Review: Shakespeare and the Nature of Man by Theodore Spencer

This is one of the best books on either Shakespeare or the nature of man that I have ever read. Spencer first lays out the basic ideas of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque in an understandable and interesting way. He moves from there into a, so to speak, play-by-play examination of Shakespeare, moving from the Bard’s earliest works to his last.

Along the way, Spencer tracks a movement in the life and thought of Shakespeare which closely mirrors the familiar outline of his plays. Just as Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate a movement from good through evil to better, so, says Spencer, did Shakespeare’s mind more generally. Spencer sees in the early Shakespeare a naive optimist. With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 and the resultant disorder in Shakespeare’s native England, Spencer believes Shakespeare moved into a definite pessimism, the finest expression of which is in Macbeth but the most definite example of which is in Timon. Finally, Shakespeare emerges from his melancholy with a newly optimistic but no longer naive view of man and the world in his final plays, perhaps best represented in The Tempest.

I have learned about Shakespeare more from this book than from any other. While I sometimes differ from Spencer in his conclusions, there is no doubt that he argues his case well and is overflowing with knowledge about Shakespeare derived from an immersion in his works. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Shakespeare, in the Elizabethan age, in historical anthropology, or in literature.

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