The Shakespeare Wars
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by Ron Rosenbaum
When Ron Rosenbaum finished writing the book Explaining Hitler in the late 1990s, he sank into a profound depression. He had spent years trying to understand Hitler’s inner world, interviewing scholars, victims, and apologists. By the time it was over, Rosenbaum knew all about Hitler’s childhood and family, his sexuality and neuroses. He’d pondered the instinct to mythologize evil as well as the compulsion to explain it away. The book was a success, but the author was left feeling gloomy and enervated.
What finally cured Rosenbaum’s malaise was not medicine or psychotherapy, but the language of William Shakespeare. Rosenbaum took to wandering the streets of New York with headphones on, listening to Shakespearean plays and feeling strangely invigorated. He maintains that this life-giving force radiated not from the plots or characters, themes or morals, but from the words themselves—the “untold levels of resonance compressed within” each line. He began writing again, this time dwelling on a subject that enthralled and delighted him: the incantatory power within Shakespeare’s words.
Interviews: "Ranting Against Cant" (July 16, 2003)
Harold Bloom, a staunch defender of the Western literary tradition, returns to Shakespeare, "the true multicultural author."
Flashbacks: "Looking for Shakespeare" (February 13, 1999)
Did Shakespeare actually write the plays and poems he's famous for? In 1991 The Atlantic published a debate of sorts on the topic.
If Explaining Hitler was Rosenbaum’s inferno, his newest book, The Shakespeare Wars, is his journey through ethereal realms. The spirits he meets there—professors, directors, anthologizers—are unified in their devotion to the Bard, but they occupy different spheres. Some are fixated on Shakespeare’s spelling, or the proper way to read iambic pentameter. Others are preoccupied with small differences between the 1604 Quarto and 1623 Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays—the question, for instance, of whether Hamlet’s last utterance is “O, o, o, o.” (In the Folio, but not the Quarto, these syllables follow the immortal phrase, “The rest is silence.”)
Unlike the Hitler book—whose discussions are inherently, if grotesquely, fascinating—The Shakespeare Wars is about scholarly quibbles that might seem insignificant to the average reader. Rosenbaum knows this, and from the beginning, he strives to sweep others into his own euphoric orbit. “I want you to care about the argument over pleasure in Shakespeare,” he declares in the preface, and then adds, “Let me begin by describing why I care.” He launches into the first chapter with a life-changing experience he had in Stratford while watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That 1970 production, put on by the legendary director Peter Brook, is best remembered for its avant-garde set design: stark white walls, shiny satin costumes, “trees” made of kinetic metal coils that resembled giant Slinkies. But Rosenbaum insists that the dialogue, not the images, cast the most potent spell:
It wasn’t the trapezes, the juggling, the stilts, the whirring plates spinning on poles, the whirling light sticks…. I’ve come to believe, on the contrary, that what made it so thrilling was not the way in which Brook’s Dream was new but rather the way it was radically old…. [The company] had so totally mastered the technical and emotional nuances of the verse that it sounded less like recitation than utterances torn from them…. The speech bubbled up, burst out, and then sparkled like uncorked champagne. And it had something of a champagne-like effect on me; I felt as if I were imbibing the pure distilled essence of exhilaration.
Passages like this one make The Shakespeare Wars a deeply personal book in spite of its academic subject matter. Although Rosenbaum introduces himself as a Virgil figure, guiding the uninitiated along the paths of Shakespeare theory, he often slips into the role of Dante, a star-struck poet struggling to convey the wonders he has seen. At times, he is more participant than observer, launching into spirited attacks against scholars like Donald Foster and Harold Bloom. His inescapable presence on the page has provoked mixed reactions: The Times’ Michiko Kakutani called The Shakespeare Wars “subjective in the extreme,” and Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda, while lauding the book as “a superb overview of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship,” noted that it could have been subtitled “Shakespeare and Me.”
But Rosenbaum’s intimate approach to Shakespeare is ultimately what allows the book to succeed. Throughout its 600 pages, he manages to transmit genuine sparks of bedazzlement and wonder. Even the most polemical passages are oddly endearing, like the ramblings of an intoxicated friend. The Shakespeare Wars may not be delicate or modest, but it accomplishes something extraordinary: it sweeps the dust off academic discourse and proves that centuries-old language can produce palpable exhilaration.
Rosenbaum, who dropped out of Yale’s graduate school of English to become a journalist, has written for The Atlantic as well as The New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Observer. He spoke to me on November 9th from his home in New York City.