Interviews December 2006

Shakespeare Unleashed

Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars, on releasing the "infinite energies" within Shakespeare's words.


Ron Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum
Photo by Nina Roberts

The Shakespeare Wars is about academic disputes, but you approach them in a very personal way. Why did you decide to make yourself such a central figure in this book?

Well, the book is an odyssey into an exciting, controversial realm unfamiliar to most non-specialists, and I felt like I was serving as a guide. I really wanted to bring home to readers the thrill of engaging with the brilliant scholars and directors who I think are the real central figures.

I haven’t always been so riveted by Shakespeare and Shakespeareans. I studied Shakespeare, I taught Shakespeare briefly, read it on the page, saw it in productions, but was not really a Shakespearean until I saw Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. For me that was transformative because ever after, reading it on the page became a different experience. Seeing a production that incandescent somehow electrified the words on the page when I went back to read them.

Also, when I was working on the book Explaining Hitler, I found that when you sit down to talk with a scholar or a philosopher, you learn things you wouldn’t have learned from their scholarly papers. For instance, when I sat down with Alan Bullock, he described a complicated way of envisioning Hitler’s thought process that wasn’t evident from his two published works on Hitler. I remember thinking, “This is incredibly significant, and I want to make sure people share my sense of its importance.” And I’ve always felt that there’s something less than honest in concealing excitement about something you’re writing about.

What made you so sure the masses would share your excitement about these seemingly arcane subjects?

One of my favorite quotes in the course of talking to directors—and I actually found directors to be some of the most interesting scholars of Shakespeare in many ways—came from Peter Brook, who said, “Each line in Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite—if we can split it open.” The debates in this book are about how to split Shakespeare open to release those infinite energies.

What surprised me was how much excitement I found in talking to textual scholars. If you had said the phrase “textual scholar” to me before, I might not have necessarily jumped to my feet and put on my coat and booked a plane ticket. But now I would. Some of my conversations with these scholars were really illuminating. Their controversies were not about arcana and pedantry but about really important questions.

For instance, I find it provocative that there exist two versions of King Lear with different dying words that can be read in totally different ways. King Lear is a touchstone of our culture, and everyone thinks they understand him. But is it a fable of redemptive suffering or a fable of Beckett-like bleakness? People think they have the answer, but if there are two versions of the last words, have they taken that into account? When I learned that the Arden edition was going to include not two but three separate texts of Hamlet, that was what got me deep into textual scholarship.

There are other works of literature that exist in more than one version. For instance, there are three versions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Do you think Whitman anthologies should include three separate versions of “Song of Myself” the way Shakespeare anthologies are starting to do with Hamlet?

The Whitman question is somewhat different. I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs, but it’s pretty clear that he revised his own work, right? So the different editions might represent Whitman at different stages, but they’re all Whitman. With Shakespeare, it’s not clear whether the changes were made by him—whether they represent his rethinking of his work or an actor’s revision of it or a stage manager’s cut. So that raises the question of what we mean when we say one version or another is more “Shakespearean.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of knowledge of how Shakespeare worked, what kind of writer he thought himself to be. The vogue over the past quarter century has been to think of Shakespeare as more a man of the stage than the page. But there’s been a counter-movement, reinitiated most recently by Lucas Erne, to say, “No, Shakespeare cared about these plays as literary works. He was a serious writer. He may have allowed cut versions of his work to be staged for the sake of time, but his longer, wordier versions were closer to his heart.”

The big controversy over the three versions of Hamlet and the two versions of Lear is about whether Shakespeare—whom everyone thinks of these days as the one-draft wonder of Shakespeare in Love—was in fact the kind of writer who took back his first draft, sat down with it, and made big cuts or small, subtle changes like the three-line addition in Hamlet that begins “Nature is fine in love.” This is not necessarily a resolvable debate, but it brings out really interesting perspectives on his work. It forces people to look more deeply into the language and define what they mean when they say something is Shakespearean.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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