"The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups" by Ron Rosenbaum

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups - Ron Rosenbaum

The Germans have Goethe, the Russians Dostoevsky, the Spanish Cervantes, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (and Camões). The English-speaking world has Shakespeare with a difference. Shakespeare “speaks” to us from a 400 year gap, while Goethe, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Pessoa are much closer to us. Their language is basically the language that we speak today. Not so with Shakespeare. Early Modern English is “another” language. This is what makes Shakespeare different, as well as the fact that we know next to nothing about him, which makes him harder to read and interpret.

To those who are in my age bracket, ie, long past childhood, foreign native English speakers on their Shakespearean quest, somewhat fazed, but still fascinated by the English language, I would simply give you one piece of advice: "Hang in there!" There are plenty of meticulously edited scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays. Take your pick and embark on your personal journey (see beneath my personal Shakespeare's bookshelf). Yes, it's very difficult. I'm quite aware of that. But it might just be worth it. There is no easy way to start reading Shakespeare, no easy paved path to understand and appreciate his writing. It requires lots of hard work.

Whether it's worth it or not, that's up to you. Keep in mind that if you don’t get Shakespeare, don’t trouble yourself. Shakespeare is like that.

Rosenbaum's book is one of those that should be in every personal Shakespeare's bookshelf, along with a few others:

  1. "The Annotated Shakespeare" by A. L. Rowse
  2. "The Shakespeare Wars" by Ron Rosenbaum
  3. "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" by Peter Alexander
  4.  "The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents" by Russ McDonald
  5. “Shakespeare and the Art of Language” by Russ McDonald
  6. "An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Stephen Booth
  7. "Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare" by Isaac Asimov
  8. "Northrop Frye on Shakespeare" by Northrop Frye
  9. "Shakespeare after All" by Marjorie Garber
  10. "Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion" by David and Ben Crystal
  11. "The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge Companions to Literature)" by Margreta De Grazia, and Stanley Wells.
  12. "Dictionary of Shakespeare (Wordsworth Collection)" by Charles Boyce

(NB: No Harold Bloom reference work…)

For the plays I want re-read, I also (re)-read the relevant sections in these reference books. When I pick up the next play in my Shakespeare reading list, I start by reading the relevant section in the reference books, and also to refer back when necessary to get the background, history of performance and the critiques. 

I’ve always pondered whether I should tackle this book. And “tackle” is the right word here. When the book came out in 2006, the controversy surrounding Bloom’s book “Shakespeare: The Invention of Human” was rampant, and I was not interested in reading something along the same lines. Big mistake. What Ron Rosenbaum does with his book “The Shakespeare Wars” is quite a feast, and it should be read by all, Shakespeare aficionados or not. It’s refreshing to read something about Shakespeare that invites thought.

If one wants to understand what reading Shakespeare is all about, what language should be, “The Shakespeare Wars” is the answer. 

Nevertheless Shakespeare critique may seem an odd theme for a pleasure book but between deep love for this subject and breezy, journalistic prose, Rosenbaum pulls it off rather nicely. This book’s close reading approach to Shakespeare is what allows the book to make its mark. While reading it I was invaded by a sense of transcendence, bedazzlement and wonder. Even the most acerbic chapters are oddly charming (eg, the chapter on whether “The Funeral Elegy” was in fact written by Shakespeare). In my mind it accomplishes something marvelous: it proves that centuries-old language can produce evident fulfillment.

This book mimics almost in full my thoughts on Shakespeare: Going on incessant cycles of re-reading the plays, watching them played (Kenneth Branagh comes to mind). With each new reading iteration I find, time after time, a quantum leap to a new level or new depth of understanding. Each new iteration resulted in further wonderful glimpses of ultimate enigmas represented by Shakespeare’s writing. Only Shakespeare doesn’t bring forth diminishing returns with each re-reading. Rosenbaum is able quite aptly to show us why with each re-reading we get increasing returns.

“What’s all the fuss about [Shakespeare]?” as Rosenbaum asks? We feel that there is something in his writing beyond what we find in other authors, namely Shakespeare’s polysemy, ie, the capacity of Shakespearean language to generate an unbounded supply of meaning in the readers. As Rosenbaum states in his “exceptionalist question”, ie, “is Shakespeare on the same 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?” (To see Rosenbaum’s take on this you’ve got to read the book lol).

His chapter on Shakespeare on film and stage is almost the price of the book alone. Very useful insights on Stoppard (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”), Olivier (“Richard III”), Gielgud, Garrick, Brook (“King Lear”), Burton (“Hamlet”), Welles (“Henry IV”), Branagh (“Hamlet”, eg, this little snippet, which came as surprise when I saw the movie for the first time: “consider Kenneth Branagh’s decision in his often admirable full-length four-hour Hamlet to give us a flashback scene of Hamlet and Ophelia rolling around naked in bed making love.[…]. Setting aside Branagh’s understandable decision to err on the side of rolling around naked with Kate Winslet, who plays Ophelia, it’s not exactly an Originalist device.[…] But I was grateful that he did it and in doing so gave us John Gielgud’s last Shakespearean moment. […]. A sad, beautiful, silent farewell for Gielgud.

This book was such a Shakespearean source for me that I found myself underlining so much of it that underlining lost the point of underlining…

Sometimes along comes a book where the collision between reader and text takes place at a perfect time. This is one of those books and I’m one of those readers. I’m glad I didn’t read it in 2006. I wouldn’t have appreciated it properly. If you are into Shakespeare in a big way, do yourself a favour, and get this book. You won’t regret it.

NB: His assertion that “Germany is Hamlet” came as a surprise. I’d never thought about it in those terms (when discussing Germany’s romanticism, and feverish intellectualism).