The Age of Shakespeare

Frank Kermode's followup to his much-praised Shakespeare's Language (2000) is not a scholarly work in the usual sense but a volume in The Modern Library's Chronicles series. According to the publisher this is “a series of small-format hardcover originals, featuring the world's great historians on the world's great subjects. These [are] authoritative, lively, brief (most under 150 pages), and accessible books that bring history within the reach of the nonspecialist, the general reader.” Having scholars of Kermode's distinction contribute to this series is a real service; for in spite of what the academy may believe, surely one duty of the scholar is to make his or her subject accessible to ordinary readers.

A book of this type and relatively brief length makes special demands on the author and creates its own set of problems and difficulties. What level of knowledge, if any, can the author expect among his intended readers? Should valuable space be devoted to plot summaries, especially of unfamiliar plays? To what extent will the hypothetical reader be interested in the scholarly debates surrounding the subject? Should the focus of the book be on the “age” of the writer (as this title implies), on the author, on the works themselves? If all are to be discussed, how shall the material be organized and presented? Which plays should receive detailed discussion and which lightly passed over?

Kermode addresses these and similar problems in a largely original, if not entirely successful, way. After a short preface in which he notes that the Elizabethan era saw the development of the first truly professional theater in a context of a rapidly expanding capitalist economy, he launches into a brief discussion titled “Reformation and the Succession Problem.” This is an interesting and valuable place to begin, for the religious and dynastic conflicts of William Shakespeare's time are critical to understanding not only his history plays but also the political/religious milieu in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived and worked. Kermode's discussion of these issues is admirably clear and informative—if one is already more or less familiar with the basic facts of the history of the period. Would modern American students and even adult “general readers” know enough to follow Kermode's necessarily condensed account? Would his allusion to “Wyclif and the Lollards in the late fourteenth century” mean anything to them? How many of today's largely unchurched readers would have even the faintest understanding of the issues dividing seventeenth century Protestants and Catholics—or what this division meant in relation to internal politics and foreign relations?

These questions are raised not to call Kermode's strategy into question so much as to illustrate the difficulty of trying to explain in a small space the essential issues he is trying to elucidate. Where can one start on such a subject with the assurance that most readers could follow the discussion? No doubt a British audience, better informed in the country's history than Americans, would encounter few problems with this chapter, but most of the Americans at whom this book is aimed (especially college and university students) would find the discussion somewhat mystifying.

The following chapter, “The England of Elizabeth,” consists of only four pages and in this small space can do little more than skim over a few relevant topics: Elizabeth's habits of granting monopolies and rewarding favorites, capitalism, and London's high and low life, including a glance at its rowdy theaters.

At this point, one might expect Kermode to offer a brief biography of Shakespeare, and indeed he does provide one—of sorts. Rather than begin with the poet's family and birth, followed by an account of his education, Kermode titles this chapter “Shakespeare Goes to London,” in the course of which he alludes briefly to John Shakespeare and his possible adherence to Roman Catholicism. He summarizes briefly the theory that Shakespeare was for some years in the employ of Alexander Hoghton of Lancashire and the subsequent speculation that Shakespeare himself adhered to the old faith. The chapter finally turns to its announced subject and discusses the literary scene in London and the city's varied inhabitants. The result of this approach is that uninitiated readers would learn little about Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, his presumed education (or lack of it), his hasty marriage to an older woman, and his father's rise and fall—all interesting and, one presumes, relevant subjects in a book on the “age” of Shakespeare.

Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to “The Lord Chamberlain's Men” and “The Theaters,” respectively. Surprisingly, much of the space in chapter 4 is devoted to the Essex rebellion of 1601 and the role Shakespeare's Richard II (c. 1595-1596) may have played in that misadventure. Only near the end of the chapter does Kermode get round to explaining briefly the organization and makeup of the chamberlain's men. Chapter 5...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)