it's a fair strategy for Bate to treat the similarities in tone and strategy of Elizabeth's Tilbury speech, which is profoundly dramatic, with those of Shakespeare's Henry V's famous "Crispin's Day" speech to his soldiers at the opening of Battle of Agincourt, even though the play was composed in 1599, more than a decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The effect of this meta-theatrical analysis is both engaging and convincing. It demonstrates how the style and character of the age's drama, which owed so much to Shakespeare himself, bled out of the playhouses and into the highest sphere of governance. Still, some will object, Bate's strategy is disingenuous. Only after he narrates the Tilbury episode does he confess that the incident may not even have happened.

Elizabeth's speech began circulating in 1623, the year Shakespeare's plays were first published in a collected edition -- seven years after his death and a full two decades after Elizabeth's death. But even this troubling fact -- enough to banish it from a traditional biography of Shakespeare -- Bate turns to his advantage, rightly claiming that "theater played a major role in shaping [post facto] the heroic image of England's warrior queen."

As the Tilbury episode illustrates, "Soul of the Age," like other recent Shakespeare biographies -- Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" and James Shapiro's "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599" come to mind -- is heavy on context and speculation. The arresting effects of contextualization and extrapolation from facts is evident in the recent evolution of Shakespearean biography: S. Shoenbaum's magisterial "Shakespeare's Lives," published in 1970, covers the known facts of the Bard's life in just under 45 pages; Bate's biography is 471 pages. The freedom to embellish is signaled in Bate's title. His concern is with the evolution of the playwright's mind, which is a much larger subject than his life, such as we know it.

Is this new freedom a good thing? In the hands of accomplished scholars such as Greenblatt, Shapiro and Bate, I think it is. It privileges narrative techniques (suspense, irony, surprise) over a strict adherence to demonstrable facts, while never sacrificing facts such as they are. The result of this strategy, combined with writing that is lively and accessible, is the much desired crossover book -- one that will appeal both to scholarly and general readers.

Bate organizes his biography around the serviceable if somewhat shopworn terms of Jaques' famous "All the world's a stage" speech from "As You Like It" -- the "mewling and puking" infant, the "whining" schoolboy, the "sighing" lover, the bearded soldier "full of strange oaths," the justice "full of wise saws and modern instances, "the lean and slippered" old man, and the final stage of life when senility has overtaken him and man appears "in second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Strictly speaking, there is little or nothing new in this new biography, of course. Every detail of the Bard's known life was long ago brought to light. But few scholars can claim the encyclopedic knowledge of the period that Bate brings to bear on his subject, and he's nothing short of brilliant in bringing this knowledge to the most disputed aspects of Shakespeare's life: his troubled marriage, his rivalries, the possible identities of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, his apparent involvement in the events leading up to the February 1601 Essex uprising, the so-called War of the Theaters, the publication history of his plays, his "retirement" from the London theatrical scene, his sexual and political inclinations, his learning and philosophical disposition.

Bate addresses the last category in the most enlightening and diffuse dimension of his book -- Shakespeare's education and his source readings. Concerning his education at the King's School in Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare didn't attend university), Bate offers a detailed (and what, for the casual reader, will be a very challenging) explanation of how schoolboys were educated, a rigorous education heavily invested in the devices and strategies of rhetoric.

Concerning source material, Bate shows that Shakespeare was an opportunistic rather than a thorough reader, raiding books new and old, as well as contemporary ephemera, for plots and conflicts that he could adapt to his own dramatic ends. He speculates that Shakespeare's personal library numbered perhaps 40 books ranging from the English chronicles of Holinshed and Hall to translations of classical writers Ovid, Plutarch, Montaigne, the Geneva Bible, Chaucer's works, Samuel Daniel's Trojan history, and perhaps Sir Philip Sidney's "Arcadia."

But even such an astute history of Shakespeare's reading, Bate admits, fails to satisfactorily reveal the man who wrote the most brilliant plays and poems in English history, who virtually erased himself from his work, leaving behind only the bare bones of a life and much room for tantalizing speculation. Bate cites an Epicurean precept as the "perfect motto" for Shakespeare: "Hide thy life."