Commentary Magazine

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
by Ron Rosenbaum
Random House. 601 pp. $35.00

The journalist Ron Rosenbaum is best known for his 1998 book Explaining Hitler, which, as its subtitle declares, is about a “search for the origins of [the dictator’s] evil.” Interviewing living biographers and historians, recapitulating the findings of those who had passed on, Rosenbaum traced the crisscrossing beams of light each had tried to shine into an unexampled darkness. But no consensus explanation was forthcoming. After the galleys of the book had been wrested from him, he tells us in his new book, he fell into a depression alleviated only by going “around the city listening to Shakespeare tapes on a Walkman.”

Those tapes took him from the contemplation of one abyss, the Hitlerian “genius for destruction,” to the contemplation of another, the Shakespearean “genius for creation.” If Hitler’s moral evil was so exceptional as to seem beyond the continuum of ordinary human wickedness, Shakespeare’s literary greatness seems no less off the charts, so exceptional that “bardolatry”—holding the poet up as somehow more than human—has since the 18th century been an occupational hazard for scholars, critics, and ordinary readers alike.

Rosenbaum has now done for Shakespeare studies what he did for Hitler studies: he has researched and interviewed the foremost living scholars, theater directors, actors, and critics, added summaries of the work of a few seminal critics of the last century, interjected asides concerning his own encounters with the poems and plays as well as with particularly memorable productions, and withal tried gamely to make the scholarly and critical issues being “warred” over seem anything but parochial.

The chapters of The Shakespeare Wars are like dispatches from combat zones. One of them is marked by arguments over attribution. Thus, the principal “fiasco” alluded to in Rosenbaum’s subtitle was precipitated by a Vassar professor’s claim that a “Funeral Elegy” signed “W.S.” had to be by the W.S. because his computer told him so. The professor later retracted his assertion, but not before credulous publishers stumbled over each other to include this “new work” in their collected editions.

Another of Rosenbaum’s combat zones is festooned with the banners of defenders of Shakespearean “originalism,” whether the supposedly authentic way to pronounce and deliver the lines or the use of early 17th-century spellings. Elsewhere, we witness the firefights of hypo- versus hyper-sexed stage directors, moderate versus over-strenuous hunters of verbal ambiguities, and deconstructionists or “new historicists” versus critics who write for the common reader.



The combat zone to which Rosenbaum gives fullest coverage, though, features battalions of academic editors going mano a mano over “textual” issues. Which are the right words, and how should we order them? Most people who have taken a Shakespeare class will be surprised by such questions: surely we have been presented with the best text that editors are capable of giving us, and surely all those variants at the back of the book or at the bottom of the page are of no interest. But, Rosenbaum insists, those variants are interesting, and so is the battle over them.

A few years back, Rosenbaum published a piece in the New Yorker on the squabbles among editors of Hamlet who must work with three sources—a “good” and a “bad” quarto (paperback-size volumes) and the trimmed version that appears in the complete Folio published in 1623, eight years after Shakespeare’s death. Are the variants among these editions the result of compositors’ errors (or “creative” elisions and additions), actors’ and directors’ cuts or insertions—or are they Shakespeare’s own revisions? What did he really intend? Which epithet, phrase, or entire soliloquy represents the truly Shakespearean, and which, if not entirely apocryphal, shows him still fiddling around?

There are of course similar textual problems with other famous works, like William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, or D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. But with those we can at least ascertain when the author’s own hand was responsible for the changes. With Shakespeare (Hamlet and King Lear are the truly vexed plays), editors have a problem analogous to what they have with Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales exists in two rival manuscripts, each with aesthetic and historical claims to priority. Shakespeare scholars cannot finally decide—cannot reach agreement—among quarto, quarto, and folio because the necessary information as to what Shakespeare did, or what at bottom he wanted, is lacking.

Here, then, we touch on an important problem. The paucity of biographical data about Shakespeare himself, and the often marginal usefulness of data about his social and ideological milieu, necessarily send us back to the plays and poems, and thus to the words. Earlier critics have been here before, beginning with Samuel Johnson in the mid-18th century and William Hazlitt in the early 19th. From their and others’ reading of the words, much has been elicited about what Rosenbaum sarcastically refers to as Shakespeare’s “Big Ideas, Big Themes, Big Characters, Big Bigness.”

Rather too much, in his opinion: he especially has it in for Harold Bloom, the subtitle of whose Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) amounted in Rosenbaum’s judgment to “a terrific marketing device” to encourage readers to mistake Shakespeare for God and Bloom for “His One True Prophet.” As opposed to such professional explainers, Rosenbaum contends that the big ideas, themes, characters, or religio-philosophic profundities truly count only if—bringing us back to the editorial problems—the right words are in the right order. Then at least we will have the aural gratifications specific to the varieties of Shakespeare’s poetry, and the often colloquial vitalities of his prose.



Of words, in any case, Rosenbaum himself can clearly never have too many. This book’s pervasive flaw is its sheer prolixity. His New Yorker essay, boiled down there to a mere 10,000 words, appears here, one would wager, in its pristine 30,000-word glory. Needless repetitions and simple wool-gathering abound in this book’s 600 pages, especially when Rosenbaum is recounting interviews. Instead of paraphrasing here, directly quoting there, he often just gives us the full running transcript, only slightly tidied up and interrupted by his own exclamations.

Take his session with the stage director Peter Brook, who to Rosenbaum’s evident delectation maunders on about “the secret play,” the hidden mystery, within, for instance, King Lear, “where Edgar conjures up the depths from the top of the cliff for Gloucester.”


You touch on something fundamental, which is whether when you talk about theology you’re talking about what the church has turned into doctrine. Or whether one comes to the fact that deep, deep down, at the real bottomless level, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are talking about the same thing. And on that level, on the bottomless level it’s the same experience being expressed through different cultures and different languages.

Rosenbaum to us: “The same experience . . .”; and to Brook:

Do you have a feeling that Shakespeare had some initiating mystical or visionary experience?


I would have thought it’s so. . . . I mean there were esoteric groups of course and Shakespeare could have been part of one of those groups. I think it’s more probable than improbable.

And so on, and on. Setting aside the vacancy of all this, what it suggests is that Rosenbaum is not so immune to Big Ideas as he pretends—and also that Shakespeare’s own words are inseparable from Shakespeare’s mind. The problem for every critic is that, cart in as many contemporary data as you wish, Shakespeare’s mind remains ultimately unknowable. Which means that it is just as subject to imaginative projection now—as by Peter Brook, or by Stephen Greenblatt in his 2004 bestseller Will in the World—as it was when Oscar Wilde, in “Portrait of Mr. W.H.” (1889), speculated about the boy Willie Hughes to whom Shakespeare allegedly felt a homo-erotic attraction.



Still, there are imaginative projections and then there are imaginative projections. Greenblatt, for instance, very imaginatively projects anti-anti-Semitic intentions into The Merchant of Venice by positing that Shakespeare was present in London in 1593 at the cruel execution of the queen’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese-Jewish convert to Christianity who had been convicted of trying to poison her. Recoiling from the crowd’s hideous, laughing mockery of Lopez’s sufferings—mockery that may have been stimulated by the anti-Semitic portrait of Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta—Shakespeare, or so Greenblatt fancies, resolved through the figure of Shylock to rehabilitate “the Jew” and so raise the consciousness of the rabble.

Well, Greenblatt can fancy as he wishes. This, however, is hardly the way five centuries of audiences have responded to The Merchant of Venice—which, even if not so one-dimensional as Marlowe’s play, remains demonstrably and inescapably anti-Semitic. (For chapter and verse, see John Gross’s definitive 1992 study, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy.) Rosenbaum is right to quarrel with Greenblatt on this score, as he is right to be harsh on the evasions and sanitizings of the recent Michael Radford film version of the same play, starring Al Pacino as a sort of “usurer on the roof.”

As Rosenbaum declares: “Merchant is so malevolent precisely because Shakespeare is so good.” Wanting “to raise the stakes in conventional representation of the Jew . . . he did it not by making him a comic demon as did Marlowe, but rather by knowing the paradoxical effect of giving him a touch of humanity, just enough to make his departure from humanity more repellent.”

Although applied to only one particular play, that is as nice a summary definition of Shakespeare’s uncanny genius as one could desire. For getting this and other “Big Ideas” right, Ron Rosenbaum can be forgiven his redundancies, his windiness, and his occasional susceptibility to deep-think vacuity.



Thomas L. Jeffers teaches literature at Marquette University and is the author most recently of Apprenticeships (Palgrave). He is working on a biography of Norman Podhoretz.

About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.