What Shakespeare kept on his bookshelf; What Shakespeare Read -- and Thought, by A. L. Rowse. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. $12.95.
There is good reason to suppose that more biblographies-as-biographies have been produced on Shakespeare than any other writer. But the genial follower of A. L. Rowse's Elizabethan scholarship (some 20 books on shakespeare and his times) and TV talk-show celebrity status will not fret. Rowse's enthusiasm for his subject is undiminished, and this, with his easy authority and sense of literary command, makes his newest ambling, sometimes rambling look at what Shakespeare read and thought and did seem correct.
Replete with quotations and attributions, his text starts with an account of Shakespeare's early grounding in the classics and the Scriptures, where Latin was the medium, later evoking Ben Joson's "small Latin and less Greek" account of his the Bard's intellectual background. Of all the romans, Ovid (particularly his "Metamorphoses") seems to have had the most lasting influence on Shakespeare, especially in matters of love.
But, of course, the immensely literate Shakespeare read just about everything available, and Rowse takes pains throughout to cite where others' works were influential -- from Caesar's "Commentaries" and the "Distichs" of Cato to Holinshed's "Chronicles" and Boccaccio's tales, Marlowe's dramas, Spenser's poetry, Montaigne's "Essays," and so much more.
Finding his subject popular, conformist, uncontroversial, and not very topical on the surface, Rowse strongly maintains that no other wordsmith in the language saw the demons of human nature beneath civilization's veneer as clearly as did Shakespeare.
Also provocative, if not new, is Rowse's depiction of Shakespeare as theater man: He finds "double-reflexivity" in lines Shakesspeare wrote for his actors, in which he made a point of reminding his audiences that they were, after all, sitting in a theater, as in "Heny V": "And so our scene must to the battle fly; . . . Yet sit and see,/Minding true things by what their mockeries be."
In discussing the histories Rowse notes their many stirring urgings to battle remind him of an English patriotism not felt since the World War II years. Such observations and Rowse's insistence that the speculation (because of the "Sonnets") that the Bard may have been a homosexual lack credence give the book its varied personal ity -- cheerful, cranky, meditative, euphoric.