Interviews December 2006

Shakespeare Unleashed

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

You’ve mentioned the stage versus page debate. Even though you focus so much on texts, you encourage readers to actually hear Shakespeare performed, even if that means watching a film or just reading the lines out loud.

While I was writing this book, a lot of people told me, “I read Shakespeare in college, and I’ve always been meaning to get back to it. What should I read first?” I got to the point where I would say, “Don’t read anything first. Watch some of the great films first.” You’re more likely to see a great Shakespearean performance on film than in any stage production you’ll see in your lifetime. You can say that the films don’t have the existential immediacy of the stage, but at their best they give you a glimpse of the infinite energies that can be unleashed in a single line of Shakespeare.

I think that once you’ve seen Shakespeare performed well, you return to the text with a different mindset. It’s not that difficult to read once you have a sense of the rhythm and the clarity that great film actors like Welles and Olivier can give you.

I’m very interested in a memory you recall early in the book. You were teaching Sonnet 45, a poem where Shakespeare compares thought and desire to air and fire. These elements flicker through him so quickly that he describes them as “present-absent.” While you were explaining this to your students, you had a sensation of being both present and absent, in your body and out of it. I’d like to draw this out even more: what aspect of literature are you getting at here, and is it something that can be taught in a classroom?

This is an element of the sonnets. However profoundly one experiences it, it’s there—an attempt to, in a way, manipulate your consciousness. I had written out one of the sonnets on a blackboard. This is when I was a graduate fellow, and these were Yale freshmen. I was going through all the ambiguities with them, the way he shifted the meaning of one word and another word would shift, the dislocations, the resonances. I found myself, for a moment anyway, shifted back and forth. It was an experience I had not had from poetry before. I think the sonnets are exquisitely designed to evoke something more than just imagery or ideas, to set the mind in motion. The words and ambiguities of the sonnets are buzzing with motion.

This reminds me of a quote you include from the director Peter Brook: “In every [Shakespeare] play there is an inner play…. It can’t be analyzed, it can’t be described, it can only be experienced.” It often seems like there’s a kind of “action” going on just under the surface of Shakespeare’s outer dramas about lovers and villains. Sometimes it has to do with the way different elements interact. You see that in The Tempest when Prospero vows to “bury” his staff and “drown” his book…

…yes, and, “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

Right. And in other plays, it has to do with people exchanging identities and trading gender roles. There’s also that passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Bottom’s senses switch places: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen; Man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive what my dream was.” It seems as if Shakespeare wants to lead us into a strange no man’s land where we can catch nature in the act of transformation—we can actually see one thing dissolving and another just starting to emerge.

I think it’s fairly well accepted that the source Shakespeare relied upon most for literary allusions was Ovid, author of The Metamorphoses. Shakespeare’s metamorphoses are not just about people turning into plants or plants turning into gods, but also transmutations, as you say—transmutation of a dead body into jewels, or transmutation of one sex into another. It’s a recurrent preoccupation of his. So I would certainly say that’s a candidate for the “inner play,” if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t know if it’s Peter Brook’s “inner play.” But it is certainly an inner play within Shakespeare.

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

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