The Urge To Know Thy Bard

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Envy the nation whose literary giants are not enshrouded in remoteness. Lucky Germans, whose readers and researchers are relatively close in time to Goethe and Schiller. Luckier still the Russians: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even Pushkin, are easy to read (no great language changes), and there are plentiful letters, memoirs, documents to bring them into focus. Not so lucky we Anglophones looking for biographical data about Shakespeare, trying to puzzle out the correct readings of conflicting texts and to interpret language whose meanings have become obscured by time.

So we have had, and keep having, textual scholars trying to determine whether Hamlet died with the stoic “The rest is silence” or the piteous “O, o,o, o” on his lips. Again, does Lear die in the delusion that Cordelia still breathes, or does he have enough lucidity to exclaim, “Break heart, I prithee break”?

And what about Othello’s bitter dying self-reproach of having thrown away a pearl like “the base Indian” or “the base Judean”? Such problems face textual scholars at step after step because no Shakespearean manuscript survives. The reading of a speech, a line, a word can make a substantial difference; certainly enough so for directors and actors to confront unnerving dilemmas and for rival scholars to become enmeshed in bitter disputes.

So, as Ron Rosenbaum’s title indicates, we get “The Shakespeare Wars,” and, as his subtitle elaborates, “Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups” (Random House, 601 pages, $35). The fiascoes are the discoveries of alleged new Shakespeare texts, which may even make it into the complete editions, only to be exploded. The palace coups are revolutionary new trends in Shakespeare criticism, often soon supplanted by newer trends, leaving egg on countless faces.

Mr. Rosenbaum himself is more amateur than academic, more genuine lover than paid professional. He seems to have the complete works on a loop, rereading the lot incessantly, despite the fact that he makes his living as a journalist. He has also read an enormous amount of secondary material, seen numerous stage productions, participated in sundry symposiums, attended a slew of lectures. And he interviewed leading scholars, directors, actors, including Cicely Barry, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s famed verse-reading coach.

Of course, the line between such a dedicated amateur and an unleashed fanatic is a fairly thin one. But Mr. Rosenbaum has, with a few exceptions, kept his senses, thanks to a healthy streak of skepticism and the useful ability to laugh at himself. Salutary, too, is his lack of undue interest in a life about which so little is known, and his avoidance of grandiose conjectures à la Stephen Greenblatt. What he is after is the precise nature of “the Shakespearean,” of what makes it unique. Also what did Shakespeare actually write as opposed to what incompetent scribes, sloppy typesetters, actors with imperfect memories, or errant editors foisted on him.

My sporadic disagreements with this book should not make it seem less than something everyone seriously interested in Shakespeare must read, and anyone even mildly interested should.Mr. Rosenbaum possesses some first-rate tools: a restlessly inquiring mind, a vivid style, a welcome sense of humor, and an impressive knowledge of not only Shakespeareana but also much else besides.

His passionate involvement with Shakespeare stems from two epiphanies he comes back to a bit too often. One was a graduate seminar at Yale, where, analyzing one of the Sonnets, he had a sort of out-of-body experience of presence-absence, similar to that described in the poem. This, along with a prevailing lack of interest at Yale in what a poem was about, as opposed to how it was made, caused him to quit graduate school.

Even more important was Peter Brook’s famous 1970 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Mr. Rosenbaum first caught at Stratford-on-Avon and later resaw in New York. It proved to be a life-changing experience for him: a new way of seeing Shakespeare, and a touchstone to hold up to all his future Shakespearean reading and theatergoing. Many people, he found, shared his reaction.

Here he discovered, among other things, the importance of Bottom’s dream with its bottomlessness, a notion that became one of Mr. Rosenbaum’s main criteria for the investigation of Shakespeare’s infinitude. The other was unbearableness. Over and over again he writes about the unbearable intensity, excitement, or pleasure in this or that aspect of Shakespeare. Between pages 347 and 513, where I chose to count, I found “unbearable” 22 times, making me wonder how he could bear to expose himself to so much unbearableness.

Even so, he does not condone certain types of bardolatry. He is deservedly hard on Harold Bloom: Shakespeare did not, as Mr. Bloom would have it, “invent the human,” nor should Falstaff, already bloated enough, be blown up into its supreme representative, as Mr. Bloom would have him. Mr. Rosenbaum also has fun with Gary Taylor, a co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, who “discovered” a new work by the master (the awful doggerel “Shall I Die / Shall I Fly”) and who claims he chokes up and cries at the end of every “Hamlet.”Mr. Rosenbaum writes, “It could be said without too much exaggeration that if Gary Taylor cries at every ‘Hamlet,’ there are a number of ‘Hamlet’ scholars who cry at the mention of Gary Taylor.”

Mr. Rosenbaum pities, even as he admires him, the late Harold Jenkins, who spent 28 years editing his conflated “Hamlet” for the new Arden Shakespeare that came to 608 pages, only to be superseded in the next, soon-to-appear even newer, two-volume Arden. It will reprint all three versions, which, in Mr. Rosenbaum’s estimate, should exceed 1,000 pages.

Mr. Rosenbaum interviewed Jenkins when he was 90 and a year from death. The pages about him are charming and compassionate. He writes, “Talking to Jenkins in person, one begins to get a sense of the almost monastic, even priestlike vocation editing Shakespeare, editing “Hamlet” in particular, becomes: that pressure, the responsibility for the transmission of a sacred text of the culture.” And further: “Textual criticism tends to become at the very least a consuming passion, sometimes a life-consuming obsession.”

Sadly enough, old Jenkins talked about the forthcoming two-volume edition, on which Ann Thompson and Neil (not Gary!) Taylor will have spent a mere 10 years. It would, as Mr. Rosenbaum puts it, disintegrate his integrated edition made for the same series and replace it. He was wistfully glad that he would not live to see its publication. (He didn’t.)

Bardolatry has many forms, and some Mr. Rosenbaum approves of. To my mind, it is excessive to expend 40 pages on just what Lear’s last words are, especially since most editors, quite logically, follow the Folio and assign the “Break, heart” line to Kent. At that point, as Kenneth Muir observed in the 1955 Arden edition, Lear “is already beyond speech.” But Mr. Rosenbaum, bless his heart, can get carried away.

He does so, in spades, when he falls for Stephen Booth, a Shakespeare scholar I cannot countenance. His magnum opus is a two-volume edition of the Sonnets, in which he finds every sonnet, indeed every line, a hotbed of ambiguities. He considers them near-infinite, requiring near-endless annotation. For Mr. Booth, elucidation becomes obfuscation.

Even his admirer, Mr. Rosenbaum, calls Mr. Booth’s method 777 types of ambiguity, taking off from William Empson’s celebrated “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” Just reading silently one of Mr. Booth’s set of notes drives me up the wall; Mr. Rosenbaum, however, writes, “Try reading aloud Booth’s seven-part explication of the ambiguities; it’s criticism that rises to the level of poetry itself.” To me it is clear that Mr. Booth is either a cold-blooded nut case or a sinister farceur. Herewith one of his utterances: “Twelfth Night” is “not merely Shakespeare’s greatest creation, but the greatest creation of the human mind.”

But over against such lapses, Mr. Rosenbaum can write the following, prompted by someone’s theory that there was “an unbroken chain of Hamlets” stretching from his creator, Richard Burbage, to Laurence Olivier:

You could probably establish a similar apostolic succession for the editors of Hamlet beginning with Heminge and Condell, the colleagues who first chose which plays to include in the Folio, the first Complete Works edition of Shakespeare, to the grand literary pontiffs who edited Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, to the age of obsessed gentlemen scholars such as Lewis Theobald and Edmond Malone, to the exacting scholar-mandarins who were Jenkins’s twentieth-century predecessors — inventors of “scientific bibliography,” men like A.W. Pollard and J. Dover Wilson.

What a brilliantly concise and informative paragraph!

Consistently good about Mr. Rosenbaum is the way he brings out the essence of his well-chosen interviewees. From Mr. Brook, we learn about splitting open any line of Shakespeare and, in so doing, releasing infinite energies, as well as the notion of a secret play underlying every Shakespearean play. From Peter Hall, the delicate pause supposedly required at the end of every line, even the run-on ones. From Jack O’Brien, how Falstaff must be wrested away from Mr. Bloom. From Ms. Thompson, why a two-volume “Hamlet” is necessary for the accommodation of all three needed versions. From Ms. Barry, why and how the RSC actors got their training in verse-speaking. From Steven Berkoff, why politically correct versions of a warm and fuzzy Shylock are total nonsense. From Frank Kermode, how passages in Shakespeare’s later plays are bad or sloppy, but that realizing this actually adds to the stature of the good in Shakespeare. From Russ McDonald, how the newly reconceived close reading of Shakespeare augurs well for future scholarship. From John Edwards, why it behooves us to study the original spellings in Shakespeare, because they often yield double meanings (as, say, in “the wind bites shroudly” rather than the modernized “shrewdly”).

Granted, Mr. Rosenbaum is an enthusiast, a good thing, yet he tends to excess and exaggeration. Thus while I share his regard for the celebrated passage about Cleopatra’s barge, I boggle at: “We must be grateful to Plutarch for the plodding template that gave birth, like Venus from the foam, to Shakespeare’s lush, louche, amorous, seductive, near-pornographic excursus on pleasure. … It is perhaps the most purely sensual passage in all Shakespeare, perhaps the most intense and exhilarating in the language.” Or this, about Rebecca Hall’s Rosalind, in her father Peter’s production of “As You Like It”: “Incandescent does not begin to capture it. Rapturous begins at least. She changed my mind not only about the play … but about love in Shakespeare. … It is almost as if she were, with extreme subtlety and body language, turning that single moment [falling in love at first sight] into a compression of the entire two-millennia-long debate over love in Western culture.”

I have some personal disagreements as well. I don’t consider Nabokov a “contemporary analogue for Shakespeare,” nor do I find Baz Luhrmann’s obnoxious movie, “Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” worthy of championing. But none of this vitiates Mr. Rosenbaum’s countless virtues. As he so aptly cites the actor Henry Goodman in a question-and-answer session, the point of seeing and reading Shakespeare is not to find out what to think, but what to think about. And at that, Mr. Rosenbaum is unbeatable.

Of course, the world is full of people who couldn’t care less whether in “O that this too too … flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” the blank should be filled with “solid,” “sullied,” or “sallied.”And why legions of scholars keep coming back to this question instead of resolving themselves on adieu.

But the urge to know is a deeply human one, even where knowledge is unobtainable or of scant use if obtained. Why else do we still want to know just who Jack the Ripper was or who killed the Black Dahlia, even though such knowledge could no longer elicit a conviction? Still less should we dispute Mr. Rosenbaum’s conviction that seeking the truly Shakespearean is a worthy quest: Shedding any light on our greatest playwright’s words and works is well worth anyone’s while.

It may be that Mr. Rosenbaum is a lunatic, a lover, and a poet in his fine frenzy. But if this frenzy can produce a book such as “The Shakespeare Wars,” more power to it.

Mr. Simon is the New York theater critic for Bloomberg News and a columnist for

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