By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

1. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. xv-12

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareIntroduction; First Age: Infant, Chapter 1, Stratford 1564
The structure of the book is based on Jaques's speech from As You Like It on the seven ages of man: "the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms"; "the whining schoolboy"; "the lover, / Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress' eyebrow"; the "soldier, / Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard"; "the justice, / In fair round belly with good capon lined"; "the lean and slippered pantaloon"; and "second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

As for the thesis of this "Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare," as the subtitle has it, it lies in Ben Jonson's encomium in the First Folio, proclaiming Shakespeare "Soul of the age." Bate explains that "The Elizabethans regarded the soul as 'the principle of life':  through his works, Shakespeare gives life to his age." Bate aims "to observe the interplay of his mind and his world." And by structuring his book on the seven ages, he intends to takes us through "survival and environment for the infant, book learning for the schoolboy, the nature of sexual desire for the lover, war and social unrest for the soldier, law and politics for the justice, wisdom and folly for the old man, the art of facing death for the age of 'oblivion.'"

But while the seven ages are sequential, that doesn't mean that the narrative of the book necessarily follows "the deadening march of chronological sequence that is biography's besetting vice." Because his work constantly reexamined the various stages of life, "Shakespeare licenses us to look backward and forward through his life as we try to read his mind and discover the senses in which he was soul of the age."
An accurate triangulation of the life, the work, and the world must ... look for traces of cultural DNA -- little details such as a reference to Warwickshire or the knowledge of a particular school textbook -- and must be prepared to make surprising connections in the style of Shakespeare's own inventive metaphorical imagination.
So we begin with his christening on April 26, 1564. Bate notes that "In Shakespeare's England, birth and death went cheek by jowl." During the year 1564, the deaths recorded in the register at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, multiplied tenfold: "There were no more than twenty deaths in the first half of 1564, well over two hundred in the second." The population of the town was about 1,500, "so more than one in seven were taken in those few months of devastation." It was the plague, "the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare's] life and those of his contemporaries."

Crowded London, far more than rural Stratford, was where the plague hit hardest, not only in mortality but in its effects on Shakespeare's career. "In January 1593, just as he was making his name as actor-playwright, an order went out from the Privy Council" that the theaters should be closed because of the disease. During the year and a half that they remained closed, Shakespeare turned to non-dramatic verse. In April 1593 he published Venus and Adonis, which attracted the attention of the literati. It was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who became his patron. Shakespeare followed it the next year with The Rape of Lucrece. "There is a strong possibility that Shakespeare spent part of the plague year in some form of service in Southampton's household at Tithfield in Hampshire."
The association with Southampton had three key consequences. It transformed Shakespeare from jobbing playwright to courtly poet, marked him out as the crossover man who could appeal equally to penny-paying groundlings and powerful courtiers or even the queen herself. Politically it brought him into the orbit of the earl of Essex, to whom young Southampton was devoted.... And intellectually, it introduced him to the work of the Anglo-Italian man of letters John Florio, Southampton's tutor, through whom he was exposed to Italian culture and, later, the essays of Michel de Montaigne, whose subtle, sympathetic mind was perfectly attuned to his own. 
When the theaters reopened, he wrote "the dazzlingly intellectual (Florioesque) Love's Labour's Lost, the miraculously imaginative Midsummer Night's Dream, and the quicksilver Romeo and Juliet." But the plague influences even these plays: It prevents Friar Laurence's letter from reaching Romeo, and the escape of the well-to-do from plague-ridden London into the country is echoed in Love's Labour's Lost. "As A Midsummer Night's Dream counterpoints city and court (Athens) against green world and fairy lore (the wood), so Shakespeare always moved between two worlds: London for business and busy-ness, Stratford for home and rest." Shakespeare knew Horace's "distinction between negotium (social, mercantile, legal, and political transactions, the pursuit of wealth and power), always associated with the great city of Rome, and otium (peace, pastoral idleness), found on his country farm." It was plague that often determined when Shakespeare would be in London's world of negotium or Stratford's environment of otium.

The infant Shakespeare probably mewled and puked in his mother's arms rather than those of a wet nurse. His mother, born Mary Arden, had borne two children who died in infancy before the third, William, survived. His father, John Shakespeare, had been a farmer in the village of Snitterfield but moved into the town of Stratford where be became a successful glover and wool-dealer. He also made his mark in local government, first as a "conner," an ale-taster who served as a witness when people took brewers to court to complain about the quality or quantity of the ale they sold. He became, successively, a constable, an "affeeror" who levied fines in the court, a burgess, a borough councillor, and at the time of William's birth was the town chamberlain, the keeper of accounts.

One of the entries in the Stratford accounts in the winter before Shakespeare was born was a payment of two shillings for whitewashing the images on the wall of the Gild Chapel. The walls had been covered with frescoes depicting "St. George and the dragon; the murder of Thomas Becket; local saints and English heroes; and, above the arch of the nave, a great cross, the risen Christ, and the Last Judgment." The Protestant reformers had taken to heart the biblical condemnation of graven images. "With a bucket of whitewash, and a two-shilling bill to follow, workmen covered over all these images, obliterating the signs of a shared faith and folk memory."
After the plague, the Reformation is the second great shadow cast across the moment of Shakespeare's infancy. He lived between the two great cataclysms in English history: the break from the universal Roman Catholic Church and the execution of King Charles I. His plays were made possible by the first and helped to create the conditions that brought about the second.
Up till this moment, English drama had consisted largely of "the cycles known as miracle or mystery plays, dramatizations of biblical stories." But the Protestant rejection of the Catholic doctrine underlying these plays led to their demise. "As the frescoes were whitewashed in the Stratford Gild Chapel and the heads knocked off statues in churches across the land, so the Chester plays were performed for the last time in 1575.... Young Shakespeare might have caught a glimpse of ranting Herod in one of the last performances of the Coventry plays, which annually until 1579 brought thousands of spectators from across the region into Coventry on the feast of Corpus Christi."

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