The Shakespeare Wars

Lovers of English literature have been endlessly fascinated by the figure of William Shakespeare, a fascination unendingly fueled by the gaps in what is known about his life. Since so little about him is externally known and what is known is subject to continual reinterpretation, his works are mined for internal indications about who he was or even if he was the William Shakespeare who was born and died in Stratford-on-Avon and became an actor in London. For Ron Rosenbaum, however, the crucial question is not who was Shakespearefor him, the arguments of the anti-Stratfordians, those who believe that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else, are not even worth answeringbut what is Shakespearean.

This question can be equally fascinating because the works of Shakespearewhat he really wroteare as indeterminate as the facts of his biography. What is the best text of Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601): the Second Quarto published in 1604 or the Folio version published in 1623, seven years after his death? What is the relationship to these of the so-called bad or First Quarto of Hamlet, published in 1603? What are the last words of Hamlet, Othello, or Lear? What is uniquely “Shakespearean” in the effect that his plays have on readers, listeners, and viewers? Here Rosenbaum borrows a term more commonly used in science-fiction studies, the elusive “sense of wonder” that the genre generates in readers. The Shakespearean “sense of wonder” is, for Rosenbaum, not only qualitatively different from other literary effects but also quantitatively differentuniquely “bottomless,” one of the metaphors that runs throughout The Shakespeare Wars.

In Explaining Hitler (1998) Rosenbaum sought to discover the various theories that have been advanced to explain an evil so singular that it is almost transcendent: Its scope and depths threaten to burst the meanings of the term “human.” Similarly, Shakespeare’s accomplishment is so powerful that it too seems beyond the achievements of any other merely human writer (although Rosenbaum admits that the modern writer that most resembles Shakespeare in this sense is for him Vladimir Nabokov). As a graduate student at Yale, Rosenbaum hoped to become a literature professor, but the stress that was then beginning to be placed on the mechanics of literature“the making of poetry”was for him displacing the subjects of literaturewhat it is about.

Since then, the practitioners of literary theory, consisting of such schools as the deconstructionist, the new historicist, the Marxist, and the Lacanian psychological, have routed the previous reigning school of literary criticism, what has been variously called new criticism or formalism, those who advocated close textual reading. In a sense, The Shakespeare Wars chronicles the excursions, alarums, and battles between the Theorists and those who might be called the “new” New Critics. Indeed, one famous Theorist, Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of new historicism, has produced what can be called an a-historicist biography of Shakespeare, Will and the World (2004). Rosenbaum posits that the rise of Theory might have initially been, in actuality, a retreat from the perils of closely reading a writer as powerful as Shakespeare, since the pleasure that reading his work elicits is so potent that it threatens to become self-annihilating.

Rosenbaum’s epiphany about the force of such power came when he attended Peter Brooks’s famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) at Stratford-on-Avon in the summer of 1970. He cannot fully explain the source of the power that production had, not only for him, but for many others whom he meets during the course of the book. It becomes a kind of Grail object for Rosenbaum, recoverable only in memory (because only about ten minutes of it has been preserved), and he learns about other touchstones from Shakespeare lovers in the course of the book: the effect Laurence Olivier’s performance as Othello had on actor Stephen Berkoff, for example. The metaphor for this effect comes from Bottom’s speech at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Bottom declares that Peter Quince shall compose a ballet to be “called ’Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom. . . .” This sense of bottomless depth and the sense of vertiginous pleasure it evokes Rosenbaum further links to the thrall of self-annihilation that the cliffs of Elsinore hold for Hamlet and Edgar’s description of the cliffs of Dover in King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). This lure of the depths, what might almost be called a kind of “rapture of the deep,” is created for Rosenbaum by the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s texts, their polysemy.

The beginning of this multiplicity lies in the indeterminacy of the texts themselves. Why do three...

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Booklist 103, no. 1 (September 1, 2006): 38.

Commentary 122, no. 4 (November, 2006): 65-68.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 13 (July 1, 2006): 669.

Library Journal 131, no. 16 (October 1, 2006): 72.

The New York Times 156 (October 20, 2006): E29.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (October 8, 2006): 22.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 26 (June 26, 2006): 43.

The Wall Street Journal 248, no. 65 (September 16, 2006): P10.

World and I 21, no. 10 (November, 2006): 18.