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What fools these mortals be

The Shakespeare Wars Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups Ron Rosenbaum Random House: 606 pp., $35

September 17, 2006|Daniel Swift | Daniel Swift has written for numerous publications, including the Nation and the Times Literary Supplement.

LIKE Hitler, Shakespeare attracts apocrypha: fake diaries, forged testaments, the textual traces of an irregular inner life. Like Hitler, Shakespeare's genesis is unknown: Both have lost years, and both demand the question of how did an apparently unremarkable childhood produce that? Like Hitler, Shakespeare stands at the extreme fringe of our culture: the most evil man, the greatest writer. Ron Rosenbaum's last book was the bestselling "Explaining Hitler," in which he explored the origins of the dictator and the hold he still has over us. It should come as less of a surprise, then, that his new book turns to Shakespeare.

"The Shakespeare Wars" is dedicated to, begins and ends with Peter Brook, the British director of a famous 1970 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The performance, writes Rosenbaum, "changed my life and has haunted me ever since." On the run from graduate school at Yale, Rosenbaum went on a pilgrimage to England's literary sites, including Chaucer's Canterbury and the hillside near Winchester where Keats stood, in September 1819, and saw "barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day." He ended up in Stratford, and in the theater one night found magic in the "Dream."

"For me it was like the night they invented champagne," Rosenbaum writes.

Brook's production introduced Rosenbaum to what he calls Shakespeare's "bottomlessness." Waking from a dream of wild, erotic conquest, Bottom the weaver confides to us: "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was." Shakespeare has long inspired big dreams. Rosenbaum talks with Keith Baxter, who played Prince Hal in Orson Welles' film "Chimes at Midnight," based on the two "Henry IV" plays, who reports Welles' boast: "We want to call down the corridors of time with this." Stephen Greenblatt, probably the most influential Shakespearean literary critic alive today, starts one book with the ambition: "I began with the desire to speak with the dead."

For Rosenbaum, the dream is to discover "What is 'Shakespearean' rather than who was Shakespeare," and his book is a study of the debates over "how best to experience the work of Shakespeare the writer."

The first section describes the ongoing wars over the textual status of certain plays. There are three different versions of "Hamlet" in existence and editors have long conflated them into a single play for publication. The point is fairly simple: Shakespeare didn't write the version of "Hamlet" that you have read or seen performed.

Rosenbaum interviews two editors of "Hamlet" who are polar opposites on the topic. Harold Jenkins spent 30 years of his life compiling a single version of the play, which was published in 1982; Rosenbaum has tea with him in "his ship-shape little cottage" in north London. At a Krispy Kreme shop in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he meets Gary Taylor, who tells Rosenbaum that "it's just not true that I hate Shakespeare" but whose work has inspired the editors of the Arden Shakespeare, to print "Hamlet" as three different texts.

Why it matters is because we just do not know. We cannot know for sure Lear's last words in "King Lear," which means that we cannot know what he is thinking when he dies. Either he does or does not finally gasp, "break, heart, I prithee break." "All those millions of words written about Lear can't be based on a foundation that lacks certainty about Lear's own final view of the cosmos, can they?" despairs Rosenbaum. Alas, they are.

This terrifying possibility sets Rosenbaum off on his "persistent (if sometimes futile and inconclusive) search for the original way Shakespeare was spoken, written, played, heard." He has dinner with Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and preacher of "iambic fundamentalism," who insists that the end of each pentameter line demands a pause; he talks with scholar John Andrews, who argues for editions of the plays in the original spellings; he thinks about the tradition of acting techniques and argues for movie adaptations, which offer you "more truly Shakespearean performances than all the stage productions you are likely to see in a lifetime."

Rosenbaum clearly likes Shakespeare, and he wants us to share his enthusiasm for what he calls "[t]he most exciting phenomenon devised by the human imagination." He's not alone in his passion: Don Foster, who staked his career as a Shakespeare scholar on the attribution to Shakespeare of a funeral elegy that turned out to be bogus, tells Rosenbaum: "I could destroy you." Many have risked their lives, or been driven insane, by the Bard, and Rosenbaum reports a series of striking anecdotes. Teena Rochfort-Smith started work on a comprehensive, multi-textual edition of "Hamlet" in the early 1880s, but before she could complete it she burned to death when her dress caught fire; poet John Berryman spent close to 40 years on an edition of "King Lear" before killing himself in 1972.

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