Jonathan Bate has a true novelist’s gift for scene setting and story telling. He spots interesting details and connections overlooked by previous writers, allowing his lively imagination to play freely around them. This lends freshness and charm to many passages in his latest book, especially its opening sections, such as ‘The Discovery of England’. These also pleased me, I confess, because of occasional similarities to the opening chapter of my own Ungentle Shakespeare (2001). But Bate fashions many delightful and original vignettes of his own, such as a scene in which Lord Burghley sits in his Whitehall office with Saxton’s ‘newly minted’ map of England and Wales hanging on the wall. He also suggests cogently that Shakespeare’s status as ‘a provincial outsider’ contributed to a keen fascination with more extreme outsiders such as Shylock and Othello, and notices Shakespeare’s avoidance of London-based comedy in favour of a single farce located ‘in bourgeois small-town Windsor, a place far more like Stratford’.
Even in the opening sections, however, Bate’s affable fluency can carry him away. Like many readers of Venus and Adonis, he discerns the memories of ‘a country boy’ in the poet’s evocation of ‘poor Wat’, a hunted hare which darts to and fro in desperate terror. But his conclusion that