Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

I've finally finished Jonathan Bate's Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. I started the book sometime back in March and expected it to take about a week, maybe more. But no, that was not to be. The book is divided into the ages of Jacques' speech from As You Like It and after making it through the intro and the Infant, I was drained. There is so much dry, Elizabethan history to make it through that I needed a break. And so I've been reading an age in this book and then switching to a different book, repeat, repeat until Soul of the Age is done.

Here's the thing; the book isn't bad. I'd like to think if it was just awful I wouldn't have put myself through it. It was dry at points (a lot of points) and it was academic and difficult but not bad. Do I want to go back and do it again? No, but I'm happy I finished it.

At the end of the book Bate says his "aim throughout this book has been to explore Shakespeare's wit in the full sixteenth-century sense of the word" (407) which I suppose he did and although it would take someone smarter than me to realize that from the start. I didn't realize that was the goal or purpose of the book until I made it to page 407 and he told me. Bate provides lots of examples of Shakespeare's contemporaries praising him for his wit above all else and that at that time wit "referred to the mind as the seat of consciousness and thought" (406) so this complement is of the highest esteem. The one thing that I didn't feel like I ever got is a "biography of the mind of William Shakespeare" as promised in the sub-title of the book. The book never really felt like a biography and instead it was like a series of loosely connected essays looking at specific aspects of Shakespeare's plays and how they fit into the historical context of 16th century England.

I'm having trouble thinking of more to say. I think I'm a little burned out from reading this and at this point I've said what I can. I wouldn't recommend this for the casual Shakespeare reader, and the more you already know about Latin, Elizabethan England, Senecan tragedy and the likes the better you'll be. If you're a big Shakespeare nerd as well as an academic nerd and you feel like challenging yourself, go for it. I know this was over my head at many points but I'm still glad I finished it and hopefully I learned something new that will come to me once my head stops spinning.

If you're curious about my other posts about this book, you can find them here:
All the world's a stage
A sonnet is the crystallization of the emotion of a moment

Title quote from page 375, taken from Jacques' speech

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