Simon Callow on The Genius of Shakespeare

One of the UK's finest and best loved actors, Simon Callow, on Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare.

One of the UK's finest and best-loved actors, Simon Callow, on Jonathan Bate’s classic biography of the life – and afterlife – of the greatest English poet,  The Genius of Shakespeare.

The book is like its subject: vital, surprising, multi-faceted, provocative, haunting.

There has never been a shortage of books about Shakespeare. Every month, dozens of them appear, mostly from academic presses, addressing a staggering range of topics, from the minutiae of Shakespeare’s syntax, his scansion and his shoes, to larger theories concerning his culturally hegemonic position, his relationship to Finno-Ugric languages and his esoteric significance, books about Shakespeare the Catholic and Shakespeare the Protestant, Shakespeare gay and Shakespeare straight, Shakespeare the mariner, Shakespeare the soldier, Shakespeare the spy; about Shakespeare and syphilis and Shakespeare and botany. There are books about how Shakespeare wrote Don Quixote and how Cervantes wrote Hamlet. And Shakespeare junkies like me read them all, glazing over a bit, but happy to be foraging for occasional acorns of insight or brightly coloured berries of the unexpected. Occasionally, though, very occasionally, a Shakespeare book appears which really wakes you up and makes you smell the coffee. Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, is such a one.

Having heard wonderful things about it, I immediately snapped it up. When I got to page 10,

I shouted out loud: ‘Bingo!’ I had seen William Shakespeare’s mind being formed before my very eyes.

Bate’s account of the education Shakespeare got at his Stratford grammar school, with its emphasis on rhetoric, and the practical application that this had on his playwriting, with special reference to the way in which he re-worked a passage from North’s Plutarch into Enobarbus’s great speech in Antony and Cleopatra which starts ‘The barge she sat in’ gave me, in three pages, what I had never thought I’d see – Shakespeare the man and the writer caught in the act of creation, assimilating a previous model, dramatizing and humanizing it – giving it the quality of lived life. And the particular brilliance of the Bate method is that in his subtle, spry way he makes you see it for yourself. The reader becomes an active participant in the discovery. And, as a throwaway bonus, at the same time as offering this unprecedented glimpse of Shakespeare’s mind and work in formation, he scotches, at a stroke, the absurd insistence by the conspiracy theorists that the Stratford lad was an illiterate yokel: Shakespeare, Bate tells us, had an education which gave him a working knowledge of Ovid, Terence, Mantuan, Tully, Sallust and Virgil, ‘and such other’, wrote Shakespeare’s schoolteacher, ‘as shall be thought most convenient to the purpose unto true Latin speech.’ We should be so lucky.

I was so excited by this passage and what it revealed – and many, many others like it throughout the book – that I immediately got in touch with my old chum, now deceased, Jonathan James Moore, a witty and imaginative radio broadcaster, to see whether we couldn’t create a series of programmes which might recreate these epiphanies for listeners. I can’t remember why, but nothing came of it – one of the corporation’s periodic hysterical retreats from perceived elitism, no doubt – but the book and its author lodged in my mind, so that when, after commissioning The Mystery of Charles Dickens from Peter Ackroyd, I turned to Shakespeare for a successor one-man play, there was only one conceivable person to approach. The resulting show, Being Shakespeare, remains one of the most satisfying experiences I have ever had in the theatre, largely because we were able to recreate the particular quality of the book in theatrical terms, making it a series of discoveries which conveyed something of the interaction between Shakespeare and the world in the crucible of his mind.

Those early aperçus about education are at the very beginning of a book in which, in chapter after chapter, Bate opens up more and more possibilities within Shakespeare, construing him by reference to music, to painting, to physics, revealing how the form in which he worked and his particular use of it enabled him to become the universal genius that he is: ‘Deutschland ist Hamlet!’ proclaimed a German pamphlet just before World War I, and the Russians had long before that appropriated him to themselves – as have both the right and the left in England. Shakespeare’s genius, Bate makes clear, was essentially reactive and adaptive, which makes the plays endlessly adaptable to different times, different cultures, different world-views. There are deliberately blank spaces in his arrangement of the material which enable directors and actors to fill them in as they will: a character’s motivation is generally the least of his concerns.

The genius of Bate in this book was to use the notion of genius – in many senses, but primarily in the older sense of the essence, the is-ness of a thing – to ask, not ‘who is Shakespeare?’ but the much more illuminating question ‘what is Shakespeare?’ In doing so he has written the most continuously stimulating, illuminating and frequently moving book on the subject I have ever read. Along the way we meet Ben Jonson, Berlioz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Heisenberg, and (most affectingly) Marlowe, each of whom opens another window on to what Tolstoy called ‘Shakespeare’s peculiarity’.

The book has, too, a kind of poetry of its own. It is haunted by Borges’s great parable about Shakespeare, ‘Everything and Nothing’, with its famous last paragraph:

‘The story goes that shortly before or after his death, when he found himself in the presence of God, he said: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one man only, myself.’ The voice of God answered him out of a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I what I am. I dreamed the world the way you dreamt your plays, dear Shakespeare. You are one of the shapes of my dreams: like me, you are everything and nothing.' 

It is typical of Bate’s consciously echoic approach that he concludes a particularly brilliant chapter, ‘From Character to Icon’, with a quotation from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: ‘existence precedes and rules essence’. Bate asks: ‘Do you believe that there is some essence to human being that can be known in itself – call it conscience, call it consciousness? You do? Then your icon is Hamlet. Or do you believe that we are nothing but the roles we play, that the only form of being is action? Yours is Iago.’ A tremendous and resonant distinction. True to his seriously playful spirit, Bate ends his book with a great tease which will bring even the most even-handed reader up with a jolt. The book is like its subject: vital, surprising, multi-faceted, provocative, haunting. Shakespeare studies, as long as it is in print, are alive and kicking.

The Genius of Shakespeare

by Jonathan Bate

Book cover for The Genius of Shakespeare

Judgements about the quality of works of art begin in opinion. But for the last two hundred years only the wilfully perverse (and Tolstoy) have denied the validity of the opinion that Shakespeare was a genius.

Who was Shakespeare? Why has his writing endured? And what makes it so endlessly adaptable to different times and cultures? Exploring Shakespeare's life, including questions of authorship and autobiography, and charting how his legacy has grown over the centuries, this extraordinary book asks how Shakespeare has come to be such a powerful symbol of genius.

Jonathan Bate, one of the world's leading Shakespearean scholars, has shown how the legend of Shakespeare's genius was created and sustained, and how the man himself became a truly global phenomenon.