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The Genius of Shakespeare.

Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare

New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. xiv + 384 pp. $17.95. ISBN: 0-19-512823-0.

Parallel in many ways to Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare (1989), this book seeks to answer why Shakespeare's works have long seemed so exceptional. While Taylor is quite skeptical of Shakespeare's "singularity" (the title of his book's final chapter), Bate sets out from a conviction that Shakespeare's singularity needs to be explained, not proved. Placed in a dialogue that Bate does not foreground, these two books offer something akin to a debate between a village atheist and a village priest. Where Taylor seeks to deny his readers the comfort of a falsely elevated Shakespeare, Bate celebrates this figure's transcendence.

Although, like Taylor, Bate ranges widely over the "Shakespearean" past, he is best at, alternately, the decade just prior to Titus Andronicus, and that which followed Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespear's Plays. And because Bate is interested in the reception of Shakespeare, he is especially good at explaining alternate theories of authorship. His third chapter, "The Authorship Controversy," is the most cogent in the book. Shakespeareans will not be surprised to hear that anti-Stratfordianism arises from the class snobbery and ressentiment of amateurs; yet Bate's succinct refutation of this heresy will save many scholars the labor of entering into a debate which they lose merely by entering.

Bate wrote this book for all who are interested in Shakespeare. The apparatus one associates with explicitly scholarly works -- for example, fulsome acknowledgment of critical debates on a particular issue, arguments with received opinion -- is therefore not a part of it. More pressing to Bate is the desire to communicate with a general reader. And apart from the occasional cloying sentence that owes more to journalism than to analysis, Bate's prose here is fresh and honest, and a model for academics wishing to write for a larger audience.

Some of my reservations with the book are contradictory. On the one hand, I felt that it was too long: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provide Bate with irresistible episodes, yet in the end stories such as those of Fuseli and Berlioz and Scott tend to blur into one another, losing their force. On the other hand, a book which might well be subtitled Everything I Know About Shakespeare leaves out a great deal that begs to be addressed. For instance, Bate makes no mention of A Funeral Elegy, newly attributed to Shakespeare by Donald Foster. Bate had ample time to weigh the evidence for this attribution, and to make a pronouncement on it; why he declined to do so is puzzling.

Bate's story here about the Sonnets benefits from dating them to the early 1590s. While a Jacobean date for various of these poems is not a given, recent scholarly argument to that effect deserves to be considered. It is also in Bate's discussion of the Sonnets that he most sorely tries his readers' patience. Simultaneously rejecting and offering a biographical reading of these poems, Bate would have us believe that he resolves this problem by stating that "the sonnets are imaginings of potential situations which might have grown from the initial Southampton situation" (54). That is, that while there may have been a real Dark Lady, Young Man, and Rival Poet, the sonnets do not tell a real story. Although this thesis sounds thoughtful and judicious, it is actually only a rhetorical solution to a dilemma.

Were there any doubt that Jonathan Bate is a quick study, this book should remove it. Author or editor of a half-dozen books before he was forty, Bate has written here the broad, reflective narrative that one typically expects to come from scholars at the end of their careers. It is full of "crowd pleasers," the stock-in-trade anecdotes and stories that Shakespeareans rely on when speaking to general audiences. In seeking to reach such an audience, however, Bate sometimes simplifies, and sometimes ignores, the complexity which scholars are usually compelled to address.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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