Bart Van Es

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

Our leading Shakespeare scholar is the latest academic to meld autobiography with literary criticism – but the personal voice comes with attendant risks

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature
Jonathan Bate. [Alamy]
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Mad About Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room

Jonathan Bate

William Collins, pp. 320, £25

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities by grant applications and rather narrow models of what counts as research. In place of professionalism, these are books about human beings and the specialness of art.

Mad About Shakespeare follows this trend. Jonathan Bate tells us he wanted to write a memoir about his life with Shakespeare and a book about the effect of mental illness on a series of writers he has loved, including Samuel Johnson, Edward Thomas, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. The ‘mad’ of his title also hints at his mother’s struggle with depression, an intermittent theme. Bate is the nation’s most prominent Shakespeare scholar, the author of books such as Shakespeare and Ovid and The Genius of Shakespeare. This memoir tells us about his schooldays, his lifelong passion for the theatre and the key steps of his academic career. We see him in conversation with important figures in the acting world, including Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale and Judi Dench, especially on the topic of madness on stage.

The author is not, from the outset, an all-knowing scholar. The teenage Bate, opinionated and precocious, argues with his father about Henry V. Bate Senior, a second world war veteran and classics teacher, has a strong emotional attachment to the play’s patriotic speeches, whereas his son, brought up on Wilfred Owen, sides with Falstaff and scoffs at notions of honour. Bate’s recollection of these exchanges is touching, especially as they are shadowed by his father’s early death, with such quarrels still unresolved, and by the cloud of his mother’s depression. We see the richness of Shakespeare’s Henriad, a trilogy capable of holding these competing readings by father and son.

The sketches of playing cricket, reading widely and travelling in the family Mini to various theatre productions present a picture of a childhood that was largely happy. That same pattern of success and literary passion continues as Bate moves to Cambridge and then Harvard, where he takes his first strides as a scholar. The intensity of his opening recollection of his father’s death, however, only returns in the book’s final pages. There, in an urgent present tense, he describes the way in which a holiday in the Mediterranean – ‘happiness is here: your family, the sun, the few weeks of distance from the pressure of work’ – suddenly turned to near tragedy when his five-year-old daughter lost consciousness and began to turn purple. The account is literally breathtaking. Spare description is intercut with fragments of quotation from Woolf, Martial, Julian of Norwich and Shakespeare, among others. At the end of the book we feel we have been on a journey.

The middle part of the memoir, in which Bate tells us about Dr Johnson’s depression and the comparable struggles of Woolf, Thomas and Plath, presents a greater challenge when it comes to tone. Here the narrator is an established academic, highly knowledgeable about his subject and mixing with the great and the good. At one point, in response to a request from Prince Charles, Bate pens a quick defence of Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays attributed to him.

We cannot blame him for his eminence, knighted for his services to English literature, but it is hard to see how in this section the element of autobiography helps with the literary criticism. In the earlier part of the book, where Bate deals with his mother’s depression, personal experience casts light on Shakespeare’s treatment of mental illness. By contrast, in the middle section, Bate’s glamorous life and his subject matter are at variance.

The personal voice always comes with attendant risks. One short episode in an otherwise beautiful description of his daughter’s health crisis illustrates this. Having rushed to intensive care, Bate finds that his car is illegally parked, crossing into an adjacent bay. There is a yellow ticket on the windscreen and he appeals to the traffic policeman, who tells him that ‘in the circumstances, sir, I will re-sin this ticket’. This ‘glorious malapropism of re-sin for rescind’, Bate writes, makes the policeman a second Dogberry, the constable from Much Ado About Nothing, who is ‘the most lovable of Shakespeare’s clowns... who gets his words wrong but is the embodiment of innocence and kindness’. It is logical that someone whose mind runs on Shakespeare quotations should make that connection, but the voice here is too urbane and knowing at a moment of deep personal crisis. Perhaps the fusion of memoir and literary criticism works best when the author is vulnerable? The slight problem with Mad About Shakespeare is that Bate feels so comfortable, happy and sane.