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This Small Extravagance: The Life of Shakespeare's Mind | The Nation

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This Small Extravagance: The Life of Shakespeare's Mind

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About the Author

James Longenbach
James Longenbach’s most recent books are the poetry collection The Iron Key (Norton) and, in prose, The Virtues...

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Artists' lives are not automatically interesting. However wild the nights, an artist's days are dominated by solitary devotion to the medium: the texture of paint, the measure of syllables. Without that devotion, an artist will have no life as an artist. Along with it, an artist may engage in activities whose subsequent availability to storytelling is far more immediate. Arthur Rimbaud had an affair with Paul Verlaine. Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the Ouse. The Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe, who also worked as a government agent, was stabbed to death with a twelve-penny dagger. But such stories, however fascinating, do not tell us what we really want to know--how and why A Season in Hell, Mrs. Dalloway and Tamburlaine got written.

About Marlowe's exact contemporary, a man christened on April 26, 1564, as Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere (William, son of John Shakespeare), we know almost nothing. We do not know his date of birth. We cannot be sure how many plays he wrote, and neither do we know precisely when he wrote the plays that have been preserved. When multiple versions of his plays have come down to us, we cannot know for certain which version is authoritative. Shakespeare may have been a cuckold, a homosexual or a secret Catholic during a time when Catholics were persecuted in England. But the evidence for such conjectures ranges from slim to implausible. Far less precarious is the presumption that, like Rimbaud or Woolf, Shakespeare spent long, unglamorous hours devoting himself to the measure of syllables. As George Bernard Shaw said a century ago, "everything we know about Shakespeare can be got into a half-hour sketch."

Understandably, we want more than that. We want to know how and why Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Tempest got written. We want to know about every imaginable ingredient--social, aesthetic, psychological, physical--that was distilled into this artist's passionate but inauspicious devotion to his medium, a devotion so intense that it permanently altered the medium. Shakespeare coined the word "inauspicious," riffing on the Latin auspicium, the art of telling the future by observing the flights of birds: "And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars." Finally, whether we're fascinated by an artist about whom we know a lot or a little, an artist whose exterior life was brilliant or boring, we want a biography of the mind. In Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, the British scholar and literary critic Jonathan Bate has set himself this challenge.

What does a biography of the mind feel like? Although Woolf's exterior life was plenty interesting and fully documented, the best biographies of Woolf (such as those by Lyndall Gordon and Hermione Lee) read like biographies of her mind, accounts of how and why she wrote the books that made her interesting to us in the first place. This is because Woolf's inner life was as meticulously preserved as her social life; a biographer has access not only to her voluminous letters and diaries but to the intricate and multiple drafts of her novels, manuscripts that help us imagine her devotion to her medium. A biographer of Keats has less to go on, but lives of Keats still feel like biographies of the mind. So do the best lives of Dr. Johnson.

Earlier than that, the going gets rougher and rougher. We know what Milton thought about a lot of things--divorce, the Trinity, king-killing, blindness--but we don't know what Shakespeare thought about anything. The quality of any biography has as much to do with the tact and ingenuity of the biographer as with the available material, but as the quantity and (even more important) the quality of the material recedes, a biographer requires the tact and ingenuity of an artist, especially if the goal is to narrate the inner rather than the exterior life.

Jonathan Bate has written brilliant literary criticism about Shakespeare's plays and poems; his Shakespeare and Ovid is, in addition to being what its title suggests it is, one of the canniest books ever written about Shakespeare's imaginative power. But Bate possesses neither the imaginative power nor the writerly craft essential to the extraordinary challenge he has set himself in Soul of the Age. To say so is not stern criticism. I'm not sure that anyone could meet that challenge, and part of what's perplexing about Soul of the Age is Bate's desire to bury his brilliance beneath a project so blindly ambitious, so wholly incapable of being realized, that it is destined to dissatisfy.

Soul of the Age is not organized as a narrative. Instead, the book is divided into seven large categories of human experience, categories borrowed from Jacques's famous speech in As You Like It ("All the world's a stage") about the seven ages of man: Infant, Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Justice, Pantaloon, Oblivion. Each of these seven categories is divided into several chapters, and most of the chapters comprise a series of very brief analyses of a particular facet of Shakespeare's life and work: the fact that Shakespeare's father oversaw the whitewashing of the frescoes in the Stratford-upon-Avon Gild Chapel, for instance, or the likelihood that Shakespeare learned his Latin from William Lily's Short Introduction of Grammar. Connections between these juxtaposed fragments of analysis, some brilliant, some dull, are left mostly implicit. And chronology does not govern the progression of the fragments: for instance, an uncharacteristically lengthy analysis of The Tempest (the last play Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator) appears in the section on Shakespeare the Schoolboy, since the play has to do with learning of many varieties.

The brilliance of any particular swatch of analysis is due to the manner in which a very large world is seduced from strategically meager evidence; the dullness of too many other swatches seems to be driven merely by the need to flesh out the seven-part schema, regardless of the availability of useful material or compelling argument. Bate says that his method avoids "the deadening march of chronological sequence that is biography's besetting vice," and while that may be true, every method's strength is potentially its weakness. The architecture of Soul of the Age is so atomized, its component parts so brief and so disparate, that the cumulative experience of the book is like reading hundreds of pages of haiku--exhausting, no matter how bright the occasional gem. "I like to think that Shakespeare would have adopted a similar procedure if he had been commissioned to write his own biography," says Bate. This seems to me unimaginable.

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