Monday, November 30, 2009

New York Review of Books

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, there is a review by Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespearean scholar, of a book about Shakespeare called Soul of the Age: A biography of the mind of William Shakespeare written by a world class Shakespearean scholar, Jonathan Bate. The NYRB has been doing this sort of thing since the New York newspaper strike of 1963 when a group of New York intellectuals were so frustrated by the fact that they couldn't get the New York Times Book Review that they decided to create their own unique book journal. In my humble opinion, it remains the premier site for insightful book reviews, usually about nonfiction works. And, of course, the current review by Mr. Greenblatt of the latest book about Shakespeare is a prime example of the excellence in critical analysis that the NYRB continues to promote.

Not surprisingly, Greenblatt is unimpressed with Professor Bate's effort. Why do I say this is unsurprising? Because there is so little evidence to document Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt himself found this to be the case when he wrote his own best selling biography, and although he admires Bate, he concludes that any attempt to recount his life or his mind is doomed to failure, owing to the paucity of documentation. Which doesn't mean that Bate isn't perfectly capable of, say, producing an impressive survey on Shakespeare's "perspective on the seven ages of man," or on making a convincing case for the short list of works that probably influenced Shakespeare's own writing. As a biography of his mind or anything else about his life, however, Bate can only get so far, as Greenblatt ably points out. Bate offers a kind of compendium of Shakespeare's best rhetoric, but it would be a stretch to call it a picture of his mind. As Greenblatt indicates, for such a picture, we require not scholars but artists on the order of James Joyce. Only they have the imagination and the genius to offer a plausible portrait of a mind who must be said to have transcended all literary eras.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting follow-on to your series on Welles. It will take many centuries to be sure, but Welles can be said to have transcended all cinematic eras to date. Perhaps we can gain some insight into the mind of Shakespeare by looking at how Welles interpreted the Bard.