Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE SHAKESPEARE WARS by Ron Rosenbaum Kirkus Star


Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

by Ron Rosenbaum

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 2006
ISBN: 0-375-50339-0
Publisher: Random House

Bestselling author Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler, 1998, etc.) examines the current state of Shakespearean studies and productions.

His attention-grabbing title refers primarily (and not entirely convincingly) to the opening chapters, which also contain the most daunting material: accounts of vehement academic disagreements about whether the different versions of Hamlet and Lear (including the heroes’ last words) represent Shakespeare’s revisions or printers’ variations; a blistering rejection of Vassar professor Don Foster’s claim to have discovered a funeral elegy by the Bard; lengthy discussions of such arcane matters as the respective merits of the Bad and Good Quartos as well as the First Folio. Despite Rosenbaum’s breezy, conversational prose and lively portraits of Harold Jenkins, Eric Sams, Gary Taylor, Frank Kermode and other key scholars, general readers may find themselves somewhat at sea here. Things pick up when the author shifts to Shakespearean directors like Peter Hall, whose passionate argument that a pause is necessary at the end of each line of iambic pentameter shows how textual discussions affect live performances, and Peter Brook, whose legendary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream forever changed the way Shakespeare was acted and read. Rosenbaum skillfully draws together a wealth of information to highlight a few key points, in particular the “bottomlessness” of Shakespeare, who in the view of scholars like Stephen Booth was able to make language embrace manifold contradictions and convey a multiplicity of meanings so that, as Brook put it, when we split open each line, “the energy that can be released is infinite.” Rosenbaum warmly evokes the sheer pleasure of reading Shakespeare, the dizzying play of feelings and ideas that “keep the mind in a constant motion.” Though he politely but bluntly skewers the windy bombast of such self-proclaimed “bardolators” as Harold Bloom, the author is as much in awe of Shakespeare’s life-embracing genius as anyone—indeed, because he examines it in such careful detail, he makes a far more persuasive (and very moving) case for the uniqueness of the Bard’s contribution to world literature and theater.

In-depth critical analysis handled with a light touch and unfailing respect for the reader’s intelligence: cultural journalism of the highest order.