Since the label genius is one of those cultural laurels that conservative thinkers use to close discussion, rather than open debate, it is hardly surprising that few academics have engaged with the concept. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate, King Alfred professor of English literature at Liverpool University, takes issue with cultural conservatives and with politically correct radicals to explain how a dramatist of humble origins 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 duke of Southampton. Given the sources, this is as credible as most other interpretations. More daring is Bate's solution to the conundrum 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 answer to 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 grammar-school boy 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 all the rules of classical decorum, his 18th-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 as 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 confirmation of their world-view in his works.
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 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 that his contemporaries. 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 20th 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.
To readers of Bate's earlier work -the academic studies Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (1986) and Shakespearean Constitutions (1989) -much of this will be familiar. The Genius of Shakespeare, however, is aimed squarely at the general reader. Although cultural materialists are sure to be as exasperated as conservatives, 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 oversimplification.
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 lot about the making of a literary reputation, it is also a fascinating account of how plays are lifeless unless they are performed.
Aleks Sierz is theatre critic of Tribune and teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, London.
The Genius of Shakespeare
Author - Jonathan Bate
ISBN - 0 330 35317 9
Publisher - Picador
Price - £20.00
Pages - 372