The name Shakespeare in Britain is rather like the names Ford, Disney and Rockefeller in the United States. He is less an individual than an institution, less an artist than an apparatus. Shakespeare is a precious national treasure akin to Stonehenge or North Sea oil. He is to be ranked alongside King Arthur, Monty Python and the crown jewels as part of the nation's cherished mythology. In some quarters, indeed, he is almost as well-known as Billy Connolly. That right-wing troublemaker Prince Charles brandishes the Bard as a weapon in his campaign to defend the Queen's English, a language that in his case is literally his mother tongue.
Stratford, Shakespeare's home town, has become a place of pilgrimage only slightly less sacred than Mecca, with American tourists waddling reverently around the spectacularly tasteless cathedral of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. An impressionable few of them are even moved to doff their baseball caps or discard their ice creams. Shakespeare's familiar high-domed head, an image that is quite possibly not him at all, has adorned everything from TV beer commercials to the 20 [pounds sterling] note. He is the presiding genius of the national spirit, a kind of Churchill in a neck ruff. Without him, industries would crash and ideologies crumble. It is even rumored that he also wrote plays.
Not all the English have been so admiring. The eighteenth century found his work rather barbarous, while others have found his jokes dismally unfunny. Nor is he easy to appropriate as a patriotic Englishman. There is some swashbuckling chauvinism in his plays, but in King Lear he comes near to championing some form of socialist redistribution. The beauty of the drama, however, is that you can read into it pretty much what you will. There are, for example, times when it is almost impossible to believe that he had not read Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein. A fellow student of mine at Cambridge argued with a poker face that Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is depressed because he is a promiscuous homosexual, basing his theory on Antonio's line "I have not placed all my treasures in one bottom." ("Bottom" actually refers to ship's bottoms.) This image was unaccountably passed over by the American scholar who delivered a paper a few years ago (without a hint of a poker face) titled "The Anus in Coriolanus."
Because of his totemic status, Shakespeare proved a valuable commodity to ship out to the colonies. Rather than sweat over textbooks on the English way of life, Indian or Caribbean school students could simply read Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night's Dream. The fact that many of the cultural references would have been unintelligible to them was less important than the fact that they were getting a blast of the very essence of Englishness. At home, Shakespeare was and remains the acme of the humanities. When unfounded rumors recently spread that one or two English universities had taken him off their syllabuses, the national outrage was equivalent to the reaction one might expect if medics were to announce that they no longer proposed to study the pancreas.
The Age of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode's informative introduction to Shakespeare and his times, has some incisive comments to make on the plays, sometimes of an appealingly irreverent kind: The young lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream are said to be "hormone-dominated," while Romeo is "in a melancholy amatory daze about a girl." The book has no particular case to argue, but it provides us with an elegant, economic survey of the politics and religion of the age, along with some shrewd speculations on the man himself. Oddly enough for a fairly low-born seventeenth-century working scriptwriter from the rural outback, Shakespeare is better known today than many of his contemporaries. It is true that we cannot be absolutely sure that the Will Shakespeare who was an actor (probably not very skilled) from Stratford-upon-Avon was also the William Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet. Some conspiratorial souls, for whom the Kennedy assassination has nothing on the Shakespeare conundrum, believe that the real Shakespeare was a nobleman who stole the name of this country bumpkin. This is because they find it hard to stomach the suggestion that a clodhopping peasant who couldn't even spell his own name properly could come to rank alongside Dante and Goethe. One or two of the writers of his time also viewed him as an upstart, but this was probably envy: Shakespeare was big in his own day as he is in ours.
A few conspiracy theorists have even proposed the Earl of Oxford as the true Shakespeare, a claim zealously supported by the present Earl of Oxford, who could do with a little culture in his family tree. The only drawback to this eminently plausible case is that there is not a scrap of evidence for it. But at least Oxford was a nobleman, who could occasionally spell his own name correctly, and who like Shakespeare's plays would have known a thing or two about affairs of state. Much ink has been spilled on the question of Shakespeare's identity, including a somewhat fanciful book by a scholar named Thomas Looney. Kermode, for his part, takes it pretty much for granted that the boy who attended Stratford grammar school also later wrote "To be or not to be." (Shakespeare's work, as someone pointed out, is positively stuffed with quotations.)
Whoever he may have been, Shakespeare had a nose for business as well as an eye for metaphor. He was in on the ground floor of the flourishing new London theaters, won himself one-tenth of the shares in Lord Chamberlain's drama company (the most important stage company of the day) and ended up as a prosperous property owner. New Place, the house he bought himself in Stratford, was the second-largest residence in the town. Because of Lord Chamberlain's powerful patronage, he was a minor courtier as well as a commercial entrepreneur, thus combining in his person aspects of the old feudal England and the rising bourgeoisie.
As Kermode points out in this sparkling little study, Shakespeare was acquainted with much that went on in social ranks both above and below him as a result of his own ambiguous social status. It is a complex richness of experience to which his plays bear eloquent testimony. In fact, it is eloquence that one associates with him above all, as his characters produce torrents of unstanchable verbal intricacy just to announce that there is someone at the door. The butchers and candlestick makers in the pit may not have followed it all, but they were oral types accustomed to listening to rhetoric (in church, among other places), as we moderns are not.
It is remarkable how many of the most eminent names of English literature have been socially ambiguous. Jane Austen was a member of the poorer gentry--poor enough to be an outside observer of the governing class, yet genteel enough to know it from the inside. Most of the major nineteenth-century novelists were from the lower middle class, caught painfully between rulers and ruled, and so able, like Shakespeare, to look both ways. The Bronte sisters were the daughters of a down-at-heels provincial parson; Charles Dickens was the son of a feckless clerk in the Admiralty; George Eliot's father was a provincial farm steward; Thomas Hardy was the son of a small-time rural builder and alternated standard English with the local dialect. D.H. Lawrence's father was a coal miner, while his mother had genteel proclivities. Virginia Woolf was impeccably upper class, but as a woman was a misfit in the Establishment and married a Jewish socialist. All of these men and women knew the tension between aspiration and bitter reality. And it was partly out of this discrepancy that they produced such distinguished art.
Shakespeare went even further, caught as he was not just between two social classes but between two historical modes of production. His Globe theater was a profitable enterprise, charging only a penny for standing space (a third of the cost of a pipeful of tobacco), but able to accommodate an audience of 3,000. Even so, this budding capitalist venture still needed the protection of the court, and could suffer political censorship at its hands. Queen Elizabeth, an expert political operator, would have been quick to score a red line through any script that advocated popular rebellion.
With his usual exquisite sense of timing, Shakespeare managed to get himself born at exactly the right moment for artistic greatness. Major art often flourishes on the fault lines between civilizations, fed by complex cross-currents between one form of life and another. Tragedy in particular has flared up at these points of turbulent transition. Shakespeare's England was still a repressive, court-centered monarchy, in which Jesuits could be torn apart in public as popular entertainment. But Kermode points out that finance and commodity markets were growing apace, as middle-class opportunists like the Swan of Avon stealthily accumulated power. It was in the reign of Elizabeth that the joint-stock company first took off.
As Kermode remarks, in the real world of Elizabethan England, the usurer Shylock would no doubt "have been an investor in the flourishing corporations, or in the insurance business." Despite some truly catastrophic inflation, a minority of the British were thriving on the back of an expanding empire, enriched by the spoils from plundered Catholic monasteries. Meanwhile, the common people oscillated between starving and rebelling, staggering from one gargantuan food shortage to another.
The Age of Shakespeare is particularly informative about the physical aspects of Elizabethan theater, not just the literary ones. Though the Globe offered its audiences highly sophisticated stuff, it was surrounded by bearpits and mimicked them in its physical structure. The Rose Theatre next door was built on the grounds of a whorehouse. "All around," Kermode comments, "were cardsharps and dicers, con men and money-lenders, roaring boys and roaring girls." Shakespeare's fellow dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who may have been a government spy and closet atheist, was stabbed to death in a nearby tavern. As a probable homosexual, Marlowe risked execution for sodomy. It is possible that the man from Stratford had one foot in this raffish world, while the other foot was firmly planted in the sphere of big business and the court.
Though Shakespeare wrote prodigiously for his own company, he would no doubt have been amazed to know that what he was scribbling would later be regarded as "literature," just as Saint Augustine would have been astounded to be told that he was living in the Dark Ages. Shakespeare seems to have taken no trouble to proofread his plays. It has been estimated that some 3,000 theater scripts were produced in England between the 1550s and the 1640s, many of which, so legend has it, were destroyed by an eighteenth-century cook who used them to make pies. The story gives new meaning to the notion of literary taste.
Having made his pile, Shakespeare bought his father a gentleman's coat of arms, a bogus honor to which the old boy was egregiously unentitled. (There is some evidence that Shakespeare senior was a closet Catholic, and some scholars believe that junior was as well. Kermode himself remains unconvinced that he spent some of his youth in a kind of Catholic underground.) Shakespeare's steady progress up the social scale wasn't at all bad for a theatrical profession whose members had been lumped by the law with whores and vagabonds only a few years earlier, and who could still suffer the odd cold blast of disfavor from the Puritan city fathers. The Puritans disliked the theater because they feared that it would spread immorality, public disorder and sickness. The latter was a real anxiety in an era of smallpox, malaria, bubonic plague and a positive rash (if that is the right word) of sexually transmitted diseases. As for immorality, the sight of beardless boys dressed as women making love to men in public was not considered especially desirable by the Elizabethan equivalents of Pat Robertson.
The Age of Shakespeare is a marvelously compact account of the man and his social context. It packs into its brief compass some astute commentaries on the plays, and weaves together the theater, London life, high politics and acting techniques. Kermode writes a supple, lucid prose, with a touch of the English gentleman; he is good-humored, self-effacing, wears his erudition with ease and is too courteous to be polemical. The only mildly alarming feature of the book is that it appears in a series that also includes Bernard Lewis on the Holy Land. Perhaps the commission for the volume on democracy will be offered to Saddam Hussein.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester, Britain. His most recent book, After Theory, has just been published by Basic.