I reached the halfway point in Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age on a crowded subway today, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s dense going at times but all in all it is the most brilliantly illuminating work of Shakespeare criticism since his The Genius of Shakespeare, which is the only book other than my own (and so, for a while, the only book) I would give to someone who knew little or nothing about Shakespeare and wanted to know what the fuss was about. The structural conceit of Soul of the Age–an intellectual biography presented in terms of the Seven Ages of Man in Jaques’s famous speech–is a little obvious (can you taste the sour grapes here, I was thinking of using it for My Year with Shakespeare until I saw Bate’s book), but time after time Bate produces really remarkable insights. Today’s had to do with the identity of the “rival poet” in the Sonnets, an issue that strangely doesn’t generate as much controversy as the identities of the “fair youth,” the “lovely boy” (far from necessarily the same, as Bate reminds us), and of course the “dark lady.” Briefly, Bate’s suggestion is that one John Davies of Hereford, one of Shakespeare’s rivals for patronage, is being praised in the relevant sonnets not for his writing but for his handwriting–he was a master of penmanship. Bate goes so far as to fantasize that Shakespeare,confident of his genius but not of his handwriting, gave sonnets to Davies to transcribe, but the potential patrons rewarded the form and not the content. This fantasy is really no more farfetched than any that Stephen Greenblatt retails in Will in the World, and is considerably better argued. And Bate’s sensitivity to the historical context, not to mention his profoundly English common sense, is enough to make Greenblatt look like a charlatan by comparison.
However, I’ll have much more to say about Greenblatt by and by, and even though Soul of the Age is not really an entry-level Shakespeare study and not one of my competitors, I will very likely write about it too.