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on 22 March 2015
This book is excellent. Jonathan Bate is a very impressive writer. Profound wouldn't be too strong a word. Yet the Kindle edition lets him down badly. The kind of textual glitches that scholars have spent centuries removing from Shakespeare crop up regularly. For instance instead of "had reached the letter 'S'" we get "had reached the letter's". Most of the time you can work out what's gone wrong, but it's depressing to have to do it. Picador and/or Amazon should be ashamed of themselves. It would only take one person to actually read it, as opposed to a spell-check machine. Electronic publishing is great, but penny-pinching standards like this threaten to discredit it.
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on 26 April 2017
excellent book and an enjoyable read
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on 4 March 2015
Don't be put off by the title: Bate does a good job of setting up what he means by "genius". This is not one of those slushy, powder-puff books that are full of purple prose and silly conjecture. I was particularly pleased that he laid the Oxford Shakespeares to rest. He did so with elegance and charm that comes from a lifetime of reading Shakespeare and working with the plays. I recently read his biography of John Clare, which I would also highly recommend. Clare gave him the opportunity to write a rather more straightforward literary biography. What emerges from this book is that you just cannot think of Shakespeare without thinking of the reception of Shakespeare. There are some fascinating insights that come out of this discussion. I was particularly interested in the Empson chapter and intend to follow up on it.

Bate makes a case for Lope de Vega as a Spanish Shakespeare. I am not so sure about this. El Perro del Hortelano is fine and even made a decent movie but it doesn't have the same potency of Shakespeare's characters. I am inclined to agree with Bate that special quality of Shakespeare comes from his direct involvement as an actor, producer and writer in the theatre. Bate's own commitment to Shakespeare comes from his fortunate experience of reading several plays at A level. What an open-minded teacher he had! When I was at school we studied one play for O level and another for A level English. It was mind-numbingly slow in those classes and the students were so fixated on getting a good grade that they were more than happy to sacrifice their education for some solid note-taking. From what my sixteen-year-old son says, it is even worse now: they didn't even read a complete play.

I am deeply tempted to use my Spanish property to host reading groups where people can get together and read a lot of plays together over a week, but isn't it sad that the state of education should even put that idea in my head?

Finally, I should say that I cannot give this book five stars because it was transferred to Kindle by a team of monkeys. After a while I started to find the typos rather amusing, especially when I was reading about paradoxes, but it is aggravating nonetheless when you have paid for a product to have it so shoddily thrown together. I should think Jonathan Baste is not that happy about it either!

Yes, I meant to do that.
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VINE VOICEon 16 May 2012
'Neither Shakespeare's life nor his career can account for his genius',says Bate in the preface of this beautiful book.The 1st part explores the origins of Shakespeare,the 2nd part tells of his effects.He deals not just with the life but a body of words and stage images modified in the guts of the living.Shakespeare's opinions are not stamped on his plays,his sexuality,religion and politics are difficult to discern,allowing his plays to be reinvented in every age and culture. Shakespeare's rural origins are highly important to his art and to the mark left on the way that we think.As the grandson of a yeoman farmer his imagination remained faithful to its roots. Bate says he invented something called `deep England',that the essence of the nation lies in its green heart. A rich catalogue of wild flowers find their way into the plays(eg King Lear).Oxbridge-educated contemporaries sneered at him as a "peasant",him like Ben Jonson never having gone to university.

Shakespeare's grammatical and rhetorical power came from an education entirely in Latin,but despite this his language is vigorous and new,even when his ideas are 2nd hand.Bate does not try to explain the inexplicable,why a young married man with a family to support should have gone to London to earn his living as a playwright.He was the first to turn writing plays into a rewarding profession.He was singular,too,in being the only dramatist of his generation never to be imprisoned or officially censured in connection with his writings.He was prudent in the subjects he chose to write about,being of the long dead than the currently topical.Bate shows his attitude to those in power by giving a new interpretation of the sonnets. The `lovely boy `sonnets are relatively late contributions to the atmosphere of homoerotic playfulness that James encouraged in his court, rather than proof of Shakespeare's homosexuality. Another relates to Shakespeare's Richard II and the Earl of Essex's abortive rebellion.Bate dismantles the historical evidence,showing this to be implausible.

Bate is less convincing when he moves from scholarship to criticism,saying that the character Enobarbus is the closest to Shakespeare of all his characters,also Shakespeare's choice of Epicureanism to Stoicism from his choice of philosophical schools.He was a playwright not an abstract thinker.More plausibly,he selects "theatrical magnanimity" as Shakespeare's distinctive feature, which impelled him to arouse sympathy for figures such as Shylock and Caliban, whom the other characters vilify. As to the theme of the rise of the idea of his genius, Shakespeare's lines were thought to be Delphic,coming straight from Apollo.Milton said in L'Allegro,that Shakespeare warbled "his native wood-notes wild."Rooted to a national tradition,belonging to the place of birth.Shakespeare became the model for a new German literature, Goethe saw Shakespeare's truth to nature,no concern for the rules of Aristotle.A new national drama was raised upon the claim Shakespeare's plays were deeply rooted in the people.This is simply the best book on Shakespeare ever,with easily-worn scholarship.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 August 2014
This isn’t a biography but is one of the best general introductions to Shakespeare and how we can think about his works that I have read. It would be perfect for both general popular readers and undergraduates, and takes an eminently – and refreshingly – sensible approach to issues such as the authorship controversy, canonicity, and ‘global Shakespeare’.

The ‘genius’ of the title is itself a play on words since genius in Shakespeare’s time meant not the transcendence that we give it but more a sort of characteristic disposition or natural character as taken from the Latin ‘ingenium’.

Bate, then, offers a diverse, expansive and shrewd look at what Shakespeare means in the world. He unpicks the variety of ways in which Shakespeare has been received and appropriated as both the upholder of establishment values (e.g. by successive Tory governments) and as a liberal, possibly rebellious or unorthodox voice.

Engaging and intelligent, this is an excellent and accessible insight into some of the ways Shakespeare is currently thought about in academia.
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on 15 December 2011
I have recently read books and watched programmes on the late great Steve Jobs; as a confirmed Macintosh user with a well-used selection of his "iproducts", his driven genius certainly changed my world. Would his early life have shown this was likely?

I have a shelf full of well-thumbed books proposing a wide range of writers in Shakespeare's place, another still to be delivered and one as yet unread in the "unread" section of the 822.33 section. Reading them, I always feel like the sheep in Orwell's "Animal Farm", believing the writer I am reading at the time, so convincing are they all and yet, I remain unconvinced, a determined Stratfordian.

Jonathan Bate has not written a biography in the usual sense of that word, indeed it is refreshing to find someone who admits quite simply of the pausity of material to begin another endeavour of that kind but also that it is not necessarily a reason to suspect Shakespeare was a front for a playwright in Italy supposedly killed in 1595 or a lord with creative aspirations who did not want his real views known.

He also looks at the idea of "genius", the way the word has developed and been used in the Shakespeare context to describe this native talent when no other seemed to fit. (Having worked with gifted and talented students, I know just how different they can be, e.g. one who had seven As at "A" Level and three interviews to read as an undergraduate at Oxford in three vastly different disciplines - History, Economics and Chemistry - who lived in a post-war prefab and owned no books himself; no need - he just read them and remembered them.)

I enjoyed Bate's book, a refreshing, well-written and convincing look at Shakespeare with some unusual conclusions. It has no newly discovered material or evidence but he does look afresh with dispassionate eyes at this rarest of phenomenons. If English had not ecome the dominant language, would another playwright have become the genius? Is literature the only discipline to produce real genius? He argues the scientific and mathematical discoveries would have been discovered anyway by someone because they are essential but plays are different.

Readers will not agree with everything but he does present a new perspective and think out of the box, rather then trying to make tenuous links with the slimmest of historical evidence. He looks at the anecdotes about Shakespeare when he was alive before looking at the sonnets and the mystery of the dark lady, suggesting a few possibilities. Like the fairground stall, he sets up the suggested "Shakespeares" only to demolish them all one-by-one in a flurry of well-aimed missiles. Accepting the existence and authenticity of Shakespeare, he tries to explain why he became what he is, why his plays are so different and how this "natural genius" could have existed.

It is a recommended tonic.
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on 1 May 2016
The author clearly knows his Shakespeare but is the world's worst at getting what he knows down on the page so that his readers understand it. This makes his prose rather turgid and opaque. But then he is an Oxford don so I suppose this is to be expected. At the time of writing I am only about half way through but will stick with it to the end as "knowledge" is what I'm after and why I eschewed Bill Brydson's book on the same topic (I accept that Bill's book would be a hundred times easier to read!). And so I willingly endure what is, in many respects, purgatory!
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on 3 August 1999
Jonathan Bate's THE GENIUS OF SHAKESPEARE takes issue with cultural conservatives and with politically correct radicals to explain how a dramatist of humble orgins became the best known author in history. In what is described as "a new kind of biography", Bate offers a two-part history of Shakespeare's talent and reputation. Instead of the usual life story or play-by-play account, Bate begins part one by discussing the anecdotes that were told about Shakespeare during his life, looking at how his contemporaries saw him. Then he moves on to dissect the sonnets showing the various ways they have been used to provide a biographical key to their author's life. Wielding Occam's razor, Bate attacks the tendency of the "life and works" approach to over-interpret the poems to illuminate the dark corners of the life.
Bate's willingness to admit that much will never be known is refreshing. His suggestion about the Dark Lady's identity is delightfully mischievous: she could have been the wife of John Florio, Italian secretary to the Earl of Southampton. Given the sources, this is as credible as most other interpretations, even though Bate is attempting to convict the poet Samuel Daniel's sister of multiple adultery on circumstantial evidence that would not have persuaded Othello. More daring is Bate's solution to the conclusion of "Master W H", the unknown "begetter" of the sonnets. This, he argues, is just a printer's error for "W S" (William Shakespeare).
When addressing the authorship question, Bate uses knockabout tactics to demolish alternative candidates - from Francis Bacon to sundry lords - but he does so in a more profound question: why should anyone doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays? As so often, the answer concerns class. Cultural conservatives could not bear the idea that a mere grammer-school boy and butcher's son was as talented as university-trained wits.
In part two, Bate deals with the gradual growth of Shakespeare's reputation after his death. Since the Bard's plays broke the rules of classical decorum, his eighteenth-century admirers were forced to "invent" a new category of "native genius" to account for his talent. Shakespeare's apparent weakness, his lack of a university education, turned out to be his greatest strength. Aided by sundry Romantics, Britain's national poet was defined a "natural" genius.
Other emerging nations also adopted Shakespeare as a cultural icon, but usually in opposition to the classical culture of oppressive rulers. In Germany, for example, the Bard was reinvented as a symbol of anti-Gallic, pro-Teutonic identity. As a large part of Shakespeare's rise to universal deification was his ability to inspire other artists, Bate considers the reworking of his plays by artists such as Hector Berlioz, Giuseppe Verdi and Henry Fuseli.
Although everyone knows that Shakespeare has been used for conservative propaganda, Bate is at his best when he reminds us that the Bard was once also the people's playwright. The use of Shakespeare by Quakers, Chartists and other nonconformists as a counter-tradition - "one nurtured in the dissenting academies in which those excluded from the old universities found an educational community" - powerfully suggests that Shakespeare's genius was rooted in the ability to represent so many different aspects of life that all social groups could find cofirmation of their world-view in his books.
Bate goes further. Rather than being a reactionary Dead White European Male, Shakespeare was also an inspiration to black writers such as George Lamming and Aime Cesaire, who used THE TEMPEST as a critique of colonialism and as "the voice of the recovered black identity". Examples such as these seem to prove Bate's assertion, following Jorge Luis Borges, that Shakespeare can be "everything and nothing".
Perhaps the most polemical passages are those in which Bate revisits the arguments between the conservative "vigilantes", who use the Bard to police educational standards, and the politically correct "new iconoclasts", who use him for their own ideological ends by arguing that Shakespeare was less a genius than a product of historical forces. At its most extreme, this view denies that his works have any meaning: it is we who give meaning to them.
Between the stubborn assertiveness of the conservatives and the absurd reductionism of the radicals, Bate occupies a middle ground - Shakespeare, he insists, became an icon of genius because he was a better playwright than his contempories. His reputation has become universal because his plays really do contain a rich store of images, ambiguities and the juxtaposition of different viewpoints convincingly imagined.
Bate ends his book by arguing that Shakespeare's dramatic techniques - he toned down, for example, the stark motivations of characters he found in his sources - have only been fully appreciated in the twentieth-century. After modern science and philosophy propagated new ideas about relativism, uncertainty and the coexistence of opposites, the way was open for William Empson to lead the appreciation of ambiguity in Shakespeare's work.
THE GENIUS OF SHAKESPEARE is aimed squarely at the general reader. Cultural materialists are sure to be exasperated as conservatives and other Shakespeare specialists may cringe at the boldness of his assertions and the ambition of his scope. Like many popular accounts, this well written book excites and provokes while risking accusations of over simplication. It is manifestly counter-productive, for example, to conclude an engagingly fervent book about the unique irreplaceability of Shakespeare's genius with the claim that had history been a little different Lope de Vega would have done just as well.
Despite such quibbles, Bate succeeds in conveying a powerful image of practical genius. Instead of bardolotry, we get a vivid portrait of a man who "invented the profession of dramatist", a quick-witted outsider who broke all the rules, a creative collaborator who gloried in playing games with what was possible on stage. Not only does THE GENIUS OF SHAKESPEARE say a great deal about the making of a literary reputation, it is also a fascinating account of how plays are lifeless unless they are performed.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 29 August 2010
This isn't your standard biography of Shakespeare - point of fact, it isn't a biography at all. It's more of an attempt to explain: why Shakespeare? Why is he considered the ultimate literary genius? Why does he occupy an exalted position scarcely rivalled by anyone else in any other field, let alone literature? What is it about Shakespeare and his work that we esteem so highly? Why has Shakespeare survived and thrived? Why does Shakespeare continue to appeal not just to new generations but other countries and cultures as well?

One of the most interesting arguments Bate makes is on the very definition of the word 'genius'. Prior to Shakespeare the concept of 'genius' was more about a spirit, a personal unique spirit, and had nothing to do with creative endeavour and output and achievement at all. The gradual turning of the meaning to 'unparalleled and utterly unique brilliance' came about largely as a result of the need for some way to describe Shakespeare above all others.

Bate also argues that the primary reason for Shakespeare's enduring appeal is his ambiguity and adaptability. Shakespeare never constrains his plays and his characters to one motive, one reason, one catalyst - there are always multiple reasons, multiple ways of interpreting and analysing his works, and as a result they are capable of meaning different things, often diametrically-opposed, to different groups simultaneously. Everyone can read themselves in Shakespeare, and as a result Shakespeare has continued to have resonance even four hundred years after the plays were written.
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VINE VOICEon 29 October 2010
Yes, its title is unpromising as well as rather passé (we don't like to talk of 'genius' nowadays. The word smacks of élitism). Such a title leads us half to expect yet another work of tedious bardology. Moreover, with lengthy analyses of the Shakespeare-inspired works of (C19 composer) Hector Berlioz and (C18 artist) Henry Fuselli, the book often seems only indirectly relevant to the works of the dramatist himself. But The Genius of Shakespeare is much more than a eulogising bunch of essays tied together by the common thread of Shakespeare's greatness. The common element, if there is one, is illuminating originality.

Concentrating on the rich after-life of the plays and the ever-changing historical contexts which have continually reshaped and renewed them, Bate's study not only throws much light on the works but actually has an unexpected coherence and a climactic structure. The last chapter, on C20 physics and philosophy, suggests how the work of such giants as Heisenberg and Wittgenstein helped inform the revolutionary insights of critics like William Empson. Shakespeare's continuing appeal in the nuclear age is partly explained, he thinks, by the new ways of seeing opened up by such developments as the uncertainty principle.

Bate is a very persuasive Shakespearean. He readily admits that Tolstoy was on to something in his criticism and that, indeed, psychological realism and motivation is often much stronger in Shakespeare's sources than in the plays he based upon them (Othello being a good example). But Bate sees strength where Tolstoy saw weakness. The playwright's refusal to 'explain' such things as character motivation is one reason why we are so endlessly fascinated by his plays and why productions of them are so rich in their variety of interpretation.

The book is also thought-provoking and contentious. Bate argues that while geniuses abound in such areas as maths and physics, only literature can produce unique genius. If Newton hadn't invented calculus, he contends, someone else would have (and in Leibniz's case, actually did); the same with Einstein and relativity. This is a claim that might seem too far-reaching. (What about the unique genius of Mozart, for instance?)

Bate's final thoughts are fascinating: if the English language hadn't attained global domination as a by-product of trade and empire, and that if, say, Spanish had become the dominant tongue, then Lope de Vega's plays would have made him the supreme world genius, not Shakespeare. His plays, Bate acknowledges, are equally complex, subtle and powerful - but unfortunately for him and his posthumous reputation, inaccessible to a non-Spanish audience. (He was also many times more prolific even than Shakespeare, with anything up to 1500 plays to his credit). A brilliantly rewarding read.
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