15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 41

From Salisbury to Southampton

Felix Pryor

THE GENIUS OF SHAKESPEARE by Jonathan Bate Picador, £20, pp. 336 Iwas reading an interesting manuscript the other day. It was a diary of someone as yet unidentified kept in southern Africa in the 1890s. It is full of reflections on the Imperial Dream, containing for example a vivid description of the advance of the tele- graph through the interior: 'This telegraph is rather typical of the advance of the White Man — straightforward, resistless, regardless of the difficulties that nature throws in the way . . .' The climax of the diary is an account of the author's entry into Salisbury, then a town of tents and a few wooden shacks. I won't quote it all, as this is meant to be a review of a book about Shakespeare, but it begins: '14 miles from Salisbury — only think of it — (Read Tempest & Johnson) ...'

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. As anyone who has suffered an Eng. Lit. education will know, The Tempest is meant to be the play about colonialism. If one had embel- lished a fictional account with a detail such as this one would be greeted with groans of `Phew, what a cliché!' In fact Jonathan Bate, in the book I am supposed to be reviewing, is rather good on this: Typically, a New Historicist reading will begin with some strange nugget of informa- tion — for instance, that the Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher brought home a Baffin Island Eskimo to display in London and then proceed to a politicised reading of a literary work (the Baffin Island Eskimo is transformed into Caliban). The method pro- duces dubious history but good narrative.

Damn. There goes my paper 'Riding into Salisbury: The Tempest as Exponential Metaphor of Imperial Fiction'.

Professor Bates is good on quite a few other things. He even makes the subject of Shakespeare's sources — wherewith uni- versity dons down the ages have tried to bore us senseless — interesting, nay reveal- ing; especially in his analysis of the things Shakespeare left out, such as Lear's and Iago's motivation. He is also very good on the subject of anti-Stratfordians, those crashing bores who tell you at dinner par- ties that Francis Bacon, Lord Oxford, Lady Thatcher or whoever wrote the plays. In fact (with his permission) I'm going to photocopy the relevant pages for use in such emergencies. His analysis of that arch- Shakespeare-hater, Tolstoy, is brilliant. I was almost (but not quite) convinced by his analysis of how Shakespeare outwrote or rewrote Marlowe. My only real disappoint- ment (the reviewer here briefly imagines that it is he who is writing the book) is that Bate did not analyse Shakespeare's attitude to publication: the apparent fact that, although he carefully supervised publica- tion of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, he seems to have shown complete indifference as to whether his plays — or indeed his sonnets — ever made it into print. I think such an analysis would have further strengthened Bate's overall case, his attempt to put his finger on what con- stitutes Shakespeare's genius, a two-word summary of which is given at theend of this review.

These stray remarks give some idea of the range of Bate's book, which sometimes reads more like a collection of essays than a continuous narrative. Nor is a lot of what he says completely new. But, as he would say of Shakespeare, this is as much a strength as a weakness. For example, I found his identification of the Earl of Southampton as the young man addressed in the sonnets most convincing. So much so that I found myself wondering 'what will the reviewers make of this?' before coming to with the nasty realisation that I was one of the reviewers in question, and that there was nowhere to hide.

Reviews should address themselves to two questions: 'is the book worth reading?' and that posed by the taxi-driver to Bertie Russell in the back of his cab: 'what's it all about then?' The first encourages people to go out and read the thing, the second makes it unnecessary. So, in answer to the first question, yes. Excellent. Amusing and stylishly written. Non-dogmatic. Wide- ranging and at times touching on the profound. Well worth reading. In answer to the second? Negative Capability. Good old Keats.

About this "chameleon" you sold me . .