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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Recommended Reading

Just about anyone interested in Shakespeare will find much of value in Ron Rosenbaum's recent book, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (Random House, 2006). The author's basic point is simple: if we care about Shakespeare, then we should care about the people who bring Shakespeare to us. Since Rosenbaum himself cares passionately about Shakespeare, he can readily present himself as a model aficionado -- keeping just this side of Bardolatry.

The people who bring us Shakespeare include --

Textual experts, who work with the earliest published versions and edit the plays (and footnote or endnote or sidenote them) either so they're more readable for us or so their complexities are more obvious to us;

Attribution scholars, who try to determine which plays and poems (and how much of them) were actually written by Shakespeare;

Directors and their associates, who train actors in bringing the plays (and especially their language) to life and who train audiences to see the plays in sometimes startling ways;

Academics, another set of go-betweens who can bring people closer to Shakespeare or who can get in the way (whether in the classroom, the textbook, or the best-seller).

Rosenbaum pays apt tribute to director Peter Brook, whose 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream transformed Shakespearean stage practice -- and transformed the lives of many audience members, including Rosenbaum, who saw it in Stratford-upon-Avon, and yours truly, who saw it during its U. S. tour.

He justly criticizes Stephen Greenblatt for his biographical liberties and Harold Bloom for what has to be termed autobiographical liberties (actually, both Will in the World and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human are examples of a Portrait of the Artist as the Biographer / Critic).

He justly praises literary scholar Stephen Booth for astonishing alertness to the ways in which Shakespeare's language works and somewhat excessively piles on now-discredited attribution expert Donald Foster (the man who claimed "A Funeral Elegy" was the Bard's work).

At times, Rosenbaum seems to try overly hard to assert his credentials as a critic of Shakespeare: he reminds us repeatedly of his training as a graduate student of English at Yale and he closes several chapters with a designated expert's approval of one of Rosenbaum's insights or ideas.

And while he admires "close reading" -- the careful analysis of language and its production of meaning -- he doesn't always do it particularly well. For example, he seizes on a phrase in Lady Capulet's praise of Paris to Juliet: Count Paris is a book "That in gold clasps locks in the golden story." For Rosenbaum, the passage confirms Peter Brook's idea that within each Shakespeare play is a "secret play." Perhaps so, but emphasizing such an interpretation overlooks the more mercenary undertones of Lady Capulet's advice, as underscored by the very next lines: "So shall you share all that he doth possess, / By having him, making yourself no less."

But much can be forgiven someone so utterly smitten with Shakespeare. Ultimately, this is rather a sweet book -- because it makes clear both his affectionate regard for (most) others who care about Shakespeare and also his gratitude to those who make Shakespeare available to us.

[The book jacket illustration shows the Third Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1664. A closer look at its title page appears above: the edition proudly announces that it adds "seven Playes, never before Printed in Folio." Unfortunately, only one of the seven -- Pericles -- is now thought to have been written (at least primarily) by Shakespeare. Attribution and editors are as important as Rosenbaum says.]


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