There are devotees of Wagner, Madre Teresa, and Cristiano Ronaldo; my fate has been Shakespeare.
“I like to think that Shakespeare would have adopted a similar procedure if he had been commissioned to write his own biography,” says Bate. Uhm…Really? Narcissism on Bate’s part? Maybe only someone with Bate’s background would be able to tackle a project of this magnitude. The “seven ages” approach allows Bate to make absorbing inferences about Shakespeare’s life, motives, and work, while being cognizant of the speculative nature of his endeavour.
This was one of the books that slipped through my fingers when it came out in 2009.
What did I love the most about Bate’s book? His ability to go on tangents, but not going too far off topic. His inclination to ramble needs to be balanced with editing, basically. His tendency is to go way too far … He loves the Proustian, circling sentence. But that’s this ability that makes it a joy to read him when it comes to writing about Shakespeare. One gets so immersed in this way of writing that sometimes it’s difficult to come out of it to breathe…His writing is not about soundbites, like much of writing about Shakespeare. Bate’s was able to throw light into the extraordinary effect that Shakespeare’s works have had on us and on other creative artists down the ages.
This one of the few books about Shakespeare wherein I was able see him as one of the many writers in 16th/17th Century England. Immersion is the keyword here. All those little details about Shakespeare's England, allowed me to place him firmly in his time: on top of that, the book works well also when it shows him to be a chronicler of his time. I've always thought about Shakespeare as being perhaps not just the best writer of our times, but also as the best mirror to his own (and our) time, without blocking the view with his own image. I've written extensively about this elsewhere. Shakespeare is within his world, and yet surprisingly intellectually and philosophically detached from it; his work can show it to us, and paint a picture of our human nature, and yet it does not include his own views and preferences in it.
Bate's discussion of love in Shakespeare (the sonnets in particular; I'm thinking of re-reading Vasco Graça Moura's bilingual edition, just to refresh my memory, and enjoy two wonderful poets communicating with each other), is one of the best I have ever read, his digression on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives if one wants to know where Shakespeare learned about Roman history (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus), his take on the importance of Ovid’s storytelling ability to Shakespeare’s own writing (using Bate’s words, Shakespeare “filched” some of Golding’s linguistic jewels from the English version), his brilliant analysis of how King Lear enacts a criticism of traditional rationalistic tenet on the subject of suffering is nothing short of masterful, his reading on Montaigne, "True translation, Montaigne implies, is an art less of philological exactitude that of creative conversation. The true translator 'ins' or enters the imagination of the foreign author in order to convey the 'idea' of him (in the platonic sense of the word), while at the same time he produces 'closely-jointed' sense and pithy phraseology that is worthy of his own language.” (Vasco Graça Moura once again comes to mind, when I think about his renderings into Portuguese from German and English), his reading on Hamlet based on Montaigne’s writings, “[sex] is a matter everywhere infused; and a Centre whereto all lines come, all things looke” (I must get my hands on Florio's translation of Montaigne).
The comparison between Lope de Vega and Shakespeare came also as a surprise. Just for this fact alone it was worth reading Bate’s book. He makes a very strong case for the contingencies of life. In another universe should we be talking about a Spanish “Shakespeare” instead of an English one? This is one of my recurring themes when it comes to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s originality was not about voicing the commonplace ideas of his age and reason, but it was all about his invention in terms of turning those “ideas” into literature/theatre.
When I thought there's nothing under the sun, a book like this one comes along. It showed me something different about Shakespeare and his England, even if I thought I'd read most of it before, like I have. Making lush connections between Shakespeare’s plays, what we know of his life, and the beliefs and practices of his 16th/17th century England, Bate comes pretty close to achieving a sense of Shakespeare’s presence as any other biographer ever has. I think I know what Hamlet thinks, but do I know what Shakespeare thinks? As with all good literature, no writer encompasses his or her characters, and no character is its author. The mark of the good writer is his ability to show us very little about the process of internalization. That's Shakespeare for you (or me).
What a wonderful journey it has been that has elated my heart with a mind-boggling imagistic universe. I'll always be keen to admire the worth of Shakespeare and I'll always will be because he always manages to impart all those passionate, dismal, remarkable, foil and melancholy expressions of life that always use to linger in my mind. Bate’s book deeply reinforced this notion of mine.
This year I developed an Android App with the most famous soliloquy of all time: "To Be or Not To Be", and I gave myself the task of memorizing it because I also had a "part" in it. The process was hugely intense, because in order to speak Hamlet's words, I'd to think Hamlet's thoughts, and those are dark thoughts indeed. It was uncanny to consider that these words, written by a man hundreds of years ago, have been repeated somewhere on this planet perhaps every day since. Powerful stuff. Like a virus.
“Read him, therefore, and again, and again.”
NB: John Ward, we’ll never forgive you for not visiting Judith Quiney, Shakespeare’s surviving daughter at the time…Your known diary would have something more to tell us about Shakespeare…