Shakespeare was a typical man of his age – except for the ways in which he was utterly unique.
As usual, George Bernard Shaw said it first and got it right: “Everything we know about Shakespeare,” he pointed out, “can be got into a half-hour sketch.”
Jonathan Bate begins his new book, Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by acknowledging this truth. We know so little about the man (outside of his texts – assuming that they really are his) and that little has been worked over relentlessly for centuries now. Is there really anything more to be said?
The answer is yes, and there will always be. Bate’s approach is to focus on Shakespeare as “the Soul of [his] age” (a line of posthumous praise heaped on Shakespeare by contemporary Ben Jonson.)
In this book Bate (an academic with impeccable credentials as both a Shakespearean historian and critic) considers Shakespeare as a man of his times, focusing on both the ways in which he was shaped by the intellectual currents of his era and the ways in which he stood apart from them.
Setting Shakespeare in historic context, of course, is not a novel idea. But Bate is a skilled guide through complex territory. He knows his history, but even better he knows his Shakespeare and he does a good job of tying the two together.
Bate takes the “unifying image” of his book from Shakespeare himself, considering the Bard at each of the “seven ages” of man spelled out in “As You Like It”: the “mewling and puking” infant, the “whining schoolboy,” the “sighing” lover, the “bearded” soldier, the justice with the “fair round belly,” the “lean and slippered pantaloon,” and finally “the last scene of all.”