As Kermode remarks, in the real world of Elizabethan England, the usurer Shylock would no doubt "have been an investor in the flourishing corporations, or in the insurance business." Despite some truly catastrophic inflation, a minority of the British were thriving on the back of an expanding empire, enriched by the spoils from plundered Catholic monasteries. Meanwhile, the common people oscillated between starving and rebelling, staggering from one gargantuan food shortage to another.
The Age of Shakespeareis particularly informative about the physical aspects of Elizabethan theater, not just the literary ones. Though the Globe offered its audiences highly sophisticated stuff, it was surrounded by bearpits and mimicked them in its physical structure. The Rose Theatre next door was built on the grounds of a whorehouse. "All around," Kermode comments, "were cardsharps and dicers, con men and money-lenders, roaring boys and roaring girls." Shakespeare's fellow dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who may have been a government spy and closet atheist, was stabbed to death in a nearby tavern. As a probable homosexual, Marlowe risked execution for sodomy. It is possible that the man from Stratford had one foot in this raffish world, while the other foot was firmly planted in the sphere of big business and the court.
Though Shakespeare wrote prodigiously for his own company, he would no doubt have been amazed to know that what he was scribbling would later be regarded as "literature," just as Saint Augustine would have been astounded to be told that he was living in the Dark Ages. Shakespeare seems to have taken no trouble to proofread his plays. It has been estimated that some 3,000 theater scripts were produced in England between the 1550s and the 1640s, many of which, so legend has it, were destroyed by an eighteenth-century cook who used them to make pies. The story gives new meaning to the notion of literary taste.
Having made his pile, Shakespeare bought his father a gentleman's coat of arms, a bogus honor to which the old boy was egregiously unentitled. (There is some evidence that Shakespeare senior was a closet Catholic, and some scholars believe that junior was as well. Kermode himself remains unconvinced that he spent some of his youth in a kind of Catholic underground.) Shakespeare's steady progress up the social scale wasn't at all bad for a theatrical profession whose members had been lumped by the law with whores and vagabonds only a few years earlier, and who could still suffer the odd cold blast of disfavor from the Puritan city fathers. The Puritans disliked the theater because they feared that it would spread immorality, public disorder and sickness. The latter was a real anxiety in an era of smallpox, malaria, bubonic plague and a positive rash (if that is the right word) of sexually transmitted diseases. As for immorality, the sight of beardless boys dressed as women making love to men in public was not considered especially desirable by the Elizabethan equivalents of Pat Robertson.
The Age of Shakespeare is a marvelously compact account of the man and his social context. It packs into its brief compass some astute commentaries on the plays, and weaves together the theater, London life, high politics and acting techniques. Kermode writes a supple, lucid prose, with a touch of the English gentleman; he is good-humored, self-effacing, wears his erudition with ease and is too courteous to be polemical. The only mildly alarming feature of the book is that it appears in a series that also includes Bernard Lewis on the Holy Land. Perhaps the commission for the volume on democracy will be offered to Saddam Hussein.