Interviews December 2006

Shakespeare Unleashed

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

Speaking with you about these subjects makes me wonder why you object so strongly to Harold Bloom. I interviewed him once at his house in New Haven, and he spoke about so many of the same things that interest you. Even beyond all the arguments you raise in your book, it seems like there’s just generally something about him that bugs you. What is it?

I really think I was taking issue with his way of looking at Shakespeare, which is to abstract away from the language. To me, the language is the real excitement and the glory. It’s endlessly rewarding the deeper you go into it. Bloom makes Shakespeare all about theme—and all about Harold Bloom’s themes. I don’t think one necessarily values Shakespeare for his philosophy. I think one values him for his language. The problem is that Bloom has had a vast influence on how people look at Shakespeare, and I thought it was necessary to offer a contrary perspective to that.

It’s true that Bloom doesn’t focus so much on language. He told me about a public debate he had with the Shakespearean scholar Frank Kermode. Someone asked Bloom to name his favorite Shakespeare films and he listed two Japanese adaptations by Kurosawa, Ran and Throne of Blood. Kermode used that to prove his point that Bloom doesn’t care about language at all.

I was there at that debate, and to be honest, Kermode wiped the floor with Bloom. That was one of the points exactly. There’s much emotion, much grief and Kurosawa-like great filmmaking in those films, but I mean, come on! You’re tossing away the language of Macbeth, you’re tossing away the language of King Lear. I rest my case.

At the same time, though, I think Bloom is subtler than you give him credit for. When I spoke to him, he drew a fascinating connection between the “absolute dearth of meaning” taught by the deconstructionists and the “absolute plenitude of meaning” taught by religious mystics. I think he was touching on something very similar to the quality in Shakespeare that you call “bottomlessness.”

As I say in the chapter, I’m conflicted about Bloom. I admire his long and lonely struggle on behalf of the idea of literary value. Even more important, I would say, is his belief that one work can be viewed as better or more valuable than another. For a while—and I think this is still the orthodox view in the academy—there was this notion that all such judgments are subjective and therefore baseless. Bloom played an important part in arguing against that point of view. I guess where I disagree is in the nature of that value. So much writing about Shakespeare focuses on biography or theme that what makes Shakespeare exceptional—the language—is not given the intense attention it deserves.

When it comes to the Shakespeare debates, do you feel that you’re a witness or do you feel that you’re as much a participant as any of these scholars are?

In some cases, I’m a witness. In the debate over textual questions, I hope I’m performing a service, showing that there’s something important going on in these discussions that can deepen people’s experience of Shakespeare. I find myself whipping back and forth between the persuasive arguments on both sides, not willing to make a choice between them. But in cases like “The Funeral Elegy,” I become more of a participant.

Even though you’ve left the academy, you’ve been able to stay in the inner circle by reading Internet message boards like SHAKSPER and subscribing to academic email lists. Is the Internet changing the degree to which non-scholars can participate in these discussions?

I think it’s beginning to. There’s also the fact that a lot of these texts are online. For instance, you can now access The Enfolded Hamlet, which I think is one of the most interesting ways of reading the two major Hamlet texts—the Good Quarto and the Folio version—because it juxtaposes the word choices from each. You can see the small, subtle changes and variations. Before, it was hard to get these books in their expensive hardback editions. Now people can look at them and think about them and make their own judgments.

I notice that The Shakespeare Wars follows the same basic structure as Explaining Hitler. You start with an enormous, almost metaphysical question about a major figure in world history and then set off on a scholarly journey to find the answer. How did your exploration of Hitler inform your research on Shakespeare?

The Shakespeare book was a bit different in that I’d been following all the Shakespeare literature. So by the time I decided to write a book on it, I knew a lot of people I wanted to talk to, a lot of issues I wanted to explore. Aristotle speaks about four kinds of causes. I suppose the Efficient Cause for doing the Shakespeare book was that moment when I thought, “You know, there’s an interesting connection between one of the most profound questions in Hitler studies and a question you could ask about Shakespeare: the exceptionalist question.”

That’s something I wanted to ask you about. I went back to your Hitler book and noticed a reference you made to Shakespeare. You were drawing a comparison between these two men, pointing out that we often don’t even think of them as human. It’s as if they occupy their own private realms of evil or genius. 

That’s interesting. I don’t even remember that I invoked Shakespeare in the Hitler book, but it was clearly on my mind. The question in Hitler studies is, “Is Hitler on a continuum of other evil doers, explainable by the methods we use to explain their evil deeds? Or does he occupy a separate dimension of evil, off the continuum, off the grid?” It suddenly occurred to me to ask the same question about Shakespeare: “Is he on a continuum of other great writers, just a little better than the best Tolstoy? Or did what Shakespeare accomplished represent the other side of Hitler’s genius for destruction—a genius for creation that was off the grid?”

Kermode seems to think it’s all right for some of Shakespeare’s writing to be less than brilliant because it validates the parts that are really brilliant.

I’m somewhat divided about this, but I think one aspect of it is important. Not all Shakespeare was as if handed down by God; not all Shakespeare is equal. Kermode points out that there are times, particularly in late Shakespeare in Coriolanus or A Winter’s Tale, where he had an idea and wrote out a rough or fast version of it but didn’t quite make it cohere the way his other verse did. On the other hand, there are people who believe that anomalies, or verse in Shakespeare that doesn’t seem to cohere, are really indications of a larger whole. So it’s an interesting debate.

What would be the equivalent debate in Hitler studies? Would it be an argument that Hitler did a few things that weren’t totally evil, like building the Autobahn or promoting physical fitness?

I’d better not tackle that question. I’d have to hedge too much, although I know what you’re getting at.

Well, obviously the two situations can’t really be compared. But I have German friends who think it’s dangerous to teach children that Hitler was purely, supernaturally evil. They think it makes it too easy to dismiss the whole Nazi movement instead of seeing it as a danger that any human being could fall into.

I think there’s some truth in that, yes.

So even though the two debates are totally different, maybe someone could argue that just as the lessons of Hitler are less valuable if we make him subhuman, the genius of Shakespeare is less meaningful if we see him as superhuman, completely out of reach of what human beings can achieve.

Right, exactly. But it’s a really difficult challenge at times, when reading literature, to know whether one should say, “He’s really fallen down on the job here,” or whether one should say, “I’ve really fallen down on the job in reading him.” Don’t you think? My feeling is that one’s first instinct should be to try to find the coherence. But I don’t necessarily believe that there’s always going to be perfect, organic coherence.

So have you come up with a clear answer to the exceptionalism question?

I have not come to a clear conclusion about either Hitler or Shakespeare. Part of it is that one can’t predict the future. Will Shakespeare continue to be read for centuries or millennia like Homer? Will Hitler continue to be a kind of endpoint of evil, or will there be more Hitlers? Also, I waver back and forth about whether there is a difference in degree or in kind in each case. For me, so far, there is a difference in kind between Shakespeare and other writers, except maybe Nabokov. But I wouldn’t necessarily argue that this is something one can prove with a computer or with mathematics or anything like that.

It’s just a feeling I have. I go back and reread Shakespeare, and almost without exception, I find some new resonance in every passage that I hadn’t found before. With other authors I love, at a certain point I don’t feel that new threshold of discovery. It’s possible that that will come to an end with Shakespeare. But I have a feeling that I’ll come to an end first.

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

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