Jonathan Bate

ISBN 978-0-691-16160-0  Princeton  £20

reviewed by Alan Dent

            The first of this volume’s fourteen chapters, The Intelligence of Antiquity, begins with a question: What did Shakespeare believe? Bate’s answer is that we can only guess. It would be difficult to say the same of any modern writer.  From, say, Defoe, we have a relatively clear idea about writers’ beliefs and from the beginning of the twentieth century it was almost de rigueur for a writer’s colours to be nailed to some mast. When Tom Stoppard speaks of the courage of his lack of convictions, it hardly convinces. Which side of the modern political divide he’s on is obvious. How could Shakespeare make himself our greatest writer and at the same time conceal his beliefs, not to mention most of the detail of his life?

            Part of the explanation may be provided by Bate’s thesis: his gaze was essentially retrospective. Educated in the classics in his Stratford grammar school ( a type of institution about which he made not entirely flattering remarks) he shaped his plays and poems out of what he found in Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Ovid, Virgil, Horace. He made himself a classic by drawing on the classics. The writers of the classic Greek and Roman worlds were free of our plague: an obsession with the future. Henry Ford’s view of history is typical. It would be easy to be reductive and explain the prevailing mentality in terms of economic arrangements. Yet, however we try to resist this, it looks feasible that we have trapped ourselves. There is no money to be made in the past.

            Shakespeare, like the writers he made use of, was part of a culture which valued the arts as a source of wisdom. They provided lessons and a guide to life. They were neither mere entertainment nor a good business venture. What Shakespeare as a schoolboy learnt from Ovid, Bate argues, is that “the only constant is change”. This delight in motion, in mutability, as a literary procedure is known as energeia. Shakespeare had the knack of combining it with Quintilian’s enargeia, vivid scene-making. Added to these is the rhetorical composition which pervaded public discourse in Elizabethan England, the ability, essentially to put all sides of an argument. These, Bate suggests, are the three elements which combine to lift Shakespeare’s writing to its supremacy.

            Rhetoric, however, was his primary technique. Today the term is debased, meaning not much more than speechifying, but as defined by Aristotle it meant the ability to think logically and insightfully, to comprehend human motivations. Bate claims Shakespeare elaborated his characters from what he calls: a personalised rhetoric of illustrative parallel. Characters are drawn from paradigms. They are what they are because they aren’t something else: Horatio is not a warrior, Coriolanus is not a thinker. Shakespeare builds character by making the parallels apparent through the employment of rhetoric such as, at its highest, Hamlet’s soliloquies. Plays rely on character types. By setting one against the other each is thrown into relief. Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with the classics and would have referred what they were seeing on stage to what they had in their heads. Thus, Lady MacBeth declaring that, had she vowed to, she would have plucked her baby from her breast and smashed its brains, would remind the audience of Medea.

            The Tudors were engaged in nation-building. The word “national” entered the language in the early seventeenth century, at about the time that notions of “country” and “posterity” became current, Quintilian being the principle source. His Institutio Oratoria provided the basis for attribution of genre. William Webbe, one of our earliest literary critics, who regretted the “infinite fardles..” of pamphlets proliferating in 1586, was engaged in the effort to shape a gentlemanly literature based on classical form. From Webbe to Hemmings and Condell’s classification of Shakespeare’s works was a short step. Given that the idea of originality didn’t take hold till the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare was working in a culture where writers were expected to play a role in the formation of a national consciousness, works were expected to fit into classical genres and draw on classical material, and literature was by definition the province of an educated minority.

            Shakespeare, however, Bate argues, saw the lack of dramatic power in some aspects of, for example,  Virgil’s heroic idiom. In an ingenious argument about the hiatus at the end of the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet, he establishes Shakespeare as an originator, an iconoclast who could ransack the classics for what he found valuable but was no slavish imitator; rather, he could be a mischievous and witty satirist.

            The book is peppered with this kind of satisfying argument. Bate reaches back to the classical sources, identifies how they made an appearance in Shakespeare and conducts a thorough and nimble-footed analysis of the relevant parts of the plays. He structures his chapters around an idea, The Good Life, which permits him to explore how Shakespeare responded to Horace and Epicurus, the ideas of negotium and otium; The Defence of Phantasms where he can muse on the relationship between the fantastical nature of theatre and the Protestant dislike of image-making. In that regard, it’s worth asking whether Shakespeare adopted what might be called a Protestant view of self. Catholics have to do what the Pope or the priest tells them. They aren’t permitted to make their own agreement with existence. Yet in Hamlet’s soliloquies, for example, don’t we see exactly that? Isn’t Hamlet’s an essentially Protestant conscience? Doesn’t Shakespeare show us, in play after play, the experience of character’s fighting through to their own view of what is right or necessary?

            Here and there a question might be raised. He classifies Measure for Measure as a comedy, for example. It could be argued it isn’t a tragedy as no one dies, but it’s hardly a straightforward comedy. Angelo’s machinations and his willingness to effectively rape a nun aren’t treated in a comic fashion (as such things might be by Joe Orton). He talks of drama imitating life in which there is no “pure tragedy”. It’s reasonable to observe that laughter is always nearby, but hard to argue the Grenfell Tower event was anything but pure tragedy.

            Shakespeare, like the classical authors he learned from, was writing for an educated minority. Perhaps it’s worth asking how this influences what is written. There is a distinction in Shakespeare between the characters with gravitas and what he calls in Twelfth Night “the lighter people”. The history plays, as Bate points out are haunted by the plague of bellum civile (the term was coined by Cicero). They are about the struggle for power, and that took place amongst the landed classes. The comedies may permit greater significance to the lower orders, but doesn’t that imply tragedy can’t be theirs? As late as 1949 people were exercised by whether Willy Loman could be a tragic figure, a question few would ask today. Did Shakespeare believe that the social order mirrored genetic endowment? Was he in thrall to the delusion of biological determinism? As Bate says, we can only guess; but the evidence of the plays suggests he did, at least as far as securing success as a playwright goes, fall in with the belief that it is kings, dukes, lords, princes whose dilemma’s, thoughts and emotions are worth putting at the centre of a play. Isn’t this part of his classical inheritance? Weren’t the slaves and the lower orders and women viewed as essentially lesser creatures by the classical writers?

            Contemporary culture shows us what happens when the assumption is made that the masses must be condescended to. The television dramas which draw huge audiences, lavish praise and garlands are characterised by intellectual simplicity, sensationalism and melodrama.  Can even the best television writing, say Dennis Potter, stand comparison with Arthur Miller, Ibsen, Sheridan, O’Casey, Orton? Does the reverse apply? When writing is aimed at an educated minority, does it deliberately pander to that minority’s prejudices while simultaneously upholding the standards it expects? 

            Shakespeare is our singular classic, Bate concludes, but in what sense is he ours? How many people, this week, in the UK, who don’t have to professionally or for an exam, will read or see a Shakespeare play? How many people stopped on the street could tell you who the author of Troilus and Cressida is? How many could recite even a short speech? Shakespeare is a subsidised writer. The RSC receives millions from the public purse as do the regional theatres where Shakespeare is produced. The schools in which he is taught are overwhelmingly publicly funded. Yet is Shakespeare the people’s poet?

            Many people find his work hard and have little or nothing to do with it once they leave the education system. Perhaps his classical roots don’t help: hardly anyone today is familiar with the classics. How many people under forty have even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin?

            Shakespeare looked back. He was forced to if he wanted to be a playwright in Elizabethan England. He could have had no idea what was to come. Had he known schools would one day educate all children for free; that coal miner’s sons would become major novelists or establish the nation’s most popular institution; that grammar school boys like himself could hold more power than kings, would he have written differently? We can only guess.

            Bate’s book is full of fascinating detail. Even those familiar with the canon will find themselves surprised. His scholarship is impeccable, his writing clear and vibrant. The study is a real delight, never ponderous, wonderfully insightful. It is a fitting addition to Bate’s already impressive Shakespeare criticism.