The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode. 2004. Read in March 2006.
This the first book I chose to read for the very reason that it was about Shakespeare. I read it a couple of years before the Great Shakespeare Mania began in my life, and it undoubtedly contributed to it via my old passion history more than my other old passion literature.
Kermode starts with a couple of chapters on the reformation and the succession problem when Henry VIII dies and Elizabeth ascends to the throne. Into Elizabethan London a young Shakespeare makes his way in chapter three. I actually didn't underline anything in this chapter, which dealt more than was interesting about whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic (probably not, concludes Kermode) and the fact that we know almost nothing of this part of Shakespeare's life. The most significant sentence I found now while going through the chapter was, “It was in this age that the book became a familiar object, with incalculable consequences” (page 38). One of the bestsellers of the time was Shakespeare's epic poem Venus and Adonis.
The next two chapters deal with the Lord Chamberlain's Men and theater in general at the time. And the following chapter gets into Shakespeare's early plays, putting them in a context of the literary traditions of the time and to allusions of timely political events which the audiences would recognize. Kermode makes an interesting observation on Henry V (which I hadn't yet read at the time but had seen Branagh's film) in which a the foot-soldier Williams remained uninspired by the king's patriotic speech. Kermode notes: “the part of the surly Williams is so strongly written, his arguments so persuasive compared with Henry's that we are left querying our assent to the royal cause, however warmly solicited” (page 81). I made a note in the margin “see Milton justifying God”. Contemporary times and later eras have seen both Henry and God as the good guys but careful reading of Henry V shows (as history itself does) that Henry was the aggressor and invader, while Milton quite convincingly shows in Paradise Lost that Satan and Eve had very good reason to rebel against a tyrannical petulant God. Neither Shakespeare nor Milton have created simple jingoist characters in Henry and God, and their purpose surely was to show that these two, one a historical figure and the other a long-lived but never proven rumor, weren't the cardboard good guys some people would have them be. All in all, Shakespeare's Henry is more likeable than Milton's God.
The remaining three chapters deal with the Globe, the Shakespeare plays put on at the Globe and the Blackfriars. What I found most interesting as I read these chapters was Kermode's political history. He touches upon the question of republicanism and the ethnicity question of Othello and Caliban in an England that wasn't racist yet but had become involved in the African slave trade. Nobody in the the play, Kermode points out, resents that the general Othello is black, while recent interpretations of Caliban have made him a black slave in the Caribbean even though The Tempest is clearly set in the Mediterranean. The other point Kermode makes is to place the plays in the center of the turbulent times in which they were written. King Lear especially, but other plays as well, “reflect[s] the apocalyptic mood and the fear of the world's decay or decline” in “lines that...convey a real despair at the condition of humanity” (page 139).
The best line in the whole book, that sums up Shakespeare perfectly, is Kermode's comment to those who think that some of Shakespeare's plays are simple: “not even the word 'simple' is simple” (page 165). Something I've noted several times in some of my analyses.
This is a book that I can recommend highly to all history and Shakespeare enthusiasts and it is one I hope to find the time to read again soon.
PS After posting this, I saw on the net that Frank Kermode died at the age of 90 in August, 2010.