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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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Bate's narcissism, explicit in this statement, is elsewhere implicit--as perhaps it must be, given the scope and ambition of his project. A similar hubris infects Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt's recent account of the dialectical relationships between Shakespeare's life, work and times. Like Bate, Greenblatt notices that Shakespeare's father, acting as chamberlain in Stratford-upon-Avon, oversaw the "reparations" of the Gild Chapel--meaning that its medieval frescoes were whitewashed in accordance with the new Protestant regime. Then, through a sequence of insinuations too intricate to describe, Greenblatt proposes that John Shakespeare remained, despite his official duties, a Roman Catholic. The proposition leads to a question: "Did John Shakespeare's eldest son know the truth?" This question breeds another: "Could he have been sure which was the 'real' father?" The second question provokes a supposition: "He might have sensed that his father was playing a part." The suppositions multiply: "He might have overheard whispered arguments between his father and mother and observed furtive acts." And the suppositions are crowned with an observation that is, in itself, undeniably true: "Shakespeare's plays provide ample evidence for doubleness."

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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However outlandish the argument, Greenblatt's book is a pleasure to read--in part because of the outlandishness. His webs are spun on the grandest scale, stretched suspensefully over many pages of extended observation and analysis. Reading them, one feels one's resistance to the method overwhelmed by the ingenuity of the argument and the sheer delight of vividly rendered detail. The power of the book lies in the almost absurdly sustained length of its game of "what if," a game that any artist would have to admire.

To say that the design of Bate's book undermines the possibility of such pleasure is not simply to dress up preference as judgment. Throughout the long section on Shakespeare the Lover, a topic that inevitably invites the most prurient kind of speculation, Bate takes pains to squelch any urge to play "what if." Discussing Shakespeare's sonnets, he scorns the effort to identify the young man to whom the early sonnets are addressed or the dark lady who invades the later sonnets. "It may be granted that we would be on fairly safe ground in assuming that Shakespeare's 'dark lady' is not an allegorical representation of King's College Cambridge," says Bate with clarifying hyperbole, "but we cannot rule out the possibility that she is not so much a real person as an embodiment of Venus. Or that she is Shakespeare's conceit and portends nothing beyond her reality in the text itself."

This prudence is justified, but it stands curiously at odds with sentences like this one: "I have an instinctive sense that the wooer whom Shakespeare most resembles is Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice." There's no evidence for such speculation, and without the amplitude of Greenblatt's argumentative extravagance, this small extravagance falls flat. "We must tread carefully here," cautions Bate in a discussion of Shakespeare and venereal disease, but his brief discussion culminates in this admonition: "we cannot rule out the possibility that [Shakespeare] became infected himself. King Lear's disgust at his daughters does seem a little overfixated on the female genitals as the source of universal corruption and damnation." But might not King Lear, like the dark lady of the sonnets, portend nothing beyond his reality in the text? Must his sexual disgust be Shakespeare's?

Listen to the end of Lear's speech about female sexuality:

       Down from the waist
They are centaurs, though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends':
There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous
 pit: burning, scalding, stench, consumption.
 Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!

"Lear's disgust," says Bate of this passage, "is such that in the final lines he cannot maintain the equilibrium of his iambic pentameter verse--the speech collapses into prose." And the implication is that Shakespeare, the maker of those pentameters, was similarly overcome. But while the final lines of this speech are set down as prose in the 1623 folio text of King Lear, they are set as iambic pentameter lines in the 1608 quarto text. Two compositors set the language down in different ways, and we have no way of knowing which version is correct (if either of them is) or if Shakespeare preferred one version to the other. Bate's argument about the psychological ramifications of a poet's formal choices would seem corny even if we could be certain that Shakespeare wanted the passage to degenerate into prose.

At moments such as these, Bate seems like the victim of his book's organization. Later, in a brief discussion of Shakespeare's relationship to Stoic philosophy, he discusses King Lear again, forcing himself to admit that "Lear's words may not, after all, come from some personal disgust at women on Shakespeare's part." But if that's the case, why offer the slapdash biographical argument at all? It's as if Bate, having made a few interesting observations about sexuality and venereal disease, feels that he has only another ten seconds to finish this bit of analysis before charging on to the next: the rush forces him into an unimaginative sort of analysis that he elsewhere disdains.

"Where are the truly happy marriages in Shakespeare?" he asks. That's a provocative question, one worth pondering, but there's no time for pondering, so Bate simply points to a well-known passage in Coriolanus in which the character Aufidius admits that he takes more pleasure in dreaming of wrestling with Coriolanus than he took on his wedding night:

  But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold...thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me:
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.

"The imagery here is, to say the least, suggestive," says Bate. End of section. Time to move on. The dark lady of the sonnets may be nothing but Shakespeare's imaginative confection, but if a man is capable of imagining homoerotic desire, then, well, you know, that's suggestive.

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