First, I must admit that it was not quite the “scholarly” tome which I was expecting. It was, however, a most interesting look at how this world-class scholar got involved with the study of various things Shakespearian and how the pursuit of Shakespearian knowledge has impacted his life (and, I presume) continues to do so. The publisher’s description on the book jacket is quite nice, so I’ll repeat most of it here:
From the acclaimed and bestselling biographer Jonathan Bate, a luminous new
exploration of Shakespeare and how his themes can untangle comedy and tragedy,
learning and loving in our modern lives.
‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.’
How does one survive the death of a loved one, the mess of war, the experience of
being schooled, of falling in love, of growing old, of losing your mind?
Shakespeare’s world is never too far different from our own, permeated with the
same tragedies, the same existential questions and domestic worries. In this
extraordinary book, Jonathan Bate brings then and now together. He investigates
moments of his own life – losses and challenges – and asks whether, if you
persevere with Shakespeare, he can offer a word of wisdom or a human insight for
any time or any crisis. Along the way we meet actors such as Judi Dench and Simon
Callow, and writers such as Dr Johnson, John Keats, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath,
who turned to Shakespeare in their own dark times.
This is a personal story about loss, the black dog of depression, unexpected journeys
and the very human things that echo through time, resonating with us all at one
point or another.
In any case, while reading the book, a number of quotes, struck me as of particular interest, so I thought I would write a post including some of them with a brief discussion as to why I found them to be of particular interest to me. So, here goes….
I have always had a problem with King Lear. While I recognize the many great qualities of the play, I have never been able to quite see my way to “enjoying” a play which deals with so much darkness of soul, stupid behavior on the part of one who is presented as a noble leader, and ends with the death of about the only truly good person at the hands of great cruelty. Okay, if that makes me something of a Romantic, I can live with that.
On the other hand, Bate points out that even Dr. Samuel Johnson, the rather well respected man of letters and NOT a “Romantic,” didn’t care for it very much either.
… Dr Samuel Johnson confessed that even reading the play was almost too much
to bear: I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not
whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to
revise them as an editor. The shock for Johnson was both emotional and moral. The
death of Cordelia - Shakespeare's boldest alteration of the older versions of the Lear
story, in all of which the beloved youngest daughter survives - was an extraordinary
breach of the principle that Johnson called 'poetical justice', whereby the good end
happily and the bad unhappily. During the 1680s Nahum Tate, author of the hymn
'While shepherds watched their flocks by night', had indeed imposed poetic justice
on the play by introducing a happy ending in which Cordelia is married off to Edgar.
Dr Johnson had some sympathy with this alteration: which held the stage for a
century and a half, whereas for Lamb it was yet one more indication that the theatre
was not to be trusted with Shakespeare's sublime vision of universal despair.” (p. 62)
I confess that such a comment, by such a well-respected thinker, makes me feel a good deal better justified in my own lack of enthusiasm for this “dark” play.
A bit later in the book, while discussing the idea that, in his opinion (which parallels mine), Shakespeare doesn’t let his works become “preachy” in order to teach some sort of lesson. Rather, he suggests, the words are character based; that is, based on the character’s nature, not because Will wanted to make some sort of moral point, as some authors occasionally do. As Bate puts it:
Sermons are intended to give answers to the meaning of life. Plays are there to
pose questions. Like the one that Lear addresses to his dead daughter:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all?
There is no answer to that, which is why the end of King Lear was too much for
Johnson to stomach. (p. 135)
Part of Bate’s book discusses his early education in Shakespeare while in school, even to the point of making it clear that such studies were not necessarily a high point of his young life. Even then, however, he was gaining knowledge which he would eventually put to use in his literary scholarship. For example, as a youngster he and his class went to see a production of Hamlet starring Albert Finney at The National Theatre, which was still housed at the Old Vic in 1976.
I learned only one thing from the production: slow Shakespeare was the kiss of
death to a young audience. Has anyone ever left one of his plays saying, ‘That was
a great production, but I wish it had been longer?’ (p. 146)
Bate doesn’t say, but from the length he describes, the production must have been uncut, an idea of which I thoroughly approve, but which does make for a VERY lengthy performance. It is even widely believed that Shakespeare’s company almost certainly did NOT present an uncut version, and cuts are definitely deemed necessary for the modern theatre.
Hamlet, perhaps my favorite play, is somewhat filled with challenges, however, as Bate points out in describing a school class discussion about why Hamlet was screwed up before he saw his father’s ghost:
The interpretative quotation that generated some discomfort in our class was the
one from Freud about Hamlet's alleged Oedipus complex: he wants to kill Claudius
not because Claudius has killed his father, but because his uncle is in bed with
Gertrude, which is where Hamlet would really like to be himself. I couldn't see
the incestuous desire, but it was obvious that the student prince had a difficult
relationship with his mother. He is broken-hearted, grieving, isolated, indeed
suicidal, before he meets the ghost and finds out about the murder of his father.
That is because while he has been away at university, his mother has married his
uncle with indecent haste. To say the least, she has let his father down. Which is
enough to make Hamlet mad.
And what I could not forgive him for was the way in which his half-real, half-feigned
madness makes Ophelia truly mad. I could not bring myself to sympathize with a
hero who was so cruel to his girlfriend: dumping her, publicly humiliating her with
his coarse jokes about lying between her legs and engaging in 'country matters',
killing her father (albeit in a case of mistaken identity), ultimately driving her to
distraction, to hysterical songs of sexual frustration and to a watery death. (p. 146)
I confess to a rather similar response to the play. While I believe that I have resolved many of the play’s challenges to my own satisfaction, I do not pretend that I am confident enough in my own thinking to want to declare that I have “solved” the riddle of the play, even to my own complete satisfaction. I do, however, truly love it.
I wish to tell one more of Bate’s stories. At some point he was approached by then Prince (now King) Charles, who explained that there were occasional rows between his father and himself over the “true” author of Shakespeare’s plays, and could Bate send him a brief discussion as to why the “Stratfordian” position seemed most acceptable. Having had to discuss this with students in class, I was intrigued by Bate’s summary, which I think may be the clearest I have encountered.
In his will, Master William Shakespeare of Stratford-uponAvon left legacies to his
fellow-actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell. They in turn edited the First
Folio of his collected works, referring there to his writing techniques and their
close friendship with him. The First Folio also includes poems by Ben Jonson
attesting to the authentic likeness of the engraving of Shakespeare on the title
page, to Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and to his coming from Stratford
(Sweet swan of Avon). In both his notebook and his conversations with the Scottish
poet Drummond of Hawthornden, Jonson spoke (sometimes critically) about
Shakespeare, who acted in his plays, as a writer.
Many other contemporaries also referred to Shakespeare as a poet and playwright.
They range from Sir George Bue, Master of the Revels at court, to other dramatists
such as Francis Beaumont and Thomas Heywood, to Leonard Digges, a family
friend of Shakespeare's who was also a writer himself. Shakespeare's monument
in Holy Trinity Church represents him as an author and refers to his literary
greatness. It was seen by a visiting poet soon after his death, negating the claim
of some conspiracy theorists that it was altered at a later date.
How did a man who did not go to university write such 'learned' plays? They are
actually much less learned than the plays of his contemporaries George Chapman
and Ben Jonson, neither of whom went to university. The simple fact is that the
education in Latin language and literature that Shakespeare received at the
Stratford grammar school meant that by the age of twelve he would have had
a command of the discipline as good as that of a university Classics student today.
How did he know about courts, how see into the minds of dukes and kings?
Through his reading and through witnessing the court by acting there. Payments
to him for writing plays for court performance survive in the Chamber accounts
of the royal household. His knowledge of Italy? Better to ask how someone who
had been to Italy could write two plays set in Venice and never mention a canal.
The real questions should be: how could anyone but a glover's son have put in
his plays so much accurate technical detail about leather manufacture and the
process of glove-making? And how could anyone but a professional actor have
filled his plays with inside information about the nitty-gritty of making theatre?
Bate added to this capsule presentation with a brief comment on the “Authorship Controversy” (which I find quite appropriate to what I believe to be an arrogant and snobbish attempt to insist that such great works[some of which really aren’t so great] MUST have been created by an aristocrat because a “commoner” couldn’t possibly have created them. As Bate put it:
The truth of the Authorship Controversy is that it is an offshoot of the cult of
Shakespeare that emerged with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. No one had any doubts about his identity before
then. But once you turn someone into a god, sects and heretics are bound to
emerge. (p. 170)
Needless to say, I agree with Bate and find the “Controversy” to be, at the politest, silly. Yes, there are competent scholars who support some of the many theories as to who “really” wrote the plays of Shakespeare. (Note: There are also people who would appear to have vested interest in “proving” that the “Man from Stratford” didn’t write the plays.)
While it is certainly NOT conclusive, I find the fact that I have been unable to find (I HAVE looked) ANY evidence that anyone had challenged Will Shakespeare of Stratford as being the author of the plays and poems ascribed to him until about 1848. When one considers that Shakespeare had died in 1616, more that 230 years earlier, it would seem that the evidence was unlikely to suggest otherwise. When one considers that and even just the brief summary of the evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship presented by Bate, I think the result is satisfactorily persuading to me.
I won’t pretend that my discussion will resolve this controversy, but until someone can present me with some reasonable, verifiable evidence which contradicts it, I am satisfied with the “Stratfordian” position, as I always have been.
That’s enough of a taste of Bate’s writing, and my related comments. Bate’s Mad About Shakespeare isn’t primarily a scholarly tomb, like some of Bate’s works. I did enjoy it, as you have probably gathered, and I am pleased to suggest it as a rather pleasant read, at least for anyone with an interest in Shakespearian studies, or this interesting person.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with something else, most likely of a less serious note, but I’ll have to see what strikes me at the time I’m drafting something. In the meantime, Have a great start to the new year, enjoy winter as much as possible, don’t hurt yourself shoveling snow, or have a car wreck on icy roads. I’ll be back soon.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows