August Books 35) Soul of the Age: the Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate
I read Bates' earlier book, The Genius of Shakespeare, at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed it; this didn't grab me quite as much, but is still very good, concentrating on what Shakespeare's works tell us about his environment - cultural, political and intellectual - rather than on the man and his legacy as in the earlier book. It is organised around the Seven Ages of Man speech, which gives a nice thematic progression. The chapters on the Essex rebellion of 1601, and on Shakespeare's education and philosophy, are particularly worth reading. (It is certainly a book where you can dip in and out for particular chapters.)
I was puzzled therefore by a couple of gaps in the story. There is a good discussion of astrology and astronomy (Shakespeare was clearly a sceptic of horoscopes), but no mention of witchcraft or other aspects of the supernatural, which is a pretty huge lacuna - from Joan La Pucelle and the sorcerous Duchess in Henry VI 1 and 2, to the deities performing in The Tempest, unearthly powers are never far away. The other area which struck me listening especially to the later plays (though perhaps it doesn't fit Bate's intellectual scheme) is Shakespeare's use of music, song and dance as an integral part of the play.
Still, a useful addition to the Shakespeare section of the bookshelf.