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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 2 March 2020

"The Genius of Shakespeare" by Jonathan Bate

Bate seems to want to prove that Shakespeare was:
  • not a genius in the Romantic sense of a prodigy, created rather than taught, but a talented Elizabethan grammar school boy whose gift for poetry was fortunately combined with his profession as actor allowing him to improve on the work of others
  • but a genius whose especial gift was for creating complex characters whose qualities were often inconsistent, in part by stripping away the motivations ascribed to the characters in his source-material. These multi-faceted and enigmatic characters enable actors and directors to interpret the plays in many ways (but not in any ways) and this has made Shakespeare's drama adaptable and able to evolve.
The Life
He starts by considering the facts of Shakespeare's life and shows that we know much more about him than the anti-Stratfordians pretend:
  • “In his will the Stratford man left money to buy mourning rings to ‘my fellows, John Heminges, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell’.” (p 69)
  • Ben Jonson “knew Shakespeare intimately ... as both an actor - Shakespeare was in the cast of at least two of Jonson’s plays - and a writer ... he christened him ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’.” (p 69 - 70)
  • “When in 1613 ‘William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon’ ... bought a gatehouse in Blackfriars, one of the trustees he named in the purchase deed was William Johnson, the owner of the Mermaid” where Francis Beaumont, who know of Shakespeare as a writer, drank. (p 70)
  • “William Camden ... describes Shakespeare as a leading writer and answers a complaint about granting a coat of arms to the player by delineating Shakespeare’s Stratford pedigree.” (p 70)
  • “John Davies of Hereford ... published an epigram addressed to Will Shakespeare, which simultaneously alluded to his acting and praised him as a great playwright.” (p 71)
He also finds evidence in the plays. For example, in the Merry Wives of Windsor (A4 S1) “a boy called William is given a Latin grammar lesson by Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh schoolmaster. Was this scene written by an earl such as Oxford who never set foot inside a grammar school in his life?? Or by a man called William who as a boy was entitled ... to attend the grammar school at Stratford-upon-Avon, where there was a Welsh schoolmaster, one Thomas Jenkins? The lesson ... is based on the Latin grammar book that was the standard school test of the period.” (p 8) “Many of the ‘wise saws’ for which Shakespeare’s plays have become so renowned ... can be traced back to the Adagia or comparable textbooks.” (p 10) The Adagia being a collection of the works of Erasmus that were used as a basis for writing exercises in grammar schools. 

In school S would have learned to “take a piece of received wisdom ... turn it on the anvil of your inventiveness, and ... give it new life.” (p 12) This is a pattern for the way S wrote his plays.

He also seeks, as so many do, for the Dark Lady of the sonnets, finding it in the wife of an Italian called John Florio who worked in the household of the Earl of Southampton (and may have been the source of Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian). Florio may have inspired the title of Love's Labour Lost from a passage in a language manual he wrote: “We need not speak so much of love, all books are full of love, with so many authors, that it were labour lost to speak of Love.” (p 55 - 56)

The Sources
Of even more interest (for me, OK, I am a geek) is when Bate discovers sources for Shakespeare's work. For example:
  • “Sir John Falstaff ... dies in Hostess Quickly’s tavern, calling out for sack and remembering a woman called Doll in an uncanny repetition of Greene’s death.” (p 19) Robert Greene, Cambridge MA, one of the ‘University wits’ like Marlowe, who were poets and playwrights, was the one who described Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ for not being university educated and presuming, as a mere actor, to write plays; he died in a shoemaker’s house, his death described by ‘Hostess Isam’ the shoemaker’s wife; on his death bed Greene “called for a penny-pot of Malmsey and then scribbled a letter to his abandoned wife” who was called Doll. 
  • Greene also wrote the novella Pandosto, the source material for The Winter's Tale
  • Shakespeare’s early comedies patterned after the comedies of John Lyly, the “leading writer of comedies” when Shakespeare first came to London. (p 136)
  • Marlowe was both rival and inspiration:
    • Richard II is patterned on Edward II: “The structure of the two plays is identical: the King is surrounded by flatterers and pitted against an assemblage of nobles with vested interests of their own, then isolated and uncrowned, stripped of his royal identity, thus forced to discover his inner self by means of a supple, reflective soliloquy delivered whilst humiliatingly in prison. In each play the Queen is pushed to the margins in part because of the king’s homoerotic leanings.” (p 113)
    • Titus Andronicus is modelled on the Jew of Malta: “Aaron the Moor’s catalogue of villainous misdeeds ... is closely modelled on an exchange between Barabas and his slave Ithamore in which they outdo each other in outrageous ill-doing.” (p 115)
    • Henry V is like Tamburlaine in the story of the conquering King with the weak son. In Henry IV Part 2 Pistol misquotes Tamburlaine’s “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia/ What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?” (when Tamburlaine enters in a chariots pulled by two kings) as “hollow pampered jades of Asia/ Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.” (p 121)
    • When in The Tempest Prospero says “I’ll drown my book” this echoes Faustus: “I’ll burn my books” (p 129)
  • Rosalynd, a 1590 novella by Thomas Lodge, was the model for As You Like It. “It begins with the legacy of a gentleman to his three sons and the ill-treatment of the youngest at the hands of the eldest. The latter plans to do away with his brother by having him killed in a bout with a supposedly invincible wrestler at court; amazingly, though, the youth wins the wrestling match and in doing so attracts the eye of Rosalynd, daughter of the rightful king who has been forced into exile by a usurper. Further schemes against the hero, Rosader, force him to leave home; he goes to the forest of Arden, in company with his faithful retainer, Adam Spencer,; there he meets up with the exiled king and his courtiers.Meanwhile, Rosalynd is banished. Alinda, the daughter of the usurping king, determines to go with her. Since two women travelling alone would be vulnerable, the tall Rosalynd dresses as a boy and pretends to be Alinda’s page; they call themselves Ganymede and Aliena. In the forest they encounter an old shepherd and a young man, the latter complaining about his unrequited love for a shepherdess named Phoebe. The princesses in disguise give financial help to the shepherds; the court-in-exile gives civil welcome to young Rosader and hungry old Adam. The princesses meet up with Rosader, who has been busy writing love poems in praise of Rosalynd. Ganymede pretends to be Rosalynd, so that Rosader can rehearse his wooing of the real Rosalynd ...” (p 141) It is clear that As You Like It was an adaptation of Rosalynd. However, Shakespeare adds the clown Touchstone and the melancholic Jacques, who are probably the keystone characters of the play. (p 142)

MotivelessOne of Shakespeare's peculiarities was the way he tended to strip motive from his source materials:
  • In Twelfth Night Viola chooses to dress in male clothing; in the source this is explained as a result of a near-rape.
  • In The Winter’s Tale, from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the sudden jealousy of Leontes is “better accounted for in the novella”; the ridiculous incident of the statue coming to life is Shakespeare’s invention.
  • In the source for Othello, but not the play, Iago is motivated by his unreciprocated love for Desdemona
  • In King LeirLeir abdicates because his wife has just died ... Leir does not want Cordfelia to marry a foreign potentate and live abroad ... In Shakespeare’s play ... neither the abdication not the staging of the love-test are properly justified.” (p 148)
Bate suggests that this is because of a difference between novels and plays: “Logical plot development and long-term psychological motivation are two of the glories of the novel ... But a play is not a novel. Theatre audiences care not a hoot about Viola’s reasons for dressing as a boy; they are too busy watching her” (p 146) He concludes that this removal of motivation is what gives Shakespeare's characters their power: “The peculiar power of Shakespearean characterization stems from the way in which the motivations that drive his source-narratives are removed. Instead of being predetermined, identity is performed through action. At the same time, a vacuum is created in the space that belongs to motive; spectators and readers rush in to fill that vacuum.” (p 332)

Ambiguity
Bate also suggests that the infinite adaptability of the Shakespearean capacity was the way in which Shakespeare could represent multiple points of view, even those which are oxymoronic.  “Shakespeare was receptive to every mood, every position and disposition: hence the intermingling, the layering and counterpoint, which is one of his stylistic hallmarks. He was receptive to everything but reductive singularity: hence his stripping of unitary motive from such characters as Leontes and Lear.” (p 152) William Hazlitt, reviewing Measure for Measure, said: “Shakespear was the least moral of all writers; for morality ... is made up of antipathies, and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature.” (p 296) “Shakespeare’s greatest cunning is ... he knows that there is more drama in a complex question than a pat answer.” (p 354)

Shakespeare also flouted the rules. Lope de Vega, a contemporary (and perhaps equally great) playwright ecommended “locking away all classical precepts and concentrating instead on pure entertainment for the masses.” (p 339) Shakespearean drama “with its loose and episodic scenic form, its multiple plots, its vertiginous course from tragedy to comedy and back again, its motley assemblages of character, its profligacy of vocabulary and speech idiom, its jumble of verse and prose.” (p 160) repeatedly broke the established rules of the canon. “From a neoclassical point of view, Shakespeare’s verbal inventiveness and his mingling of kings with clowns were unforgivable ‘irregularities’.” (p 165)

Bates illustrates Shakespeare's progress towards rebellion with Romeo and Juliet. Their first speech at the ball is a sonnet: “Romeo speaks the first quatrain, Juliet the second (but picking up on Romeo’s rhyme of ‘this’ and ‘kiss’); the third quatrain is divided between them, then each delivers one line of the closing rhyming couplet. ... Their speaking in a sonnet, the conventional form of courtly love, establishes their relationship in the terms of traditional courtly artifice. Juliet’s unobtainability ... is of a piece with this. ... As then play progresses and the love is intensified, the poetic language is loosened. ... The aubade, in which lovers part at dawn, was another conventional courtly form, but when Romeo looks out on the morning sky, he is no loner impeded by the sonneteer’s rhymes and end-stops.” (p 279) Bates concludes that “Romeo and Juliet was crucial to Shakespeare’s artistic development, because its way of representing the intensification of Romeo and Juliet’s love led the dramatist towards the fluid blank verse that her perfected in his mature tragedies.” (p 280)

I adored this brilliant analysis of Shakespeare's fabulous work.

Other wonderful moments:

  • Ovid would have us believe that one of the functions of love poetry is to persuade people to jump into bed with you.” (p 24)
  • It is not coincidental that British detective fiction came of age ... in the 1860s, the decade immediately after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.” (p 101)
  • The device of overhearing is a stroke of comic genius because it dramatizes one of the chief processes through which comic satisfaction is constituted: dramatic irony, whereby we in the audience know more than the character on stage.” (p 139)
  • It is we in the audience who are really in the position of the gods. We know how things are going to turn out. That is one of the reasons why we like comedies: we know that, give or take a few loose ends, they will work out as we would want them to. Which is not something we can say about our own lives.” (p 139)
  • The poetry of a teenager in love is sincere: that is what makes it bad.” (p 150)
  • Our posture and gesture as we read or watch and listen; our return to what we have read or seen or heard before, through which in our clumsy way we re-perform the work: these are the testing-grounds of aesthetic greatness.” (p 320)
  • Asked what a piece of his music meant, Robert Schumann played it again.” (p 321)


A wonderful book.March 2020; 357 pages

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:

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