One of the continuing phenomenons of the Shakespeare authorship debate is how mainstream scholarship continually reworks the Stratford story in response to anti-Stratfordian pressure, while at the same time dismissing those who they are busily co-opting.

The latest version of this old tale comes from English scholar Jonathan Bate in his new book Soul of the Age: the life, mind and world of William Shakespeare. In a review of this book last week in Times online Bate’s fellow Stratfordian John Guy gives us a sampling from a book he describes as “the most eloquent evocation of Shakespeare that one is ever likely to encounter.” Guy informs us straight up that Bate “selects only the material that, he believes, will help to reveal Shakespeare’s cultural DNA” while “blind alleys such as the identities of the Dark Lady or Mr. W. H. are sidestepped, as is speculation about Shakespeare’s sexuality, religion or political beliefs.” In other words, let’s make our boy more real, but let’s sidestep the real world in which he lived, and God forbid that we really try to get inside his head. Well, not entirely sidestep. Guy continues that “Bate argues that the ‘lovely boy” sequences … reflect the bisexual, homoerotic milieu of the early Jacobean court, and have nothing to do with Shakespeare’s own encounters.”

At this point any fair minded reader of this review may say out loud, “Yikes!!” For what Guy is now saying about his fellow traveler Bate is that he is doing something that mainstream scholarship has made a cornerstone of their Stratfordian belief-is-biography system for centuries, namely describing a “Shakespeare” who absorbed everything he needed from the world around him … the “milieu.” Stratman was SpongeWill, the great absorber of his time.

But what makes this latest version of “SpongeWill” most interesting is where Bate apparently goes with it. As Guy explains, “Bate believes that Shakespeare invented ‘deep England’, a rustic idyll centred on the Midlands that delights in mingling morris men and royal spectacle … An idea of ‘deep England’ first appears in Justice Shallow’s scenes in Henry IV, Part 2, and is increasingly voiced in the History plays, until in King John Shakespeare asks who will speak for England during a bloody war of succession, when power hungry leaders cannot agree.”

“Mingling morris men and royal spectacle?” And yet, a moment later, “a bloody war of succession when power hungry leaders cannot agree?” There is much more to say about Guy’s review, Bate’s book and what both tell us about the current state of the authorship debate, circa 2009. Stay tuned.

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