Soul of the Age


Of the many influences on Shakespeare, his Warwickshire origins were most important. As the grandson of a yeoman farmer and the son of a failing Stratford-upon-Avon shopkeeper, he belonged to the country, not the city. He did not accumulate property in London, and may even have felt uncomfortable there. Unlike his theatrical contemporaries, he set scenes in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. He had a wide and detailed knowledge of country lore and the medicinal uses of plants, using names which baffled the London compositors who set his plays into print. Bate believes that Shakespeare invented “deep England”, a rustic idyll centred on the Midlands that delights in mingling morris men and royal spectacle. In As You Like It the action is set in Arden, not the Ardennes as in Shakespeare’s source, and the Duke and his men play at being “Robin Hood”. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Athenian wood is full of very English fairies and artisans. 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. “Deep England” is part of the Elizabethan reshaping of national and regional identities. Map-making and “chorography” (the topographical and historical description of a locality) were in vogue.

more from the TLS here.