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Sly in Bottomless Love
By Gordon Rogoff

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
By Ron Rosenbaum
Random House





In a book overflowing with unedited wisdom, dauntless in its appetite for Shakespearean dimension larger than life, Ron Rosenbaum rarely quotes scholars, actors, or directors unless he's had dinner, lunch, or drinks with them. A voluntary drop-out from Yale's graduate program years ago, having found his native enthusiasm for Shakespeare under attack from the prevailing critical agendas of the day, he may be shoring up his credentials with all those first-hand meetings. Yet if The Shakespeare Wars proves anything -- and it proves many things -- it demonstrates his right of possession, if not ownership, of all the hits and misses that have marked Shakespeare studies and performance since 1970, the year his life was literally overturned by Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon.

He calls that event his "induction," alluding with pardonable cunning to The Taming of the Shrew's eccentric prologue in which Christopher Sly, an itinerant tinker, awakes from a drunken slumber only to be conned into thinking that he's a nobleman touched by a madness that has kept him asleep for 15 years, surely now the perfect audience for the "pleasant comedy" that is about to be presented for his special delight and perfect cure. Rosenbaum shares a capacity for enchantment and bravado he finds in Sly and also in that wonderful fool, Bottom the weaver, the anti-hero of the "Dream" who is transformed into an ass, momentarily the deliriously happy lover of a bewitched Titania. But Rosenbaum goes beyond them by dedicating himself to a lifetime romance with Shakespeare's plays in all their configurations as dramatic treasure chests, yielding -- for him -- an endless supply of scholarly argument, all those "centuries-old disputes" he soon learns to love as much as he adores the magic embedded in Shakespeare's glittering words. Brook's "Dream" production acted as "a lifelong love potion" carrying him into what at one point he calls "Shakes-spheres," the end of which are not in sight even after this sprawling trawl through the academic thickets.

But, oh those thickets! They remind me of a remark by a friend who, on hearing the news of another friend trekking to her 12th "Ring Cycle" somewhere in the world, just had to say, "What a wasted life." Whatever happened to the enjoyment of a beautiful spring day or autumn foliage, or even -- heaven forfend! -- a Shakespeare play? Even Rosenbaum might think soon of taking a holiday from his compulsive readings, though it's fair to say that The Shakespeare Wars is an instantly indispensable guide to the fractious nonsense passing as scholarship. Those compulsive readings are best summed up by Richard Knowles, editor of a Lear Variorum, quoted usefully by Rosenbaum just as I was failing to distinguish the New Criticism hares from the Deconstructionist hounds: Knowles, unaffiliated with the jargon-ridden scholarship, describes it as a movement purveying "the immateriality of the text and the immateriality of the author, the indeterminacy of meaning, the relation of literature to power and censorship and other notions." Or, as Rosenbaum picks up the story, the texts have been parsed into so much fodder for the "over-pessimism of Theory…squeezing literary judgement out of existence."

Add to this the avalanche of biographies that only confuse the messy issues by hanging on tenaciously to still another pseudo-theology -- namely, that the plays can be read through the lens of Shakespeare's life, even though we have long since learned from S. Schoenbaum's documentary biography that Shakespeare left scant evidence that he lived at all. Even so, Rosenbaum tracks the latest "biographers," including those by such brilliant writers as Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World) and James Shapiro (1599) who parade with uncommon confidence through the barely visible "evidence" to speculate on so many textual circumstances that depend on a Shakespeare who "might have" been somewhere, "could have" thought something, or -- truly presumptuous -- "must have" done something. Just as unreliable and almost as much fun as Tom Stoppard's delicious screenplay, Shakespeare in Love, the biographies can't disguise the absence of documentary proof for their claims. Like so many Othellos demanding "ocular proof" from Iago, they're easy prey for false handkerchiefs.

Nor are they alone: Rosenbaum is hell-bent on tracking down all the ocular proof available from the Shakespeare Industry, by now a series of pile-driving territorial wars acting as weapons of mass distraction for those of us -- students and faculty alike -- who might wish to return to the pleasures of the text and our dreams for transcendent performance. The book's targets include Harold Bloom's "overblown claim that Shakespeare invented the human," reversed by Rosenbaum into "it's really a claim that Shakespeare invented Bloom -- a composite character with the brain of Hamlet and the body of Falstaff…Shakespeare his secret father." And if this particular thrust and parry isn't enough, he goes after the anti-Blooms so numerous these days, busily editing warring versions of Hamlet and King Lear, so that by now cautious consumers (we're scarcely readers anymore) keep receiving conflicting health warnings about the flaws in Norton, Oxford, or Arden, all of this featuring scholars' mind-numbing arguments about "paradigm shifts," the compositors of the Quarto and Folio, and "partisans of the Lost Archetypes." (Better lost than read.) Then there are the Doubters, Dividers, and Revisers, with one hot warrior, Don Foster, surrendering his claim that a "Funeral Elegy" must be Shakespeare's (or must have been?) and another, Gary Taylor, beating back his own besiegers by insisting that he doesn't really "hate Shakespeare." Both scholars, devoted to technology, persuaded themselves for the longest time that the "Elegy," a relatively recent discovery, was dominated by a vocabulary more commonly used by Shakespeare than his contemporaries; while it is true that Shakespeare possessed an astounding vocabulary of roughly 25,000 words, it doesn't follow that the modern computer, sifting through that vocabulary, can be the sole arbiter of authorship. Meanwhile, another claimant of dubious claims, Peter Blayney, has evidently retired from the scene of Shakespeare scholarship altogether, consumed now by his new interest in Elizabethan printing shops. And if you don't ask, I won't tell you about the Hand D controversy.

One miracle revealed by the book is Rosenbaum's staying power, despite these detours from the miracle of his conversion at Brook's "Dream." Verbose conversationalist more than the elegant, shapely prose stylist he might wish to be, he has more patience for the scholarly and biographical arguments than is good for him. Patience not only for those territorial gladiators, but also for all the mixed messages he receives over drinks and dinners. He's always muddling the argument by stuffing it with details nobody needs to know. (God was wrong about the details.) Among others, he has lunch with Cicely Berry, who has been working on Voice and Verse with professional actors for years, and who coached Brook's actors for the "Dream." If I tell you now that she was also my own teacher a half-century ago, and that I talked with her in June at the Old Vic during a rehearsal we were having for our appearances at the centenary celebration for the Central School of Speech and Drama, I am surely crowding your informational capacities with news that clearly doesn't serve this review. Similarly, do we need to know that she was the lady who lunched with Rosenbaum at "Tartine" in Greenwich Village? Or that he met with actor Steven Berkoff in the "bright-lit dining room of the Gramercy Park Hotel?" Or lunch with his favorite scholar (now that's important), Russ McDonald, in Bermuda's Southampton Princess Hotel? One of those diversions, however, may excuse the others, since it hints at a delight in words and irony that may be Rosenbaum's strongest suit: his floridly arcane discussion with Gary Taylor, he tells us, took place in "the Krispy Kreme Donut shop in a Tuscaloosa strip mall."

I'd rather meet him in a better organized, more disciplined book that doesn't find him falling all over himself to avoid claiming his own territory as a first-rate romancer of Shakespeare -- whoever he was -- and his great plays and astonishing linguistic inventions. Even as he takes on professors, theory-junkies -- his "somewhat wishful thinking…that the reign of Theory in literary studies (is) coming to an end" -- and his own delight when he discovers Greenblatt in a relaxed, appreciative mode, actually referring to the "indelible beauties of Shakespeare," he treats himself more as a reporter than an idiosyncratic thinker. He's both easily pleased and easily intimidated. Yet, for all that, his plainly spoken perceptions, such as "Shakespeare either wrote it or didn't write it," are transparently more eloquent than so much of the official story. He loves the plays in the theater, but that doesn't stop him from celebrating Shakespeare on film and recordings, and he's just as good in describing Laurence Olivier's recorded Othello as Steven Berkoff is when describing the stage version, both of them finding what Rosenbaum calls the "devastating…unmarked crack in the voice…almost like a jeweler's tap in its subtlety and profundity."

"One can get carried away," he says at one point, but that doesn't spare him from admitted digressions or what he himself calls "the seductions of a single controversial textual variation." He -- or his copy editor, if there was one -- might have parried the contradictions that seduce him, such as speculation about the Geneva Bible published in 1557, seven years before Shakespeare's birth, and possibly (therefore?) "the source of Bottom's name" because of Corinthians' reference to "the bottom of God's secrets" (his italics). This differs from the 1568 Bishops' Bible that refers less suggestively to "the deep things of God." Thus are we lured into forgetting that it's just possible that Shakespeare hadn't read either version.

Rosenbaum hoists himself on the petard of his own fascination with words. Like the biographers, he can be lured easily into speculation, sometimes about the arguments that still rage over different spellings in different versions. It turns out that, in Hamlet, the air bites either "shrewdly" or "shroudly," and Rosenbaum can't get over it, diverting himself from the brevity of his own frequent wit. His use of words such as "polysemous" and "disambiguating" are not much better than the ugly constructions of the dotty deconstructionists he otherwise scorns. The lasting irony of this book is that its tentacular overreaching almost strangles the enthralled, modest scholar who could be better than the whole pack of them.


This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2006 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine.


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