How does one manage "to write briefly on Shakespeare and his age"? This is the self-declared aim of Frank Kermode in his vade-mecum to Shakespeare's works. It is a difficult task, which Kermode fulfils at times brilliantly, at times reductively.
Broad coverage is enabled by inevitably frustrating compression. There are omissions: the "least interesting" of the problem plays, the allegedly "inferior" All's Well that Ends Well . There are offhand dismissals: The Merry Wives of Windsor (citing W. H. Auden as precedent). There are tantalising but undeveloped historical hints: Elizabeth might have married the Earl of Leicester "given the right circumstances". Performance issues are not introduced until halfway through the book. There are contradictions: Kermode targets "sentimentality" as "a nuisance in Shakespeare studies" yet offers a sentimentally Shakespeare-centric narrative, as when the (imagined) company conference of the Chamberlain's Men decides on the death of Falstaff; this was a task so delicate it was "understandably left to Shakespeare".
The book is at its best when it offers analysis of Shakespeare's language. Here Kermode's talents are effortlessly, even incidentally, displayed. He rescues the word "imagination" from its Coleridgean associations and anchors it politically: to Shakespeare it was "juridically associated with treasonable plotting, or even with just thinking about such plotting, against the monarch's life". The oppositions of "wit" and "will", of "might" and "grace", in Love's Labour's Lost are shown to be theologically charged ("mastery over the passions cannot be achieved by man's unaided effort but only by the prior intervention of the grace of God"). Kermode notices in The Merchant of Venice the oddity of the adjective "gentle" being applied to a ship. In the romances he analyses dense and complex language, with a masterly unpacking of the word "simple" in Pericles . "This is an early warning to those who find the last plays simple; not even the word 'simple' is simple." The Age of Shakespeare thus analyses in a chronological and more inclusive fashion the eclectic commonplace-book selections of Shakespeare's Language .
Kermode also makes important new points. Literary criticism is biased towards Shakespeare as a dramatist, but Kermode stresses that Shakespeare probably went to London "not as an actor and not with theatrical ambitions, but as a poet seeking a patron... It could well be that Shakespeare's first ambition was to be a page-poet rather than a stage-poet". This view has recently received emphatic statement and convincing exploration by critics such as Patrick Cheney, and it is good to add Kermode's voice in support.
Kermode takes on the entire school of New Historicism by suggesting that the theatre had less "political relevance and power" than is currently alleged. And he stresses the importance of non-literary source material to Shakespeare's imagination: wall paintings and stained glass, or the theatrical elements in society such as the treatment of lepers.
This book is aimed at the general reader who seeks an introduction to Shakespeare's literary and historical world. The needs of the imagined reader are served unevenly, however. Kermode feels the need to explain "Maundy Thursday" yet regularly uses the specialist term "humanist" without defining it. Surely those who do not understand the former will have trouble with the latter?
Laurie Maguire is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
The Age of Shakespeare
Author - Frank Kermode
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 194
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 297 84881 X