The Genius of Shakespeare – Jonathan Bate


Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare was first published in 1997, though this edition (Picador Classic 2016) contains an afterword to the 2008 edition which brings Bate’s theories and ideas about Shakespeare up to date and into the “new” millennium.

The book is in two sections which are very different.  The first is a critical history of Shakespeare’s life, and of the writings themselves.  A lot of well known information is included here, but there is enough of the new to keep the reader interested. The first chapter includes anecdotes from Shakespeare’s life, and research into the few surviving documents with his name on them.  It looks at writings which show the reception Shakespeare was given by his contemporaries, and at their view of his place in the Elizabethan cannon.

Bate goes on to consider the sonnets, discussing their historical and literary context and the overall structure of the sonnet sequence, as well as looking at interesting aspects of one or two specific sonnets: a couple are analysed in depth, others in passing.  At the same time Bate considers whether these poems are in any way autobiographical, and looks at them in comparison with Shakespeare’s other major poetic works – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucretia.  I know little of these aspects of Shakespeare, being mostly acquainted with his plays so this was all interesting, and a foundation, I hope, for further reading of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Bate goes on to consider the authorship issue, on which he is very clear – there is no doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays – no one else.  The case is convincing and eloquently argued.  There is also an interesting chapter on Marlowe’s influence.  Bate sees this as rather competitive, arguing that the best of Shakespeare was written in response to Marlowe’s achievements, so for example Marlowe’s Jew of Malta provoked Shakespeare to out do him with The Merchant of Venice.  This was a really interesting chapter as it matched the plays of each poet against the other, showing both how they were linked, and how Shakespeare was able to develop and usually improve upon Marlowe’s achievements.

The final section looks at the way that Shakespeare brought the ear and technique of the dramatist to his plays, arguing that the best of the comedy derives from dramatic irony in scenes where characters overhear or are overheard – such as Twelfth Night or Much Ado about Nothing.  From the point of view of the tragedies Bate looks at Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare, which are that Shakespeare’s characters lack psychological realism, and credible motivation, and that Shakespeare’s world view in, for example King Lear, is unchristian.  Bate argues that Shakespeare is a dramatist and can inhabit different points of view at the same time in the different personae of his characters.  The novel was a dominant art form for Tolstoy, but Shakespeare was not a novelist.  His plays embody or dramatise archetypal or significant moments rather than developing psychological coherence.  In fact this last was not something at all relevant to Elizabethan drama.

I really enjoyed this half of the book – it was fascinating, erudite, informative always new or neatly put, and never boring.  (I have to say, I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fan, mind you!)

The second half of The Genius of Shakespeare was completely different in so many ways.  At first I was disappointed that the close analysis of plays, sources, and anecdotes about the history of Elizabethan theatre had seemingly dried up, but as I read on different aspects were again fascinating and in this case more often than not Bate was touching closely on my own ignorance.

In this half Bate goes on to examine Shakespeare’s role and influence in world literature.  The history of Shakespeare in culture if you like.  He looks at the definition of genius, considering it a term invented by the Romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and recognising Shakespeare as a beneficiary of the idea that there is such a thing as poetic genius.

Then Bate looks at Shakespeare as a national poet.  This was grist to the mill for me as a former English teacher.  Bate was spot on with his view of Kenneth Baker, the education secretary who first made Shakespeare compulsory for all English school children.  Bate argues that Baker chose one Shakespeare to uphold national values of cohesion, loyalty and patriotism whilst being blind to the co-existence of another Shakespeare who was iconoclastic, revolutionary and critical of the authority of kings, queens and government.  Bate examines the dichotomy by looking at several poetry anthologies, each of which includes extracts from Shakespeare, and shows these different and conflicting aspects of Englishness.

Shakespeare’s role in European culture is the focus of the next section.  Internationally he has been used in all kinds of countries for all kinds of purposes because his work is so malleable, and can be adapted to different contexts.

Apart from this general point, Bate gives a historically specific overview.  In France at first Shakespeare was despised and ridiculed as he failed to follow the unities of time, place and action, but in Germany the awakening of a nationalist literature focused on Shakespeare as an example of how Germany could be freed from the constraints of French classicism.  Later the French Romantics – Berlioz and Victor Hugo – were shaken to the core by a performance of Romeo and Juliet in Paris – Berlioz swearing he would marry the actress playing Juliet, which in fact he later did.

In From Character to Icon Bate goes on to look at Shakespeare and painting, the use of tableau by Garrick, and the development of Shakespeare’s characters – especially Hamlet – as archetypes or icons – easily recognisable as shorthand versions of significant cultural ideas.

The final section of the book questions why we should see Shakespeare as such a great writer.  It begins with the Bowlders, who rewrote the plays to make them acceptable to Victorian sensibilities.  Well, rewrite is the wrong word.  They just cut out all the bits they found offensive.  But they came unstuck on Measure for Measure.  How  can you make a play that is really just about extra-marital sex, and nothing else, suitable for Victorian family reading?  They couldn’t, of course.

Measure for Measure has long been considered a problem play – and here is the problem – how to find a consistent interpretation when all the characters seem immoral in their own way, so that even Isabella – seen by some as a heroine and paragon of virtue – would rather see her brother die than lose her virginity!  Bate describes a seminar in which IA Richards interrogated William Epsom on this subject.  Now forgive me but both these characters are legends for some of us.  Look them up and find out why.  Anyway this little diversion lead to Empson’s interest in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Bate identifying Empson’s seminal Seven Types of Ambiguity as merely the application of the uncertainty principles of modern physics to literary criticism!!  After all he first went to Cambridge to study Maths and passed top of his class.  How cool is that!

Well this has been a long review.  How did Bate finish?  He asked the question – was Shakespeare a unique genius, and why was his work so infinitely adaptable?  To answer the second question first, he was a dramatist: Shakespeare himself is a mystery but his characters are chameleon like, and exhaustive in their universality.  The literary genius, Bate says, had to be a dramatist, as novelists and poets are constrained by social and linguistic context, and their intrusions into the narrative limit interpretive possibilities.

But did it have to be Shakespeare?  Not at all. Bate puts Shakespeares’s dominance down to a quirk of history – the triumph of the English language and the fall of the Spanish empire.  Without that the Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega would have filled Shakespeare’s shoes – equally diverse but more prolific.  An interesting thought.

Read this book!


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