Monday, March 7, 2011

All the world's a stage

I'm a bit of a Shakespeare fan. I've taken a number of Shakespeare classes in high school and college, I go to see the plays when I can and I've managed to accrue a decent library of books about the man and his work. I've even blogged about Shakespeare related works a couple times* and I'm about to add another book to that list: Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate.

What can this biography tell me about Shakespeare's life that the others (Will in the World by Greenblatt, The World as Stage by Bryson, Reduced Shakespeare by Reed and Tichnor) leave out?  Probably nothing. Shakespeare didn't leave a lot to go on so most biographies are about 10 pages of fact and then a lot of speculation. That (obviously) doesn't stop me from reading them! Bate decides to explore the seven ages as described by Jacques in As You Like It to explain the soul and mind of Shakespeare. The biography will not necessarily go in chronological order, so the "schoolboy" age includes both Shakespeare's time at King Edward's Grammar School but also jumps to a discussion about Prospero from The Tempest.  Bate explains "Because of the power of memory and imagination -- two of Shakespeare's greatest gifts -- the mind does not obey the same rule of time as the entropic human body" (xviii).

Bate does acknowledge that you can't read the plays or sonnets as autobiography but that clues hidden within the text can help shine light on the man. When he does this, connects the plays to parts of Shakespeare's history, the text comes to life. I want to keep reading, to find out more. However, this type of analysis requires a lot of research, and unfortunately it appears Bate wanted to make sure you knew just how much research he did because he often goes off on tangents that are so marginally connected to Shakespeare you could skip that and not be missing anything about the man. I like the connection between Shakespeare's son-in-law, the doctor John Hall, and the change  in tone Shakespeare takes towards doctors, from the comedic to dignified, in his plays. What I don't like or particularly need are examples of Hall's recipes for enemas. The problem is there are a lot of moments like this, and I find myself checking how many pages are left or staring out into space instead of, you know, reading. So here's what I'm thinking:

I'm going to continue to read this book. However, I'm going to read other things in between because this is just not sucking me in. My plan is to read one stage of life, read a different book, come back and read another stage of life, then a different book and so on and so forth. If suddenly Soul of the Age changes direction and really grabs hold of my attention, I'll keep reading it. So far that hasn't happened, but I'm not giving up!

As it stands I've finished stage one: Infant. When Bate talked about Shakespeare, it was good. When his writing wandered from the topic, my mind wandered from the book. I hope the other stages are more interesting, but I'll find out after I read something else.

Title quote is from As You Like It

Bate, Jonathan. Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. Random House, 2009.

*If you want some more Shakespeare related posts I've done
Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged - I think you showed a lot of heart, a lot of courage, a lot of -- as Shakespeare would say -- "chutzpah"
Othello - The Law of Transitives and...Othello?
My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare - [Maybe] I'll find the meaning of life in a sonnet
Fool - We're all Fate's bastards
Favorite Shakespeare Quotes