The Landmark Herodotus – Robert B Straussler

World Map according to Herodotus
The Landmark Herodotus is a complete edition of the famous histories which tell the story of the conflict between Persia and Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries BC.

At the heart of these histories is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child, when I read and re-read a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae in which a small force of Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan Leonidas, held up the advance of the Persian army long enough for the Greeks to ready the defence of Athens and the Peloponnese. It’s a story that has been told and retold again, including in a fairly recent film, 300, Rise of an Empire.

My recollection of this fictional account is a bit faint after all these years, but the histories show that the novel was clearly exaggerated with respect to some details of the battle of Thermopylae in which these men’s lives were sacrificed. In my memory the novelist also changed the date of the battle of Marathon to make the whole story more dramatic, ending the novel as the runner arrives at Athens after Marathon, with the news of victory. In Herodotus’ account the battle of Marathon takes place a few years earlier than Thermopylae, not after it.

Herodotus’ The Histories presents a relentlessly detailed account of the classical and pre-classical history of the eastern Mediterranean including some of the myths and legends of Greece, Persia and Egypt, and is divided into 9 books, each looking at a different period of time or geographical location.

The first book examines the way the conflict between Persia and Greece began. There are echoes of the story of Troy in the abductions of women that take place, and the story of the wealthy Croesus seems to be a place where myth meets reality. He is a man of ambition and decides to extend his empire to the east, which brings him into contact with the growing Persian empire under Cyrus. Cyrus responds by moving into Croesus’ Lydia (now partly Turkey) and conquering not only Croesus, but the Ionian Greeks settled along the coast.

Book 2 is a history of Egypt. It is extensively detailed and some of Herodotus’ comments on the culture, history and geography of Egypt are especially interesting. For example Herodotus hypothesises about the source of the Nile, the size and shape of the world and the whole continent of Africa.  He raises the question of whether it is possible to sail round Africa, and whether anybody had, recounting a story of men who found the sun rising on the wrong side of their boat as they journeyed on. Herodotus is sceptical about this, but it rings true to a modern reader.

Books 3 and 4 describe the growth of the Persian empire, including the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses, and excursions to the north into Scythia by Darius. Here myth and legend again become inextricably linked as factual knowledge about these northern areas was quite scarce. In books 5 and 6 Herodotus describes Darius’ excursion into Europe. This is in the end a failure. The Persians are expelled, and Darius dies before he can organise another expedition, leaving Xerxes to take over the reigns in books 7 to 9, which detail the events of his campaign.

The Landmark Herodotus is a clear presentation of this history. There is a series of detailed maps and footnotes so that with patience the reader can follow the progress of the armies, and discover the different parts of the world subject to Greek and Persian influence. Following Xerxes progress around the coast of the Aegean, or looking at the different parts of Asia subject to Persian rule was fascinating. I have to say that I’m a sucker for these kind of maps which have no real practical purpose or use – as one of my sons says, they are just cramming my brain with useless information!

There are several appendices to The Landmark Herodotus, and these fill in the gaps in Herodotus’ account, for example describing Spartan life and culture in detail, looking briefly at key dialect issues or considering the accuracy of Herodotus’ portrayal of Egypt. I mostly skimmed through these. There are also illustrations in black and white showing ancient implements or weapons, or presenting diagrams and illustrations of, for example, fortifications. These are all interesting.

For the more casual reader each section is accompanied in the margin by a clear and brief summary of its contents , and many students would benefit from, and even rely on this, as it allows the reader to quickly skim sections and retrieve significant information. The histories are also divided into numbered sections which allow the reader to identify footnotes with ease.

The Landmark Herodotus was a gift, and not a book I would have chosen myself, being rather academic and of quite a daunting length. It’s not without fault – some footnotes are missing and it was quite fun to notice these – what a geek I am!

Nevertheless it’s a great resource for any student of the classics, and whilst I wouldn’t recommend everyone to read The Histories word by word as I did, there are certainly many interesting comments and pieces of information. As a landmark document showing the first recorded attempts to offer both a factual history, and a scientific and sceptical account of the Greek world, Herodotus is certainly worth a look!!

In his book Persian Fire Tom Holland offers his account of the conflict between Greece and Persia which he sees as epitomising the great divide between Asia and Europe embodied in today’s clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations. This is a much more accessible version of events, but not to everyone’s taste.


The Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes


The Seven Daughters of Eve was written by Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University.  You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard about some of the projects he’s been involved in, such as the discovery that a Stone Age body found recently in a melting glacier in the Alps has living relatives in Bournemouth, and that a 1000 year old skull in Cheddar Caves Somerset has direct descendants still living in the area – teaching at the local comprehensive school in fact.  Sykes worked on both these projects, and gives full accounts of them in this book.

Sykes moved into the field of human genetics at quite an early point of the development of the subject, when genetic identification techniques were much less advanced than now.  On a year’s sabbatical he was flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne to start the second of two six month placements, and landed on the Cook Islands for a short holiday.

When he broke a bone, his vacation was extended, and this gave him thinking time.  The upshot was that Sykes took blood samples back to Oxford., and carried out genetic testing which proved that the South Sea Islanders had arrived on the Pacific Islands from Asia.  This was surprising as it meant they had sailed against the prevailing winds, and it also confounded the theories of Thor Heyerdahl, who had argued they had come from South America, and reconstructed their hypothetical voyage on the famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.

In this way genetic testing had solved one of the most controversial and problematic questions about human origins and migrations.  Sykes was able to go on and fill in the details of the Polynesian migrations by sampling genetic material from across the Pacific, showing how and at what time different voyages, ending up with the last, to New Zealand, had taken place.  In The Seven Daughters of Eve he sets out to do the same for Europe.

Sykes writes in a very clear and simple style that is easily accessible to non scientists.  He explains complex issues well, limiting the use of mathematics and making do with quite simple diagrams. In this way he is able to tell the personal story of his scientific life, at the same time as describing the growth of genetics as a science and the story of human population diversity.

In the process Sykes explains some of the basic facts about DNA, including the nature of mitochondrial DNA.  He explains why maternal DNA is the most effective for tracing human migrations: mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line, mutations occurring rarely, but on a fairly regular pattern, allowing researchers to estimate the times that population movements took place.  In contrast, nucleic DNA changes at every generation as the sperm and the egg bring together DNA from two different people.

Sykes has the knack of bringing his story to life with real examples.  As well as the two mentioned in paragraph one, both of which hit the news headlines, he also spends time discussing the role of DNA in trying to discover whether any children survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas in 1918, a story that involved genetic profiling of Prince Phillip, a distant relative.  The human dimension is enhanced by his habit of writing the story as if he is thinking through his ideas, so that you are allowed to share his sense of discovery.

This was a fascinating book that combines human interest stories with scientific sleuthing, and has some of the qualities of a good detective novel in places.  The main theme of the book – The Seven Daughter of Eve – is taken up more fully in the last seven chapters, each of which imagines life for one of the seven women at a different time in human evolution.  This was my least favourite part of the book. It’s clear that Sykes is speculating here, and it’s hard not to see this section as a total fiction.  It lacks the hard evidence of early chapters, but at the same time lacks the grit and guts that a real writer of fiction might have brought to the stories.  There was some general interest here, especially with respect to the changing environment during the prehistoric period, and the likely sites of early human activity in Europe, but that could have been explained more concisely.

If you have any interest in recent findings about the history and the migration patterns of mankind, you will probably have come into contact with some of the theories and ideas based on Sykes’ work, and with the work of others in this field.  Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel is possibly the best known, and certainly a fascinating account of the human story.  Alice Robert’s TV programme for the BBC offers a more up to date view and one that is more easily accessible:

The Incredible Human Journey

She also has written a book on this topic, published 10 years after Sykes’ book, and so more up to date.  I might read this too, or find something else on this topic, which I find really interesting, and would recommend.

Evolution, The Human Story

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan


The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a self proclaimed New History of the World which looks at the story of humanity from a non-eurocentric point of view.  Frankopan’s book is about Asia and the Middle East, which he sees as the birthplace and the cradle of civilisation because of their impact on human development and their significance to the human story.

The section about the Roman Empire perhaps sums up Frankopan’s approach most clearly.  Whilst many authors have focused on the rise and fall of Rome, examining the usual sources to give accounts of Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, or to look at the cultural links between Greece and Rome, or at the decline of Rome as a consequence of the arrival of nameless savages from the East, Frankopan’s focus is completely different.  His Rome is always looking East to the traders and riches arriving along the Silk Road: Europe is an accident of Rome’s birth, but its wealth came from Egypt and further afield: the key battles were not the ones against the Gauls, but those against the Persians and the Scythians.  In the end the capital was switched to Constantinople to reflect the importance of the east to Rome.  This was a fresh approach to an old story, and very welcome.

Frankopan sees everything as an adjunct to, or consequence of, events in the East, including ironically the development of Europe and the West since the Reformation.  Claiming that for many Europeans the East is an unknown and mysterious place, he points out that the Middle East and India were the birthplaces of the world’s major religions, and that the East was for long periods the focus of social, political and intellectual development, whilst the West, and especially Europe, was impoverished, backward and isolated from the cultural heart of life.

This is not really a new argument.  It is a common view that Islam protected the cultural legacy of the Classical age during the European Dark Ages, and promoted further discoveries in science, maths and medicine.  But most historians have seen the triumph of the West as the culmination of human history, whilst Frankopan sees it merely as a brief episode, before Europe once again slips into ignominy and relative poverty.

Frankopan shares his extensive knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia, considering an exhaustive range of events and societies, beginning with the development and dissemination of the religious faiths of Buddhism and Christianity, and exploring the spread of trade, ideas, religions and empires across the whole of Asia, including the rise of Islam.  He looks at the links with Russia, and Russia’s growth, and at the impact of the Mongol hordes; he writes about the crusades and the later birth of European seaborne trade, a search for eastern riches that lead to the growth of the West.  He considers the British Empire specifically with respect to the Great Game: the wrangling between Britain Russia and Turkey over Russia’s route to the Black Sea and the Gulf.  He gives an extensive account of the division of the Middle East by the British and French – the Sykes Picot line – and the consequences of this arbitrary division for the modern world.  There are sections on World war 2 and on the growth of Israel.  Finally he takes the argument into the 21st century, with a concluding analysis of the current political situation in the Middle East that is interesting and well informed.

The Silk Roads considers the natural advantages of the East in geopolitical terms: the centrality of the Middle East to various trade routes which contributed to its wealth and consequently its power.  Frankopan comments on the new riches to be found there, and describes the current struggle to wrench these resources away from the rapacious hands of western colonisers.  For him the future of the world is to be found in this wealth which he sees as falling more securely into local hands to the exclusion and long term impoverishment of the West.



Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall


Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was a recommendation from a friend, and a half price offer in the bookshop.  It explores an interesting aspect of theories I had first encountered in Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, the best history book I have read in the past twenty years.

Prisoners of Geography looks at ten maps of the world, offering a brief overview of the impact of geography on the history of the area, and going on to consider the current geopolitical situation, and the likely political developments going forward.

The first map Marshall looks at is of Russia.  He explains the history and the expansion of Russia by claiming that, lacking local geographical features to act as boundaries, the Russian state was forced to find security from invasion by expanding its territory until it reached more defendable barriers, initially in the Ural mountains and the Caucasus.  Marshall goes on to explain Russia’s vulnerability to invasion across the north European plain, and its need to secure a warm water port.  He considers these vulnerabilities to be prime movers in defining Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, and in explaining recent developments such as the annexation of the Crimea, and the support for Syria’s Assad, as well as explaining Russia’s response to the threat that NATO might expand into Ukraine, and its encroachment elsewhere into what was formerly the Soviet Block.

Marshall goes on to look at nine other key areas, considering Europe, Africa, China, South America, North America and the Arctic, which are obviously major land blocks, as well as looking at India/ Pakistan, Japan / Korea and of course the Middle East.  The sections on South America and Africa most clearly depend on some of the key aspects of Diamond’s thesis about human development in the context of world geography: the geographical constraints here are quite obvious and dominate the political environment.  In Africa he talks of the lack of navigable and interconnected rivers, and the lack of deep water ports.  In South America he mentions the lack of good soil, and the geographical boundaries that inhibit trade – high mountains, dense jungle, rivers that do not connect, and a rocky eastern coastline that makes it difficult to link coastal cities in, for example, Brazil.

Marshall’s views about the three main world powers – Russia, China and the USA – are especially interesting. He considers the USA to have been particularly fortunate in its geography, once it had established dominion over the whole of its current territory.  There is easy access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, a natural border to invasion in the south, consisting of desert, and control of the Caribbean through Florida.  He sees the USA as ideally suited for world domination and tentatively contradicts the view that the next century will belong to China.  In his view Russia is condemned to be limited by its geography, and especially by its lack of a warm water port.  Access to the world’s oceans is restricted in three main places – at the Bosphorus, at Alaska and by the gap between Iceland/ Greenland/ UK through which its fleet must sail to reach the Atlantic.  China is developing a navy to challenge the USA and is not constrained by human rights in its geopolitical development, but he considers the dangers of internal turmoil caused by a financial collapse to be very real, and recognises China’s dependence on imported resources in comparison to the USA’s recent development of oil and gas from fracking.

Overall this was an interesting book, and not a difficult read.  For me it was a mixed bag, as a lot of the material was quite basic: if you read a serious newspaper you will be familiar with most of the summaries of recent political history, and you will already know about some of the major geographical constraints placed on continents and nations if you have done any reading on this subject.  However in some areas Marshall did provide new interpretations, and this was especially so for me with respect to his analysis of events in India, Pakistan, Korea and Japan, and in offering a more detailed analysis of African issues than I had read before.


Dynasty – Tom Holland

Dynasty is subtitled The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar.  It’s a very straightforward and clear account of the Roman empire during the hundred years straddling the birth of Christ,  the new starting date for time itself, the shift from BC to AD.

Holland begins with a brief summary of the rise of Rome as a power in Italy, focusing on the issue of fratricide inherent in the founding story of Romulus and Remus, and seeing this as a symbol for the internal strife that was to tear Rome apart at both the beginning and the end of the Caesars’ reign.  He looks briefly at other Romans who achieved high status, such as Scipio Africanus, who came to the fore in the Carthaginian Wars, and argues that as Rome expanded it became almost inevitable that the old republic, based on two consuls holding joint office for a year, would fail.  The distances became too vast, and the challenges of managing the empire too complex.

The shift from Republic to Empire is seen as a gradual and inevitable transition, with Pompey prefiguring Caesar’s rise to power, and the denouement of this particular phase of empire is described in some detail: the famous triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Lepidus, the role of Antony and Cleopatra and the final rise of Octavius.  It’s a well known story, and if you know your Shakespeare, much of it is encapsulated in two of the Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Or try Plutarch’s Lives, which was Shakespeare’s source.

The death of Antony and Cleopatra leads on to the rise of Octavius, known as Emperor Augustus, and from here Holland traces the development of empire through the generations of the Caesars until the death of Nero in AD 68, culminating with the rise of Vespasian, who became emperor in AD 69.

Holland tells this story in three sections, providing three useful family trees, which show clearly the intermarriages and complex relationships in the line of Augustus. He explains the ways that Augustus maintained his hold on power, focusing on his puritanical streak, and his apparent obedience to the Roman gods and to Roman tradition. Augustus was adept at enhancing his own power, becoming at the same time the proponent and the embodiment of Rome’s gods and traditions, and in the end being deified.  Holland shows how Caesar manipulated and intimidated the senate, and describes the way in which the people of Rome responded to him.  He describes the development of Rome and its laws during this period.

The following sections of the book repeat this process in much detail with respect to the Caesars who followed – Caligula and Nero being the most well known.  He writes about the politics of the time, focusing on Rome itself, on the challenges it faced in the far flung reaches of its empire, on its military conquests and on the culture of its people.  We see how events in Germany, where a legion was massacred, and in Britain, where revolt led to many Roman deaths and eventually reprisals on a huge scale, both affected the emperors status and ability to rule, and were used by them to enhance their power.

Tom Holland is a writer I know well, and like.  Persian Fire, Millennium, The Rubicon and In the Shadow of the Sword: I’ve read them all.  Classical history, the history of ancient empires has always been an interest.  As a child I enjoyed classical antiquity because it’s often about military conquest and because it links geography and history.  The sweep of empires and civilisations provides a good story and generally the pernickety details are avoidable – the dates and names of kings which typify British history for example.

In time the influence of this period on modern civilisation became an interest that went beyond wars and battles.  Civilisation was formed here, genuinely. Democracy began in Athens, whilst the development of two power centres, which was the Romans’ practical response to tyranny, is at the heart of modern democratic structures.  Religion developed through this time, events in Israel giving rise to the three religions of the Word, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There are political similarities with today that are fascinating, and should not be ignored: the way rulers manipulate large populations is not very different in ancient Rome from today – circuses and bread, oratory and tradition.

Tom Holland writes well. Though some people criticise his style, I find it interesting.  He often develops broader ideas from specific examples which he brings to life in quite dramatic language.  At times perhaps he overdoes that poetic description.  Holland often puts himself in the shoes of his protagonists, explaining things from their viewpoint, or showing elements of their ignorance or their blinkered perspective.  He is not averse to some of the tricks of the fiction writer, using flashbacks at the beginning of chapters, or fleshing out the details of historical figures in ways that can only be based on his imagination.  He generally doesn’t brook or consider alternative explanations or possibilities, rushing ahead with his narrative.  I like this approach.  My only criticism would be that at times there are so many details, so many events that they blur into each other, though I blame myself for that, my poor concentration.

I recommend this book as a good general introduction to the Caesars, and an interesting read.



SPQR – Mary Beard


Mary Beard’s recent documentary, Empire without Limit covers much of the same material as SPQR, and it may be that you would prefer this genre to the “textbook” version which I have just completed.  It’s obviously less dense and more visual – multi-media in fact, and so easier to access.  You might want to check it out here, or on Youtube:

Empire without Limit

I’ve been a great fan of the Romans since I was a child when I read and re read my copy of The History of the World – a Christmas present aged about 8 – and particularly, over and over again devoured the fantastic story of the foundation and growth of the Roman Empire.  I still find this era quite fascinating, though possibly for different reasons.

Beard takes an unusual approach, ending in around 200AD (sic) when the Emperor Caracalla chose to make all residents of the Empire into citizens.  This runs against the grain of other histories which often focus on the growth of the Republic, or on the fall of the Empire.

The opening section of the book deals with an episode from the life of Cicero, and uses this to introduce some key ideas about Rome and to show the nature of the evidence we have about Roman history.  This was an interesting opening as it focused on the key historical issue of the reliability of sources, and the idea that history is written by the victors – in this case by Cicero himself.

Next Beard goes on to look at the foundations and early history of Rome, acknowledging the role of myth in this, whilst at the same time searching for the underlying truths and facts.  She then explores the growth of Rome, pointing out the fortuitous and unplanned extension of the empire under the Republic, and considering its downfall in the first century BC (sic).  The final sections deal with the first 14 emperors.  Beard argues that these managed to maintain power in the same way as Augustus, who was the first, and suggests that we should not focus on them as individuals – which is the usual way of historical accounts – for example by Suetonius and in I Claudius.  She claims that what they had in common – the way they ran the Empire and administered their power – was more significant than what made them individuals – their quirks and eccentricities, their cruelties and madness.  In fact Beard queries many of the traditional accounts of the emperors’ lives, suggesting that the image of each was created by the next in line and depended as much on their relationship as on the truth.

Having read widely on this subject before, there were parts of the book which were less novel and interesting, but even in these sections Beard is informative and detailed.  Some of the most interesting sections come when she looks closely at the writings of Cicero and the Plinys: here Beard is detailed and knowledgeable in a way I could never be, having no Latin.  Her accounts are illuminating, especially on the way the Empire was run and the relationship between Pliny, the bureaucrat, and Trajan, his emperor.  The final sections deal extensively with daily life in the Empire.  Rome was primarily, for the historians, a military empire – think Julius Caesar and his The Conquest of Gaul.  The writings of politicians have survived alongside this account of Caesar’s war, but there are fewer examples of writing by ordinary Romans.  Beard makes extensive references to varied sources including wooden tablets with faint scratched messages, tombs from around the empire and graffiti on the walls of Pompey and elsewhere.

I suppose these last are most surprising and support the general thread of Beard’s argument which is that whilst we did not learn everything from Rome, as a cosmopolitan Empire it had faced so many of the problems and experiences that characterise our own world – problems to do with government and democracy, dictatorship, revolution and the role of the citizen – that we can benefit from having an ongoing conversation with or about it.

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!