Jonathan Bate: The Genius of Shakespeare (Picador: London, 2008)
Professor Bate will probably be a familiar face, or voice, to anyone on the ‘Shake-scene’ in the UK. You can hear him participating in Shakespeare-themed episodes of BBC Radio’s ‘In Our Time’, he heads a University of Warwick MOOC on ‘Shakespeare and his World’, and amongst his many written accomplishments, he edited the Arden third edition of Titus Andronicus.
This is such an engaging book. Because ‘you don’t read Shakespeare, he reads you‘, we learn almost as much about Professor Bate as we do about Shakespeare. If you want to know what a modern Shakespeare scholar is like, you could do worse than start here.
Bate sets out on a quest: firstly to properly define that horribly over-used word, ‘genius’, and then to see how and why Shakespeare qualifies. In this, given my teaching preferences, I was fascinated by his chapter on ‘Marlowe’s Ghost’, which explains lucidly the competition Shakespeare felt, even after Marlowe died. Here’s an example of Bate’s writing style, from that chapter:
‘… who would deny that Shakespeare is linguistically his most magnificent self in Falstaff? – I propose that in order to create a ‘good overreacher’ in the character of Henry V, and thus to kill off the legacy of Tamburlaine, Shakespeare also had to kill off part of himself. The Falstaff part which he denied was precisely that part which was most himself, which had its origins in Cade, and which owed nothing to Marlowe.’
In my readings of his works, Bate often ‘proposes‘ things. Not out of diffidence – it comes across as polite, almost gentlemanly. So much better than the ponderous and condescending tones of MC Bradbrook or Frank Kermode … in terms of what this tells us about Bate, I’d suggest that his mild-mannered speaking voice is matched by his general style. Whilst the other two authors obviously knew just as much, it’s always more enjoyable to be spoken to, not at. And it invites thought, and debate, too.
What else do we learn? Plenty, in the same way that regular readers will have assimilated plenty about me from my ongoing intertextual and cultural references. Bate speaks with real eloquence and enthusiasm about how artists like Fuseli, Berlioz and Verdi interpreted the plays. I came away a little awestruck, to be honest, by the range of his knowledge. Another highlight was the occasional cheeky modern politics. And he’s persuasive, encouraging me (quite kindly) to set aside my innate prejudice against Lurhman‘s Romeo + Juliet and give it a fair chance as an interpretation to be watched, not the bane of a teacher’s life.
Finally, I love the fact that he proposed another name for that coveted title of ‘genius’. If you want to know who that might be, you’ll have to read the book.
It feels slightly odd, lionizing the author of a book which itself lionizes another author, but this was an excellent read.
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