Battle for the Bard

At the outset of The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum promises readers a different sort of Shakespeare book, and there is no doubt that he delivers. Rosenbaum distinguishes his work from the spate of recent Shakespeare biographies by pointing out that his concern is not Shakespeare the man but rather the body of work that is properly called “Shakespearean.” Indeed, Rosenbaum wants to know what is “Shakespearean” about Shakespeare. Rosenbaum does not eschew biography altogether; it’s just that the biography that matters here is Rosenbaum’s, not Shakespeare’s. Indeed, one of the things that make this deeply personal book truly different is the way in which it intertwines autobiography with a lively account of recent work on Shakespeare.

Engaging and idiosyncratic, Rosenbaum comes across as an enthusiastic and opinionated, if not always reliable, guide to a broad range of seemingly arcane issues, such as textual theory and the proper pronunciation of blank verse. Not only does Rosenbaum make these recondite issues accessible to the general reader, he also makes a compelling argument for their importance, insisting that everyone who claims an interest in Shakespeare must grapple with the scholarly developments discussed in the book.

With a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve, Rosenbaum opens the book by recounting the events that ignited his passion for Shakespeare. First, while teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets as a grad student at Yale, he experiences a powerful sense of dissociation in which he is both in the classroom at the blackboard and outside it looking back on himself. Rosenbaum describes this as “an ecstatic experience” and takes it as evidence of the power of literature and Shakespeare more specifically. Given what happens later, though, it is hard not to wonder whether what Rosenbaum experienced might not also be described as a symptom of profound alienation produced by a young teacher’s struggle to convey a deeply held truth to a recalcitrant or indifferent audience.

The second crucial event occurs in a seminar on Chaucer’s dream poems being led by a rising star on the Yale faculty. Rosenbaum dares to ask whether love in Chaucer is something more than a human delusion, and is dismissed with the remark that “love is such an uninteresting question.” This cringe-inducing moment forces Rosenbaum to conclude that a loveless academic life is not for him.

The final and most important of the transformative events occurs two years later when Rosenbaum sees Peter Brook’s famous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A life-changing event, the performance transports Rosenbaum, and he feels himself “physically as well as metaphysically lifted from the muddy vesture of the earth to some higher realm.” Indeed, the play acts on Rosenbaum as a “lifelong love potion,” becoming a lens through which he subsequently views all literary art and all Shakespeare.

Though Rosenbaum’s personality is always in view, the substance of the book is a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the “Shakespeare Wars.” Scholars are notoriously polemical, and much academic work thrives on controversy; however, the war metaphor does not work equally well for all the cases treated in the book. Moreover, Rosenbaum too frequently tries to align these battles with the so-called culture wars—in which humanists attempted to defend truth and beauty against the onslaught of nihilistic theorists. That said, when he turns to the nitty-gritty of explaining why, for example, we should be concerned about the three early texts of Hamlet, he does an excellent job. Rather than being disheartened by intractable textual dilemmas, Rosenbaum celebrates them as an opportunity to think more carefully about the possible meanings of all Shakespeare’s texts.

Rosenbaum is less open-minded about the question of attribution studies. Having earlier crossed swords with Don Foster, a Shakespeare scholar who made a name for himself by claiming that “A Funeral Elegy”—a poem signed by “W. S.”—was in fact by Shakespeare, Rosenbaum takes an unseemly delight in Foster’s recent recantation, a reversal precipitated by the publication of a compelling argument that the elegy is in fact the work of John Ford (1586–1639?), a poet and dramatist. Certainly there is no shortage of vituperation in this episode, but it is hard to see it as a clash of grand principles.

One of the more intriguing topics covered by Rosenbaum is the advocacy of original-spelling editions. Proponents of such editions insist that the irregular spelling of the early modern period involves a semantic richness that is lost when standard modern spelling is imposed. Here, Rosenbaum again is in favor of multiplying meanings—and concludes by urging readers to seek out unmodernized editions. But controversy over spelling is hardly at a fever-pitch—most Shakespeare scholars would readily concede the value of original-spelling editions, though most would also admit that modernized editions fulfill a valuable function. Rosenbaum’s own argument is somewhat weakened by his insistence on Shakespeare’s intention; he imagines Shakespeare “deliberately using the unanchored multiplicity of the spelling of the time to create a cloud of potential meanings.” But if Shakespeare is using the spelling of his time, there is no deliberate choice involved—it’s simply the way it was done. Furthermore, since Shakespeare’s texts come to us through the mediation of print, we have no reason to be confident that particular spellings are Shakespeare’s own as opposed to those of a scribe or a compositor. Still, this is Rosenbaum at his enthusiastic best, taking obvious delight in the interpretive possibilities opened up by a seemingly arcane scholarly pursuit.

The war metaphor becomes increasingly contrived as the book proceeds: a chapter on “Dueling Shylocks” confects a controversy out of the differences between two different performances. An otherwise lucid chapter on Shakespeare on film is labeled “a contrarian argument,” but it is hard to see anything radical in Rosenbaum’s entirely sensible contention that there are some great Shakespeare films.

Rosenbaum’s pursuit of Shakespeare leaves him convinced that what distinguishes Shakespeare is that his work is “bottomless,” that it generates endless meaning. While there is certainly something to this, it raises logical difficulties. If Shakespeare’s work is truly “bottomless,” it is impossible to claim that a particular interpretation is definitely not Shakespearean, for who knows what may emerge in time from the vasty deep? Rosenbaum is aware of this problem, and in a discussion of the scholar Stephen Booth, he observes that though some of Booth’s critics have accused him of “suggesting an infinitude of abundance” in the sonnets, “it is not as if anything goes.” Booth himself is later quoted saying, “It’s pretty clear the valuable readings don’t go on forever.” There is a tension here between an urge to police meanings in order to avoid the taint of postmodern relativism (antagonism toward what Rosenbaum labels Theory pervades the book) and a desire to let Shakespearean meanings proliferate. Whatever the value of Rosenbaum’s own particular interpretive claims, it is greatly to his credit that he provides his readers with exciting new ways to think about Shakespeare. Indeed, it is safe to say that some of these same readers will go on to find yet more meanings in Shakespeare.


Related: Jesse Lander reviews Contested Will by James Shapiro
Celia Wren reviews The Book of William by Paul Collins

Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: 

Jesse Lander is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

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