Books: The riddle of the sonnets: just an inky slip

THE GENIUS OF SHAKESPEARE by Jonathan Bate Picador pounds 20
When Keats said "Shakespeare led a life of Allegory: his works are the comments on it," he brilliantly developed an idea of William Hazlitt's and made it his own. Now Jonathan Bate, in The Genius of Shakespeare, has picked it up once again. He knows that the facts of Shakespeare's career are simply too sparse to power a biography in which "genius" and "life" are made out to be "co-extensive". More importantly, he understands that any attempt to collapse the difference between them would be disastrous. Shakespeare is the supremely chameleon poet, always losing his identity in order to fill and inform some other body. The only sure way of getting close to him - which Bate does - is to write a book like a polo mint. There's a firm outer ring of fact and opinion; in the middle is a hole swarming with flavours and suggestions.

Sometimes the hole is more interesting than the ring. The word "genius" in Bate's title is not used in its modern sense, but in the way Shakespeare would have understood: "characteristic disposition". As the book explores the disinterestedness of its subject, it has very interesting things to say about the egotistical sublime, abut what this means for the character's motives (or lack of them), and about how other writers have learned from Shakespeare's impartiality. Writers like Borges, for instance, who in his allegory "Everything and Nothing" also follows where Keats led. "There was no one in [Shakespeare]," Borges said. Behind his face "there was only a hint of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one."

Bate keeps his respect for this protean, elusive Shakespeare while tracking him through his "pre-life", his "after-life" and his existence itself. It is a notoriously difficult task. As he examines the few surviving hard facts, he can't help bringing to mind the host of nutters and anoraks who have muddled their status. (He enjoys telling us that one of them, an Edwardian schoolmaster who was the original proponent of the idea that Shakespeare's plays were written by Edward de Vere, was actually called J Thomas Looney.) It is one of the great virtues of his book to feel reliable when separating truth from fantasy, and to secure a sound historical foundation for what survives. There is a pragmatism about his attitude to things, and an urgent plainness in his style, which are deeply sympathetic.

At the same time, there is a willingness to take risks - sometimes by nothing more surprising than plain speaking. In his early pages, for instance, Bate tells us that Shakespeare "saw the dramatist's best hope was to have a stake in the company himself. In that sense he invented the profession of dramatist." Later in the book, as he moves away from orthodox, chronological biography and adopts a thematic approach, he is sometimes frankly speculative.

In his discussion of the autobiographical poems, especially. After picking his way through the whitened bones of critics who have died crazy trying to solve the riddle of the sonnets, he suggests a new candidate for the role of Dark Lady. She is the wife of John Florio, who was placed in Southampton's household by Burghley, and pleasingly happens to have been the sister of the sonneteer Samuel Daniel. Given the evidence Bate offers, this seems plausible. His reaction to the "Mr WH" puzzle is even more straightforward. He thinks the answer is Shakespeare himself: "Could it have been that in the holograph copy for the prefatory statement Thorpe [the publisher] or an assistant wrote 'Mr WS', but that the initials were misread in Eld's [the printers'] shop as WH? Might the mysterious Mr WH, over whom so much ink has been split for so long, be no more than an inky slip, the creation of a misprint?"

Bate's last few chapters, which discuss how Shakespeare became our "national" poet, how some plays might be charged with "colonialism", and how some have been received by composers (Verdi) and painters (Fuseli), turn on questions which can be less easily solved by empirical means. They are more hole than mint. But once again Bate manages to get the best of both worlds. He is particularly revealing about the role played by Romantic politics in making the image of Shakespeare we know today - towering above all our other writers, winking at us in hologram from our credit cards. And also excellent about how that image can be corrupted for crude nationalistic purposes. Quite properly, he not only chides politicians like Kenneth Baker for serving up a Bard who fought beside Laurence Olivier on celluloid, but praises writers who have insisted on a more complicated vision of things. He gives a well-earned pat on the back to Edward Thomas, for instance, recommending his excellent anthology This England, which was compiled during the First World War, and pointing out that Thomas's fine-grained vision of home is Shakespeare's too.

However arguments about a national curriculum might ebb and flow in the years to come, Shakespeare's pre-eminence is secure. Yet in order to earn it, he needs to be re-made over and over again, just as he re- made himself in his characters - not just by generations of schoolchildren, but by the teachers who preside over them. Bate's book does just that: honouring the best Shakespeare scholarship, and adding to it in ways that are significant and sensible. It is a valuable, enjoyable and impressive achievement.