Soul of the Age - the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare

Jonathan Bate

There is no doubting the scholarly skills of Jonathan Bate, Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at Warwick University as well as chief editor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works.

Throughout this book, he offers new insights into Shakespeare's work and the times in which he lived. His real goal though is to combine the two in an effort to conjure up a fuller portrait of a great man whose life is shrouded in mystery.

The framework that Professor Bate chooses is Jaques' seven ages of man speech from As You Like It. Each period of life represents a theme from which he branches out, having very clearly spent years researching his subject. It is worth listing the seven ages, since this aids understanding of the book. In the author's eyes, they are infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and oblivion.

While this sounds as if it must result in a chronological biography of the Swan of Avon, that is not how it comes out.

The ages are used as starting points to explore the explosive age (the gunpowder plot was just one potential rebellion amongst many in this era) in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and the writings from which we are potentially able to learn at least a little more about the man.

Eventually, four different strands emerge:

  1. Elizabethan/Jacobean history domestic and international;
  2. Local history centred on the areas where Shakespeare lived;
  3. The writers that provided sources for the canon;
  4. His own life drawn from writings both by and about this perennially elusive subject.

At times, the research can overtake the storytelling. One example is in the section on love when the Professor goes to remarkable trouble to prove a number of theories about the poetry, the period and the people involved.

He has also almost certainly explored the connections between the writings of Montaigne and Shakespeare's work to the very limit.

At other times, Jonathan Bate deftly analyses Shakespeare's writings, putting them into historical and political context and theorising adventurously, sometimes totally plausibly and at others seemingly with little more than a hope and a prayer. In particular, the connection between the politics of the time and the writing is well drawn out. A compelling case is also made to debunk the theory that Shakespeare retired to his home town for the last five or so years of his life.

Soul of the Age is ultimately a book written more for those interested in studying William Shakespeare and the times in which he lived than as a biography for the general reader. It comprises a mixture of academic lectures and papers with new research and sometimes sparkling writing when the author gets the bit between his teeth after some clever piece of detective work.

This means that those tempted to pick it up and dip in might well find themselves thoroughly entertained by a story or two that they have never heard. With such a well studied topic, that must be regarded as great praise.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher