- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

THE SHAKESPEARE WARS

By Ron Rosenbaum

Random House, $35,

624 pages

REVIEWED BY MARK OLSHAKER

Several years ago, a prominent British actor who happens to be a close friend urged me to read Charlton Ogburn’s “The Mysterious William Shakespeare,” a massive tome which had convinced him that the Shakespearean canon was actually penned by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many months later, after making my way through the nearly 900 pages, he asked if I was convinced. I said I was convinced that no one could have written the plays and poems, and that there is no good corollary support they were ever written at all. The only evidence contradicting this hypothesis is the works themselves.

Reading Ron Rosenbaum’s penetrating and deeply-felt new book, “The Shakespeare Wars,” I am more convinced than ever that my flippant observation may not have been far from the truth. The evidence against William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets having been written by a mere mortal is overwhelming. The more one attends to the work — reads it, studies it, sees it performed — the more impossibly superhuman the whole thing appears.

How can thousands of clever men and women, over almost four centuries, still be coming up with new insights and interpretations of what one Englishman produced in less than three decades, and be nowhere near exhausting the possibilities?

Diverging from the late Mr. Ogburn and the spate of recent popular books purporting to elucidate Shakespeare’s biographical data, Mr. Rosenbaum is no more than mildly interested in “the Authorship Question,” and whether the works were penned by the Stratfordian, the Oxfordian, the Baconian or some Venusian. Rather, he is concerned with what makes the writing “Shakespearean,” an ineffable quality he spends more than 500 pages exploring and attempting to define.

Unlike modern plays, there are no “official” texts of Shakespeare. Scholars have argued for centuries over the authoritative versions. Any production you’ve ever seen of “Hamlet,” for instance, is cobbled together from three main sources: the First and Second Quarto versions, published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the First Folio, a compilation of all of his known plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death. The addition or deletion of a single line — nay, a single word — can alter meaning profoundly.

As Mr. Rosenbaum shows, the difference of one word and punctuation mark between Quarto and Folio versions of “Hamlet” utterly change the context of the “closet scene,” in which Hamlet condemns his mother for marrying his uncle, the man Hamlet believes murdered his kingly father.

“Have you forgot me?” the queen demands.

“No,” Hamlet replies venomously. “You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife. And would it were not so, you are my mother.”

At least that’s what the Quarto says. In the Folio, the last line reads rather more wistfully, “But would you were not so. You are my mother.”

Then the ultimate capper: Did Shakespeare make these changes, or were they the deliberate or capricious work of some anonymous printing compositor?

Why do we care? What’s the big deal? That gets us into the next big traffic stopper of Shakespeare studies: the “Exceptionalist Question.” As Mr. Rosenbaum puts it, “Is he on the continuum of other great writers, perhaps the greatest, but still understandable in the same terms as other great writers, or does he occupy — has he created — some realm of his own, beyond others?”

This is pretty interesting stuff from an author whose previous effort resulted in the highly-praised “Explaining Hitler.” How do you account for truly exceptional anything?

Mr. Rosenbaum does a pretty fair job of supporting the idea that Shakespeare is in a league, a cosmic realm, of his own; the only writer who has engendered a 400-year-old, self-sustaining industry. The passionate, often vituperative battles over how to interpret Shakespeare, in all his aspects, give the book its title and structural spine.

“Certain passages in Shakespeare,” Mr. Rosenbaum observes, “open up like the rabbit hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to ever-unfolding ramifications.” Or, as his hero and avatar, director Peter Brook, puts it, “The only reason his plays are redone, rediscovered for centuries, is the phenomenon that a line of ten syllables has within it level after level of meaning.”

Few of those privileged to see Mr. Brook’s 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (the experience that sparked the author’s passion) would quibble with the statement.

The phenomenon Brook refers to is what Mr. Rosenbaum calls “bottomlessness,” and he uses “Dream’s” aptly-named character and his experience as the ass-headed lover of Titania, queen of the fairies, as Exhibit A: “It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’” he declares, “because it hath no bottom.”

And that is just the point of Shakespeare to Mr. Rosenbaum. We get more out of him with each encounter, in a never-diminishing harvest of possibilities.

Mr. Rosenbaum demonstrates that Shakespeare is almost never either/or. Ambiguity on a cosmic scale is built into nearly every word of text — and that may be at the heart of his bottomlessness. The highly-respected critic Frank Kermode is described as concluding, “Shakespeare found a new way of representing mind in the process of thinking.”

Scholars and professors, critics and editors, actors and directors, all come under Mr. Rosenbaum’s scrutiny. His greatest praise is reserved for directors like Mr. Brook, scholar critics like Mr. Kermode and Stephen Booth, and actors like Kevin Kline in his memorable Lincoln Center enactment of Falstaff in “Henry IV,” all of whom release meaning from the text. He creates real suspense in how Mr. Kline will assimilate all the conflicting scholarly and directorial influences on him, then neatly describes his first action on stage:

“You could almost hear the joints creaking, as he first once, then twice, tried to defy gravity and stand up. Defying gravity — in every sense of the word — had been what defined Falstaff. Defying gravitas. Suddenly gravity was having its cruel revenge: defying Falstaff.” Beautiful.

Mr. Rosenbaum’s most vehement scorn is heaped upon self-styled Olympians such as Yale’s Harold Bloom, who tell us what to think, and Vassar’s Donald Foster, who uses computers and databases to tell us what is and isn’t “Shakespearean.”

Along the way, he pauses to explain how the original spelling edition of Washington’s John Andrews releases the full range of meanings Shakespeare intended, as well as the playwright’s thought processes, and how Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall insists on a slight pause at the end of every line of iambic pentameter to fully form the verse.

A book this passionate and opinionated is bound to have its flaws and excesses. Mr. Rosenbaum tends toward repetition, especially with concepts he particularly likes or dislikes, or clevernesses he wants to imprint on the reader’s brain. Since this is a work in which editors play many principal roles, better use of one would have helped.

And he occasionally gets tangled in his own dramaturgical theories, condemning Kenneth Branagh’s film version of “Much Ado About Nothing” for being too physically open, not confined enough for comedy. Yet a lot of us found it perfectly charming and — to invoke Mr. Rosenbaum’s favorite term of art — Shakespearean.

He’s obsessed with avoiding “Bardolotry,” insisting that “Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic, no matter how you portray Shylock. This seems to argue against his own premise, suggesting there is a “proper” way to play the Jewish moneylender, rather than the “bottomlessness” he claims for Shakespeare.

In the latter portions of the book, enmeshed in the sonnets and competing theories about them from William Empson and Stephen Booth, the lit crit gets a little thick for us mere mortals. This is particularly so when these figures are depicted arguing over the subconscious effect the sonnets have on general readers. And they can tell how…?

And I don’t understand the emphasis on the question, apparently big in scholarly circles, of whether Shakespeare revised his work. Are they serious? It’s impossible to consider that writing this beautiful, brilliant, dense and multi-layered sprung from the Bard’s brain fully formed. Even for a super-human genius, that strains the bounds of credulity.

But these are merely flaws of high ambition. And Mr. Rosenbaum’s aspirations rank with the loftiest. Having set himself the task of experiencing and elucidating all the current ideological clashes involving what is arguably the greatest achievement in the history of human creativity, he has produced an engrossing, emotionally-charged and highly moving account.

It’s not an introduction for the absolute novice; you’ll need some familiarity with the canon and some of Mr. Rosenbaum’s zeal to understand what he’s talking about. That said, he just may convince you, as he did me, that the fact these works came into existence — against all odds and logic and the limits of human capability — is one of the happiest, most imponderable miracles of all time.

Mark Olshaker is a novelist, nonfiction author and filmmaker. He wrote and directed the PBS film, “Discovering Hamlet.”

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