The Whole World Is a Work of Art: On Jonathan Bate’s “Mad About Shakespeare”

Tom Sperlinger reviews Jonathan Bate’s new book “Mad About Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room.”

The Whole World Is a Work of Art: On Jonathan Bate’s “Mad About Shakespeare”

Mad About Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room by Jonathan Bate. William Collins. 320 pages.

A FEW YEARS AGO, I ran a reading group at a local charity in Bristol that supported men and women who had experienced addiction or other mental health challenges, or who had spent time in prison. We read short pieces that we could share aloud in the group, including an extract from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. At the start of the session on Shakespeare, I asked the group to talk about friendships from their own lives. A woman called Laura gave an example of a childhood friend, Jo, with whom she had lost touch but who had done well in life. Jo contacted Laura when she was in recovery from addiction: “When I first met her again, she was a totally different person. She was really well-to-do. But, within five minutes, that guard was down and she was back to Jo, who I knew from school: ‘Oh, there’s Jo — look, there you are!’ It was really beautiful.”

We went on to read scenes from The Winter’s Tale. The group were skeptical about whether they would understand what we were reading. Gradually, however, the complexities of the language fell away, and we were left with the mystery of why and how a statue of Hermione, who has died during the play, comes to life at the end. Laura said that she didn’t think Hermione is really a statue but that the scene describes a change in the attitude of her husband, Leontes: “When he’s looking at her as a statue, he’s got no emotion — and he’s ashamed of himself for it. I experienced that with my friend. But as soon as he touches her hand and finds out it’s warm, the emotion comes out again. It’s a ‘there’s Jo’ kind of thing.”

In his new book Mad About Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room, Jonathan Bate explains that the text began as two separate projects: a memoir about his own life as a Shakespeare scholar and a book about the effect of mental illness on writers, including Samuel Johnson and Edward Thomas. The result is a “bibliomemoir” that explores how Bate’s reading is informed by his life (and vice versa), just as Laura utilized her own experience to illuminate Leontes’s recognition of Hermione. Traditionally, literary critics have been embarrassed by readings that draw explicitly on the life of the reader, but bibliomemoirs have become increasingly popular.

Bate is known principally for his work on Shakespeare and his pioneering ecocriticism. He has written movingly about mental health before, in his biographies of John Clare and Ted Hughes, and has published a novel, The Cure for Love (1998), that draws on a breakdown experienced by William Hazlitt. In Mad About Shakespeare, some of the most affecting readings are of Sylvia Plath’s work. Bate recounts a wedding anniversary at which his family presented his grandmother with her first fridge, and she broke “into hysterics”: “‘What’s wrong with Gran?’ I asked in the car on the way home. This was the first time I heard the words ‘nervous breakdown.’” Bate reveals that it was through Plath’s The Bell Jar that he came to understand his grandmother’s experiences, including the periodic electroconvulsive therapy with which she was treated. He is frank, as he reads Plath, about his own fears of madness and a “dark inheritance,” which also haunted his mother.

Bate frames his book in relation to a question from Aristotle: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?” He pursues this inquiry further by asking: “Whom does the melancholy, the madness, serve?” His answer is that reading and writing collect wisdom for us, helping to sate what William Empson called “the general human desire for experience.” It is frustrating that Bate doesn’t consider a shadow argument here, even to refute it: what if reading and writing sometimes serve the purpose of dissociation rather than connection, taking us not toward life but away from it? It is striking that arguments for the power of literature, including Bate’s, often take for granted that such power is always benign.

The literary elements of the book are uneven. Bate offers illuminating anecdotes from his life as a public scholar. He gives an enjoyable account of being “accosted by Prince Charles during the interval of a performance of Henry V”: the then-heir to the throne wanted Bate’s help with an argument that he had each Christmas with Prince Philip, about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. The answer Bate provides on the authorship controversy is compelling. At other times, his account of the life of a don in the public eye sounds close to a parody in the style of David Lodge. For example, he reports several conversations with famous actors, sometimes in clumsy prose: “I have been lucky enough to discuss the nature of Lear’s imperfect mind with several actors who have played the role. One night over dinner, Simon Russell Beale told me about his approach.”

Mad About Shakespeare is bookended with two affecting episodes: the death of Bate’s father — of a sudden heart attack in 1978, when the author was an undergraduate — and a life-threatening illness his daughter, Ellie, experienced in 2005, when she was five. Bate relates the drive back to his family home, after hearing his father had been taken ill, and an evening at the hospital after his daughter first became acutely unwell:

The drive up the town had never seemed longer. I remembered the previous weekend: Dad had played his last game of cricket on a beautiful village ground nestling below the Downs. He had made twelve runs and was delighted to hear in the evening that I had scored a fifty on the same day. […]

I stay in the parents’ room for a while, trying to grab some sleep on a hard, insufficiently long sofa. Pulling a blanket over me, I pray — not something I do habitually, but the thing almost all of us do at such a time. Why a five-year-old child, why not me? Let it be me instead. If she recovers, I will do anything. If she survives, I will do anything.

The writing in each episode is unsparing and without affectation. Bate writes beautifully about how it feels to live in the most painful uncertainty, caught between the dreadful possibility of loss and the yearning to hope.

The join is still a little visible between the two projects Bate brought together in this book. The voice of the memoir writer (uncertain, open, working from particular experience) is compellingly rendered. But it sits uneasily alongside that of the literary critic, with its expert tone and more general point of view. I found myself wishing that Bate’s accounts of his student days (which are sometimes repetitive) had been balanced by insights from his life as a teacher, which might have provided the glue between the memoir and the critical writing. A researcher’s certainties often dissolve in the classroom, as an established perspective is challenged by other readers. Bate could also have considered the social (as well as personal) life of some of his favorite books by including the perspectives of diverse students he has taught.

Bate closes by quoting Virginia Woolf, a constant presence in the book, who thought that “the whole world is a work of art,” that a work like Hamlet is “the truth,” and that “there is no Shakespeare” except in the life of his readers: “[W]e are the words; we are the music.” Bate’s enjoyable book tests Woolf’s theory against a range of his own experiences — sane and insane, joyful and desperate, familiar and strange — and, in the process, creates space for other readers to perform their own experiments in life and art.


Tom Sperlinger is a professor at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine (2015) and co-author of Who Are Universities For? (2018).

LARB Contributor

Tom Sperlinger is a professor at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine (2015) and co-author of Who Are Universities For? (2018).


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