Friday, March 18, 2011

A sonnet is a crystallization of the emotion of a moment

I'm still making my way through Jonathan Bate's very dry Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare.  I said in my other post about this book that I was going to read an age in this book, read  a different, interesting book, come back to tackle another Shakespearean age*, etc. I hate stopping a book in the middle and besides, this was a gift from Boyfriend, so I'm going to be able to say I tried. I spared you a post after reading the Schoolboy, which is, I'm sure, super interesting if you're familiar with Latin.  Especially Latin puns.

The Lover has started off on a stronger foot than Infant and Schoolboy.  It begins with a story about Elizabethan condoms as invented by Gabrielle Falloppio, he of the fallopian tubes. Really, it's this line that got me: "Known colloquially as an overcoat, the device was eight inches long and tied at the base with a pink ribbon to make it more acceptable to women" (149).  Oh Fallopius, always thinking of the ladies.  This section is helped along by the fact that I'm extraordinarily immature.  And thus to we segue into Shakespeare's home life, marriage and 3 kids before the age of 21, and his depiction of love and lust in his plays and sonnets.

Perhaps because the topic itself is more based in human emotion than a recitation of the Latin and Greek history Shakespeare would have received, I've been more drawn into this age. Or perhaps the references are clearer to me. The entire book thus far seems to require the reader to already be familiar with not only Shakespeare's life and works but also others plays, poems and general life of this time. I am not well-versed enough to follow some of the references and allusions used in the first to ages but apparently I've taken enough Shakespeare and 16th Century Lit classes that the Lover made sense to me.

Bate blends Shakespeare's history, general history of the time and Shakespeare's work to put together a biography. He's not looking at Shakespeare's work as autobiographical, but simply to find parallels between the Elizabethan age and the plays and sonnets.

The Lover is split up into three parts: we start, as I mentioned before, discussing what is known about Shakespeare's own married life. Bate looks at statistics from the time to see the average age of a first marriage, the stigma, or indeed lack of, surrounding pregnant brides and the actual court records and marriage license of a William Shaxpere and Anna Whateley.

Next up comes the Bawdy Courts which were essentially the Real Housewives of Elizabethan England. A woman's reputation was the most valuable thing she had and these courts gave her the chance to defend herself when called things like "maggoty whore," "tinker's trull," "common as a barber's chair" (168) and other names that are even more fun. Bate connects the Bawdy Courts with the court scenes in his plays.

Lastly there is The Perplexities of Love, which examines the sonnets, their historical Petrarchan position and use in the royal courts. This section contains a lot less name calling and syphilis remedies but I liked this section the best. It looks at how other poets of the time used sonnets, especially the blason, and how Shakespeare turned the traditions on their head ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" Sonnet 130).

I'm still going to take a break and move onto a different book after each age. I liked this one but I've been hurt by the previous two. But I'll keep coming back to this until it's finished. I'm not sure it that's tenacity or just plain stubbornness.

*The book is divided up in the ages from Jacques' "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It. In case you're unfamiliar, it is Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Solider, Justice, Pantaloon, Oblivion.

Title quote from page 187

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