Where There’s a Will

Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate

Books Heritage History Literature

If ever an intellectual pursuit courted insanity, it is the biographical study of Shakespeare. The greatest writer in our literature is impossible to know.

The documentary legacy does supply some bald information about his professional and financial affairs, and some bits of gossip about his social and private life. However, it reveals nothing, or anyway nothing reliable, about his personality, or about his friendships, or about his daily habits of existence. The most outlandish theories about the authorship of his plays, and the wildest claims about his career, endure because the evidence is too meagre to disprove them, or to inhibit their proponents from piling speculation on speculation.

His friend and rival, Ben Jonson, in a poem for the posthumous edition of Shakespeare’s works, attests that the engraver of the dome-headed author on the title-page has “hit the face” to the life, but the picture gives no sense of his inner self. No other major literary figure of his era, and none since it, is so inscrutable.

The only way that has been found round the problem – other than the forgery of docu-ments to fill the holes – is to extract evidence of Shakespeare’s life and views from the texts of his plays and poems. It is a doomed enter-prise. Even his ostensibly autobiographical sonnets present a personality so elusive that scholars cannot agree whether it is a man’s or a woman’s love that the poet craves. We do not have a clue who the “Master W.H.” to whom he addressed them was, though, as on all Shakespearian fronts, there has been no shortage of confident answers.

In the plays, by contrast, the characters could not be more vivid. Yet Shakespeare’s entry into their experiences creates its own biographical temptations. I have heard one distinguished historian declare it incon-ceivable that the man who wrote Henry V did not fight in a war, and another wonder whether Theseus’s description of his hounds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream could have been composed by someone who had not hunted. Enoch Powell was certain that the history plays could have been written only by someone who, like him, had been near the centre of power. The trouble is that by the same token Shakespeare must have been a traveller, a sailor, a rambler, a swimmer, an insomniac…

Then there has been the detection of Shakespeare’s opinions. Other playwrights give us characters or speeches that plainly stand, wholly or partly, for the author. We know what Ibsen or Brecht or David Hare think, and what they want us to think. Ben Jonson, whose poem to “My Beloved… Shakespeare” gives Jonathan Bate his title, tirelessly expounded his own views on morality and politics, and saw his plays as vehicles for them. But the infinite variety of Shakespeare’s vision supplies a mirror to any opinion that is placed before it. Michael Portillo sees a Tory Shakespeare in it, Terry Eagleton a Marxist one. There is no end to the religious convictions that have been found in Shakespeare, or to the irreligious ones.

How has Professor Bate, now the author of two substantial biographical accounts of the man, maintained his sanity? Though the book more or less takes us from cradle to grave, it aims not so much to tell a life story as to recover patterns of mind and feeling, both in Shakespeare’s writing and in the world around him, that might have brought his art and life together. No chronicler of Shakespeare has been more alert to the pitfalls. Wittily, he dispatches the theories, which “go in and out of fashion”, that present him as a soldier, or a lawyer, or a schoolmaster, or a poacher. The identification of Master W.H. is “a fool’s game”. “Inferring Shakespeare’s love-life from the plays” is a “game”, too. Not that Bate can quite resist playing it. He has “an instinctive sense” that “the wooer whom Shakespeare most resembles is Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice“. But he knows the difference between instinct and argument.

Given the obstacles, should serious scholars be attempting Shakespearian biography? I think they must. Human curiosity demands that we learn what we can, and that we ask where our knowledge might point. If disciplined commentators such as Bate eschew the speculation that alone can traverse his field, the undisciplined conjecture of others will fill the gap. His method is to probe observantly at the possibilities, with a novel hypothesis here and a refinement of a familiar one there, and to seek the pattern most plausibly compatible with sense and evidence. It is a mark of his incisiveness, and of the liveliness of his prose, that with so few solid facts to lean on he can sustain our attention through more than 500 pages. His vocabulary of qualification – “hunch”, “guess”, “One wonders whether”, “Could it be that”, “Could this be the moment when”, “might just be the missing link”, “we cannot rule out the possibility that” – somehow never palls.

Speculation is not quite his only resource. He finds clues in the very silences of the biographical record. Why did Shakespeare not follow the fashion and write a comedy about city life? His abstinence encourages Bate to explore the thought of Shakespeare as a provincial outsider, uncomfortable in the capital, who from early in James I’s reign may have spent little time there. There is a more conspicuous silence. One reason we know a fair amount about other playwrights of the time is that their writings got them into trouble with the authorities, whose invest-igations left biographical details on record. Shakespeare never got into trouble. Bate notes how, after the accession of King James, the playwright adapted his language to meet the king’s political preferences, among them the wish to unite his Scottish and English crowns. Englishness, the virtue celebrated in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays, yielded the palm to Britishness. In Elizabeth’s reign, we might add, Shakespeare had been free to tease the “weasel Scot”, but under her successor, when Jonson and other playwrights were im-prisoned for mocking the Scottish accents of the royal entourage, he avoided such provoc-ation.

What, if anything, does his prudence dis-close about the opinions of a writer in whom at one point Bate perceives a “conservative” and “traditional” streak, but at another an impulse to “take the commonplaces of the time and stand them on their head”? Whatever political preferences he may or may not have had, Bate sees, he had none of the didacticism that was standard in Renaissance writers. Rather than “imposing views” he juxtaposed “opposing” ones, though Bate’s inference that the playwright favoured “serious debate” among the public, as a stimulus to “free thought”, may be a speculation too far.

To John Milton a generation after him, Shakespeare was a child of nature, “warble his native wood-notes wild”. Bate dissents. He was “a magnificently artificial writer”, who, though no friend to bookishness, brought thought and learning and literary self-consciousness to his art. Bate is at his most assured on the subject where the evidence is most tangible: Shakespeare’s immersion in and reworking of his sources, poetic and historical. To his credit, and the book’s advantage, he also salutes his transcendence of them, in the flight of plays and poems that leave their biographical origins on the runway.