This Small Extravagance: The Life of Shakespeare's Mind
Soul of the Age is a frustrating book, not simply because it contains these swatches of lackluster argument but because one feels that it didn't need to. For when Bate is good, he is very good. Discussing Shakespeare the Soldier, he offers a fascinating and intricately developed account of the Essex Rebellion (a botched uprising against Elizabeth I's government), debunking the long-treasured notion that Elizabeth was referring to Shakespeare's play when she said, "I am Richard II." Discussing Shakespeare the Schoolboy, he notes that the speech from As You Like It about the seven ages of man is based closely on a passage from a poem by Marcellus Palingenius; then he offers these acute comments on Shakespeare's originality:
Often when we think Shakespeare is being original, he is actually voicing the commonplace thoughts of his age. Where he was unique was in the vigor and invention with which he turned traditional "themes" into living drama. He took Palingenius's hint of linking the succession of ages to the metaphor of life as a play. But he was the first to prove the truth of the metaphor by including the discourse within a play as opposed to a treatise or sermon. He was also the first to assign particular dramatic parts to each age. In all versions, the infant cries. Only in Shakespeare's does it do anything so theatrical as puke--indeed, no writer had ever used the word puke as a verb before.... Instinctively, Shakespeare dramatizes, individualizes, converts archetype into image, idea into action.
This is by no means an unfamiliar argument, but it is expressed here with an economy and precision that makes it feel like news. We feel the force of the lines "the infant,/Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms" because we've been alerted not only to the crucial presence of the verb "puke" but to the fact that this is Shakespeare's word. We feel viscerally that Shakespeare was indeed an artist who converts archetype into image. We feel, however tentatively, that we have discovered something crucial about the mind of this artist, about the way he thought. We want this argument to continue, but all we get is a page.
What did Shakespeare think about thinking? Near the end of The Tempest, when everything finally seems to be going well, the exiled magician Prospero stages a pageant, a play within the play, to celebrate the impending marriage of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand, the prince of Naples. "Let me live here ever," says young Ferdinand. But suddenly the play stops--Prospero has had a thought, one that cannot be ignored: Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are still plotting Prospero's death.
Thought in Shakespeare is what interrupts us, turns us, changes us, makes us move. This is why all the great speeches feel like dramatizations of the mind in motion. And this, in turn, is why we feel so acutely that we know Shakespeare's characters from the inside out, as if we had access to their minds. "Our revels now are ended," says Prospero to the startled Ferdinand after the pageant has evaporated.
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself--
Yea, all which it inherit--shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
What has happened to Prospero's urgency? Rather than running off to subvert Caliban's plot against his life, he ruminates on the illusion he has created, and his thoughts move from the impermanence of artistic creation to the impermanence of human life. Then another thought pierces him:
Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
Does Prospero need to take a stroll because he's upset about Caliban? No, that thought has passed, like the pageant it interrupted: instead, Prospero has been shaken by his unexpected thoughts about his own mortality. Who could have seen it coming? More than anything, Prospero's thoughts have been undone by thought itself, the mercurial process through which the beating mind makes itself known over time.
Shakespeare's genius was his ability to fasten that process to the page, syllable by syllable, so that by attending the theater we might learn to recognize the sound of our thinking. You will learn a thing or two worth learning from Bate's Soul of the Age, but to remember what a great biography of the mind might feel like, listen to Prospero, Hamlet and Lear.