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.
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.
Speaking of Shakespeare in Love, I happen to be one of the few people who really didn’t like that film. It traced all his plays back to love affairs or funny little things he might have heard in the pub, and it ignored everything I find most interesting about Shakespeare.
I have divided feelings about it. I liked the spirit of it, but my critique of it is similar. I felt it treated art as something unserious. It attempted to be bravely contrarian but was actually expressing conventional ideas about Shakespeare: that he didn’t care much for his plays, that he just dashed them off and didn’t think twice about them, whereas in fact there’s a whole civil war going on among serious scholars over whether he did care.
Besides which, someone else could have had those same love affairs and gone to the same pubs and not come out with Shakespeare’s plays. So does it really matter which conversations Shakespeare might have overheard or which women—or men—he might have dated?
I agree. In some respects, I think this is a result of today’s celebrity culture, where we’re more interested in the person than in the work. I mean, I can’t blame people for wanting to know what a great writer was like. But what has made Shakespeare last for 400 years is that the language is so amazing. Look at Homer—Homer’s greatness is not diminished because we don’t know whether he was a redhead or not. I just feel that biographical analysis reduces the language to “this is what Shakespeare must have been like,” some explication of his life.
And this is why I’ve spent some time critiquing biographical reductionism. In popular biographies, Shakespeare’s plays are mined for clues about his life, his supposed views on love, sex, and marriage. And then his life, or what’s conjectured about it, is mined for ideas about his plays. It’s all a useless, circular game, because there’s very little certainty about the events of his life.
I was surprised to learn from your book that there are serious scholars like Stephen Greenblatt coming up with elaborate stories about events Shakespeare might have witnessed and how those might have given rise to certain plays.
"Shakespeare in Love, or In Context" (December 2004)
By Cristina Nehring
If society creates art, as Stephen Greenblatt believes, then why was Shakespeare's achievement so singular?
Greenblatt’s book Will in the World was actually a departure for him. I admired his earlier book, Hamlet in Purgatory, which considered the treatment of the afterlife in Shakespeare. The Protestant Church abolished purgatory, but Hamlet’s father’s ghost seemed to come from a Catholic purgatory. There are a lot of arguments in his book that place the play in a very interesting context. So I was somewhat surprised by Will in the World, which abandons abstract theory but leaps into pure biographical speculation. I think the book has many, many smart things in it. But it should be regarded as smart fiction about Shakespeare, at best.
For instance, there’s his conjecture about The Merchant of Venice. Greenblatt’s reasoning is the following: Shakespeare lived in London, a lot of people died in London, Shakespeare was interested in death, and therefore Shakespeare must have attended a lot of executions. He guesses that Shakespeare attended the execution of Roderigo Lopez, a converted Jewish physician who was allegedly part of a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth and was executed and disemboweled—drawn and quartered. Greenblatt thinks that Shakespeare witnessed this and heard the crowd laughing when Lopez said, “I love the Queen as I love Jesus Christ.” Greenblatt suggests the crowd was taking that statement as ironic because they had seen Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, with its one-dimensional wicked Jew. And according to Greenblatt, Shakespeare was troubled by this and decided he would write a play about a Jew who was more human than the Jew of Malta, who may or may not have provoked the laughter at a funeral he may or may not have attended. That just seems like a lot of work to sanitize the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice—make it seem like an improvement somehow, when in many ways it goes deeper than Marlowe’s.
While we’re on the subject of conjecture, tell me about the controversy over “The Funeral Elegy.”
“The Funeral Elegy” is a poem that is about 600 lines long but feels like it’s about 6,000 if you try to read it all the way through. It had supposedly been written by someone with the initials “W.S.” about a guy named William Peter who was murdered in a brawl in 1612. It lay moldering in an Oxford library until Donald Foster, then a graduate student at U.C. Santa Barbara, published a study in attribution in which he came very close to saying it had been written by Shakespeare. Then in 1996, Foster and his colleague Richard Abrams announced to the world that they were certain this poem had been written by Shakespeare. Their certainty was backed up by a computer database with the capitalized James Bondian name SHAXICON, which supposedly proved that “The Funeral Elegy” had identical linguistic fingerprints to canonical Shakespeare.
I tried to believe this. But I concluded that Shakespeare had never before shown his ability to write this tediously, this piously, this unskeptically, this humorlessly, with almost none of the depth or resonance or flashes of brilliance that any other 600 lines of Shakespeare would provide. There’s also the fact that if “W.S.” had been William Shakespeare, we would have to look at “The Funeral Elegy” as his final poem—almost his parting thoughts about life, death, mortality, fame, ignominy, disgrace, all these great themes.
So I started writing columns for The New York Observer attacking the Shakespearean attribution of “The Funeral Elegy.” And in fact, Foster was later forced to admit that he had been wrong, that poem was most likely by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford.
You also discuss another ongoing controversy known as “Hand D.” It involves a passage from a never-published play about Sir Thomas More, possibly written in Shakespeare’s own handwriting. If this turns out to be true, what are the implications?
I took up the “Hand D” controversy after reading an article by the scholar Paul Werstine. I feel, and I’m not alone, that the resonances between the Sir Thomas More passages identified as Shakespearean and Shakespeare’s own work are really strong thematically. But Werstine takes issue with some of the arguments people have used to support this. His main concern is that this attribution is causing us to make decisions about other open questions in Shakespeare scholarship.
In other words, people have concluded that the handwriting is Shakespeare’s, and they’ve used that as a basis for validating other Shakespearean passages.
Yes, in particular, the ending of Othello, where Othello talks about himself as either a “base Indian” or a “base Judean”—depending on what text you use—“throwing away a pearl richer than all his tribe.” A major thematic difference. And for some, the alleged Shakespearean handwriting of Hand D was being used to make the choice. Werstine thought this was ill advised; he wasn’t sure that Hand D should be allowed to be the arbiter. He felt it was a shaky foundation on which to establish any important decision about what Shakespeare really wrote.
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.
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.