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4 June 2022

Jonathan Bate: “To me, Shakespeare is the great enabler”

How the acclaimed critic made his journey to popular writing, finds solace in Shakespeare, and took revenge on Cambridge.

By Leo Robson

On 3 February 2020 Simon Schama tweeted in praise of the critic George Steiner, who had died at the age of 90. “First heard him on Moliere in my first term at Cambridge,” Schama recalled, “and imagined all lectures on literature would be as intensely inspiring.” A few hours later, the Shakespearean and eco-critic Jonathan Bate replied, “Ah, those lectures delivered at such speed and with such range, and no more than a single card index of notes.”

Schama and Bate were saluting a forebear – a notably high-minded academic, fluent and retentive, whose methods and mode of address aroused the suspicion of colleagues. As they would have been aware, it was Steiner’s dazzling style that held back his Cambridge career. Bate had already responded to the New York Times obituary by noting its failure to mention his mistreatment at the hands of the English faculty. During their time as students, Bate and Schama had been in thrall to professors who were generally seen to offset breadth and charisma and a taste for addressing the wider public with soundness and authority – the literary critic Christopher Ricks, the historian JH Plumb. But neither Bate nor Schama was accorded the same welcome.

“Let’s not start slagging off Cambridge,” Bate said recently, in his fluent, parched-sounding, not entirely un-Blair-like voice. We were sitting on a bench in Hyde Park. Then he added, “Oh, but why not?” Bate, like Schama a decade or so earlier, had received a First, completed an ambitious PhD (“Studies in Shakespeare and the English romantic imagination”), and then was granted only fixed-term teaching contracts. On five occasions he had been rejected for a permanent post. Bate recalls that he was “essentially exiled” – the same term he applied to Steiner’s decades at the University of Geneva. “I began to think, ‘F*** this for a game of soldiers.’”

Bate’s fortune changed in 1990, when he was in his early thirties. A colleague advised him to apply for a newly vacant chair at Liverpool University. The King Alfred professor was traditionally a Renaissance scholar. Bate had published two books with “Shakespeare” in the title, and was at work on an edition of Titus Andronicus. His initial response was, “That’s ridiculous.” His colleague persuaded him that if he made the shortlist, it might “just show Cambridge that I’ve got some value. So I sort of put in for it, not remotely thinking I would get it, and was duly offered it. In many ways, that was the best decision of my life.” He met his wife, the writer Paula Byrne, with whom he has two sons and a daughter. And as things turned out – and as also proved the case with Schama, who decamped to Oxford at a similar age – Bate’s move was succeeded by contracts with trade publishers, a side career as a broadcaster, a knighthood, and a job in America. He is currently Foundation professor of environmental humanities at Arizona State University, where he moved in 2019, after completing his eight-year term as provost of Worcester College, Oxford, a development which he said could be interpreted as “my way of taking revenge on Cambridge”.

Any case against Bate would turn on a certain sleekness or breeziness. Some academics believe that his cast of mind makes him all too well-suited to being Melvyn Bragg’s go-to guide to English literature on the BBC discussion programme In Our Time. He views the lessons of literature as both applicable – to mental illness and climate change, for example – and also explicable. In reviews published almost 30 years apart his work has been accused first – by the Romantic scholar John Barrell – of being “untroubled by the ambiguities and indeterminacies” in poetry, and then – by the Shakespearean Rhodri Lewis – of “shutting his eyes to the nuances of writing in which difficulty, and with it ambiguity, are deliberate artistic strategies.” Michael Dobson, the impish head of the Shakespeare Institute, once compared him to “a particularly efficient undergraduate” and “a teacher’s pet”, and the image of boyish brilliance is one that’s hard to shake. Bate wears his hair in a quiff, and is one of those men who, as Clive James once said of the sometime Shakespeare sleuth Michael Wood, will be “thin for ever”. He was the youngest recipient of a knighthood for services to literary scholarship. Bragg has invited him to speak first on 13 of his 16 appearances on In Our Time.

Yet Bate also possesses obvious advantages over most other public-minded academics: he is a specialist. Steiner, in My Unwritten Books, recalls aborted projects about the biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham and the medieval encyclopaedist Cecco d’Ascoli. Schama abandoned his specialty – the Dutch Republic and Revolutionary France – for a broad range of TV-friendlier concerns. Bate has devoted his career to a dozen, almost exclusively Anglophone writers. The only project he failed to complete was an Oxford history of Elizabethan literature, which, he said, other people “could do better”. Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, wrote about the definite article, though Russian doesn’t have one; Schama, in Landscape and Memory, called William Camden’s topographic survey Britannia a poem. When Bate makes an error, it tends to be nugatory – for example, calling Milton’s sixteen-line “On Shakespeare” a sonnet.

Bate described himself as “restless” twice during our conversations, but it would be hard to accuse him of over-reach, the Steiner vice, or to adapt the charge once levelled at Schama, that the rapturous reception of his corner-cutting work – in that case, on Rembrandt – prompted “compelling questions about our learned and literate culture”. The critic John Carey calls Bate “the most distinguished literary critic of his generation”. The Columbia professor James Shapiro says that Shakespeareans will still be using Bate’s work in a hundred years. Michael Dobson, stressing that his teacher’s-pet swipe is “ancient”, says that Bate’s work is “characterised by a tremendous grip on minute textual and theatrical detail”, adding that though he writes with a larger audience in mind than many of his colleagues he has been “consistently ahead of most of the curves around which academic Shakespearean scholarship has been bent in our times”.

There is a pertinence to the populism of Bate’s activities. He is concerned with a writer of global fame, and tries to bridge scholarship and performance, the reader and playgoer – “to get him off the page”, as he once put it. One of the reasons that Bate can appear deaf to linguistic multiplicity is that he views, or anyway prefers, poetry, poetic drama and the novel as vehicles of expression, at once lyric and rhetorical, at their best when promoting a particular, more or less secular, and to some degree paraphrasable vision of love, power, psychology and the beauty and fragility of the natural world. He defines “great literature” according to “its supreme affective qualities”. He is also, however, a deft historian of the ways in which literature has been defined and received. In his best work he advances this critical agenda with an exceptional mixture of insights on language, questions of origin and legacy, and socio-cultural context – a trio of concerns he assigns to the pre-eminent figures during his time at Cambridge, Christopher Ricks, Frank Kermode and Raymond Williams.

[See also: How Raymond Williams redefined culture]

Bate’s career isn’t granted much attention in his enjoyable new memoir, Mad About Shakespeare. He recalls that Kenneth Muir, whose edition of King Lear he used at school, was “the grandly titled” King Alfred professor without explaining that barely 15 years later he would himself occupy the position. He recounts in detail his collaboration with Simon Callow on a one-man show about Shakespeare’s life, which played in the West End and New York, but doesn’t mention that the catalyst was Callow’s enthusiasm for Bate’s breakthrough book, The Genius of Shakespeare, published 25 years ago. Instead Bate evokes his relationship with Shakespeare as a schoolboy, with the help of devoted teachers, a rebellious, lovelorn adolescent, an amateur actor, a theatregoer, a filmgoer and a father.

He was born in Kent in 1958. His parents ran a frugal, orderly household. He attended Sevenoaks, where his contemporaries included the directors Adam Curtis and Paul Greengrass, and the punk band the Gang of Four. His father was a war veteran – a captain in the royal artillery – and a classics teacher whose death when Bate was an undergraduate is painfully recalled in the opening chapter of the memoir. The book emphasises Shakespeare’s work as a source of company and consolation, and explores its effect on other writers he discovered along the way, all of whom suffered from mental-health problems, among them Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Mary Lamb and Samuel Johnson. Occasionally, the two strands, though never discrete, are fused. In a harrowing chapter, he recalls preparing the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the Complete Works while his daughter Ellie was recovering from kidney failure and following Johnson’s principle of using hard work – in this case, “the most arduous task” of his professional life – as “a bulwark against despair”, a “survival tool” during two years of dialysis and the wait for a transplant.

At first Bate wanted to specialise in Shakespeare’s classical inheritance. It was theories about fathers and sons that pushed him in a different direction. After finishing his degree he spent a year as a Harkness fellow at Harvard, where he was taught by Walter Jackson Bate, author of a book about the “burden of the past” on English poets. He also read Harold Bloom’s Freudian essay The Anxiety of Influence. “I was kind of bowled over by its brilliance,” he recalled. “But I felt that the model was fundamentally wrong when it came to Shakespeare. Bloom’s big thing is Milton the great inhibitor. To me, Shakespeare is the great enabler.” In the early nineteenth century, while, according to Bloom, they were struggling to write in Milton’s shadow, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats were inspired by Shakespeare’s fluency and humanity. Bate returned to Cambridge, and got to work on a project about Shakespeare’s “afterlife” – scare quotes his – in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which he adapted into a pair of books, one literary, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (1986), the other art-historical, political and meta-critical, Shakespearean Constitutions (1989), which the former Labour Party leader Michael Foot, attracted by its emphasis on the essayist William Hazlitt, called a “little masterpiece”.

By the time Bate started publishing books, he entered a different debate about the character of Shakespeare’s influence. A set of critical procedures, a compound of Marxism and Michel Foucault, which went under the name New Historicism in the United States and cultural materialism in Britain, emphasised Shakespeare’s work in relation to power, in his own time and the present. The approach was defined as “a combination of historical context, theoretical method, political commitment and textual analysis”. It was “materialist” as opposed to “idealist” as most Shakespeare criticism had been since the Romantics – preoccupied with the conditions of production and reception, not based on literary and aesthetic principles. Shakespeare’s work, as described in this account, had been a sponge for meanings, a tool of power, a symbol of nationalism, a representative of Elizabethan state ideology whose continuing centrality to English life was displayed in the playwright’s treatment by politicians, the national curriculum and the BBC.

Bate offered a counter to these claims, not simply by reasserting Shakespeare’s timeless greatness, or true radicalism, or beneficial impact, but with an alternative historical argument, derived in part from Marxism. He acknowledged that Shakespeare was a construction. In 1989, the same year as Shakespearean Constitutions showed that Shakespeare had been an “icon” and “cipher”, Bate wrote an essay showing that Shakespeare only fulfilled our definition of original genius because “the idea of original genius emerged” during the Romantic era “as a way of explaining the phenomenon of Shakespeare”. Bate also argued, however, that Shakespeare had never been successfully appropriated for any single cause and that his susceptibility to appropriation – no doubt abetted by the paucity of biographical facts – rendered him not meaningless, or a plaything of power, but classic. His work was shape-shifting, not malleable. Bate found a way of resisting iconoclasm without dismissing the need for a materially attuned poetics as James Wood was inclined to do when he took on the political Shakespeareans in the protracted “Bardbiz” debate that unfolded on the letters page of London Review of Books.

At Liverpool Bate continued plugging what he considered gaps in Shakespeare studies, editing The Romantics on Shakespeare, writing Shakespeare and Ovid. He also brought out Romantic Ecology, his “preliminary sketch towards a literary ecocriticism”. I asked him why he decided to start writing for a popular readership. “It’s interesting that you call that a decision,” he said. In 1988 Bate had been dazzled by Deborah Warner’s realist production of Titus Andronicus at the Barbican, in London, and shared his enthusiasm with Jane Armstrong, who was overseeing the third Arden printing of the plays. This was how Bate “became a textual editor”, he writes in Mad About Shakespeare, a role that later extended to co-editing the Complete Works, which has just been reissued. But it was also how he became a writer – or, in his words, “a writer who is also a scholar, rather than a scholar who tries to write things”.

An excerpt from Bate’s Arden introduction appeared in 1995 in the Times Literary Supplement under the headline “The truth of rape” – basically saying that Titus is “not the s*** play everybody always used to say it was”. He heard from David Godwin, who had just started a literary agency. “He said, ‘I want to have lunch with you tomorrow.’ Then he said, ‘Can it be next week?’” Godwin had decided to travel to India to meet a young novelist. “So he went and got Arundhati Roy – and her million-pound advance.” (She later thanked him as the “flying agent”.) “And he also got me.” If the call hadn’t come, Bate said, “I think I would have carried on writing, you know, just regular academic books.” (In fact, in 1994, he told the Times’s education editor, “I am not interested in writing for a small body of professors.”)

It had been a long time since a book on Shakespeare intended for the general reader. His work was hardly out of fashion, but there had been a comparative lull in popular engagement. Bate thought it would be “pretty boring” to write a biography of Shakespeare. He proposed instead a biography of the idea of Shakespeare, a one-stop-shop encompassing the concerns of his academic work. In the summer of 1997, barely two years after the Titus piece, the same TLS slot ran an article called “Words in a quantum world”, about modern physics and Measure for Measure – an excerpt from The Genius of Shakespeare, the “genius” intended to be slightly italicised. “A university press book is led by an argument,” Bate told me. “A trade book has to be led by a narrative, by stories.” His book, which is still in print as a Picador Classic, was full of them. (The final one, about Wittgenstein’s loathing of Shakespeare, was something he learned from a lecture by Steiner.)

During the short period Bate was working on the book, a Shakespeare boom was developing. A new open-air performance space, the mock-Elizabethan Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, began staging productions on the South Bank of the Thames. There was a handful of prominent adaptations, notably Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Between the publication of The Genius of Shakespeare and 2005, when I started as an undergraduate, at the University of Warwick, where Bate had recently moved, there was an outpouring of popular books by scholars whose work had previously been confined to academic presses, among them Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language and James Shapiro’s 1599, which was awarded the non-fiction prize named after the greatest Shakespearean, Samuel Johnson.

Bate seemed to have moved on, to other, more Romantic interests, with a novel about Hazlitt (The Cure for Love), the first full-dress biography of John Clare, and The Song of the Earth, a study of poetry and the environment that he calls “my most rigorous and probably my most important book”. In fact, Bate was busy preparing his complete edition for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Dobson identified it as “the first edition of Shakespeare to provide a link to its editor’s blog”.) He was also at work on Soul of the Age, perhaps his masterpiece, which does for Shakespeare’s worldview what The Genius of Shakespeare did for his reputation. He began work with Simon Callow and helped to curate a British Museum show. Shakespeare never went away.

A few weeks ago, I drove Bate to Stratford-upon-Avon to attend the celebration of Shakespeare’s 458th birthday. On the way there we talked about the Cambridge triumvirate of Ricks, Kermode and Williams. Bate reflected that while he revered their work as critics, he had tried to do something they hadn’t: write books characterised by formal invention, such as his lop-sided account of Wordsworth, which presented the disappointing second half of his life through the eyes of the Victorians, or his dual biography of Keats and the self-described “Keatzian” F Scott Fitzgerald, which he based on Plutarch’s notion of “parallel lives”. We talked about Bate’s other recent projects, his Life of Ted Hughes, which changed shape from a literary-critical account to a book full of paraphrase after Hughes’s widow, Carol, withdrew authorisation, and How the Classics Made Shakespeare, which derived from lecture series he gave at the Warburg Institute and Gresham College. As part of the Gresham job, he was required to produce a full transcript to hand out to the audience, which flew in the face of his usual habit of talking without notes.

In the morning we attended an event at the Town Hall, where Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh were being given the honorary freedom of the town. There were encomia. Dench and Branagh lingered outside with some sheep. Someone shouted, “Well done on the Oscar, Ken.” (His film Belfast had just won Best Original Screenplay.) Then Bate went off to the gift shop of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and among the mugs and key-rings, signed copies of Mad About Shakespeare.

Later on Bate delivered the anniversary lecture at the Shakespeare Institute – an attempt on the part of scholarship, Michael Dobson explained, to make itself heard on a weekend devoted to pageantry and performance. It wasn’t just the eve of Shakespeare’s birthday. It was also Earth Day, and Bate had decided to talk about climate and weather in a handful of Shakespeare’s plays. Bate’s work as an eco-critic has been largely concerned with the radical environmentalism of Wordsworth and Clare, but he has always reserved a space for Shakespeare, discussing The Tempest in The Song of the Earth and writing inventively about the evidence of “field education” – his green-fingered sensibility – in Soul of the Age. Bate’s earliest article, which appeared in 1982, under the name A Jonathan Bate, considered whether the word “Angelica” in versions of Romeo and Juliet was a herb or the name of the Nurse.

Bate had changed into a pink, pin-striped suit, with a yellow Shakespeare-themed tie. “I thought I’d give you a bit of colour,” he told a passing postgraduate. Dobson, after a brief welcome, handed over to Paul Edmondson, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, adding that he was glad not to be introducing Bate, as reeling off his achievements tended to induce in fellow academics a mixture of exhaustion and envy. Edmondson recalled that after The Genius of Shakespeare was published a student at the Shakespeare Institute produced a poster in which Bate’s headshot appeared in four vibrant colours, like Warhol’s Marilyn. Bate took to the lectern, long-necked, slightly regal, reminiscent at times of another great popular Shakespearean, Kenneth Tynan. He explained how the scientific rejection of astrology paved the way for “our denial of obligation” to the planet. He considered Edmund, in King Lear, as a forerunner of the climate-change denier, rejecting the relevance of cosmology to human behaviour in his speech about the relationship of personal fortune to the sun, the moon and the stars. The lecture showed that Bate has found a way of fusing scholarship and performance, of being exciting, poppy, easy on the ear, illuminating, plausible, neatly argued. It was clearly based in almost 50 years of thinking about the subject. And yet there wasn’t a single index card in sight.

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