<B>The tumultuous times of England's greatest writer</B>While the works of William Shakespeare are for the ages, they were written in a particular place and time. We can better appreciate the Bard's achievement if we are aware of events and profound changes that took place during the Elizabethan era, particularly in London, that significantly influenced him. Frank Kermode, the eminent British literary critic and historian of 16th and 17th-century literature, provides this important context in <B>The Age of Shakespeare</B>. This gem of a book gives us an historical overview of national politics, the place of religion, the development of professional drama and theater and changes at many levels of society in the early stages of capitalism, as well as the little we know for certain about Shakespeare's life, conjectures about it and insights into the plays.
Kermode characterizes Shakespeare as "only the grandest of the poets" during a time when the arts, especially poetry and theater, flourished. While his importance cannot be underestimated, Shakespeare's "was an age of vast and various poetic achievement, a period unparalleled in the history of anglophone poetry." Many of these poets wrote for the theater as well, although those who did not included Edmund Spenser, usually regarded as the master poet of the period. It may be that Shakespeare's original intent was to be a page-poet rather than a poet for the stage. He may have turned to the theater to make a living.
<B>The Age of Shakespeare</B> also explores in some detail the fascinating subject of the development of dramaticblank verse, the writing format that Shakespeare preferred and perfected. With regard to the poet's influence on language, Kermode states, "it is hardly too much to call it a revolutionary change in dramatic language, even a transformation of English itself, now alive to a new range of poetic possibilities." Still, Kermode doesn't discount the acting skills of Richard Burbage and other veteran actors, who enabled Shakespeare to create his many complex characters; he devotes much attention to the development of acting styles of the time.
Shakespeare's history plays represent a fourth of his total theatrical output. Despite the possibility of censorship, they dealt with the sensitive subject of royal secession, on the minds of many people during the Tudor period. In those days, Kermode asserts, "the whole issue was bound up inseparably with religious differences, and religion could mean war." Many English Catholics, for example, believed that Elizabeth was not a legitimate ruler and should therefore be ousted from the throne. <I>Macbeth</I>, of all the great tragedies, is considered by Kermode to be most relevant to current events in early 17th-century England. Kermode highlights the allusions to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the interrogation of the conspirators involved, while tagging the Weird Sisters as a reference to the King's well-known interest in witchcraft. This authoritative companion to William Shakespeare's works, life and times is consistently enlightening and entertaining. <I>Roger Bishop is a bookseller in Nashville and a contributing editor to BookPage.</I>