Monday, January 29, 2018

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I first came into contact with Ron Rosenbaum’s writing in the mid 2000s, when he was a book critic for Slate. During those years, perhaps his biggest contribution to literature was to convince Nabokov’s son to publish, rather than destroy, Nabokov’s last novel. Rosenbaum himself later had second thoughts, or at least ambivalent ones, about his role in the affair. My reading list bears witness to Rosenbaum’s influence, as a number of books I have read over the last five or so years have been his recommendations. (Most notable here is his excellent article discussing Jim Holt’s book, Why Does The World Exist, which remains one of my favorite philosophical reads.) Oh, and I probably would never have discovered Tristram Shandy without his help.

I also should credit his article from 2012 which was way ahead of the curve in drawing attention to the dependence of the Republican Party on racism for its very existence. I wasn’t there yet - I wouldn’t leave the GOP until 2013 - but it started me thinking. From there, I researched Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the increasingly open racism of Republican rhetoric. Of course, by the time The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named won the presidency running openly on the KKK platform, most educated, historically informed people could no longer deny what Rosenbaum saw. If you look through the archives, it is surprising how many prescient columns he wrote back then.

But I think I probably loved his literary articles the most. Musings on Philip Larkin and love, riffs on Ulysses and Salinger, and more. And Shakespeare. I loved the Shakespeare stuff. And that is why I have had this book on my list.

The Shakespeare Wars is about Shakespeare, obviously, but it is also very much about what we think about Shakespeare’s works. It is partly an account of Rosenbaum’s own journey from a grad student not particularly enthralled with Shakespeare to a fiercely appreciative fan. Along the way, Rosenbaum discusses a number of different controversies regarding the works themselves, approaches to performance, and interpretation of the themes. These the “wars” of the title, and Rosenbaum is a partisan in most of them. The book is 550 pages long, and not the fastest read, so I am not going to attempt any sort of systematic summary. I’ll hit some highlights and some of the things that particularly stood out to me as interesting. However, let me say that this is an excellent book, and any serious lover of Shakespeare should definitely read it. Rosenbaum is pretty convincing about most of his assertions. Certainly, he has done his research, and speaks from a place of knowledge of all the competing positions. I don’t agree with him on everything (this is Shakespeare - agreement is besides the point), but I cannot think of a single one of his propositions that isn’t thoroughly defensible. In each case, Rosenbaum made me think a lot deeper about the issue.

Let me start with what, in the book, is basically an aside in the introductory chapter. There is a whole school of thought that “Shakespeare” wasn’t a real person, but that his works were written by some other person (and a number of suggested candidates have been proposed.) In other places, Rosenbaum has laid out the shocking lack of evidence for this idea, and the rather significant evidence that there was a William Shakespeare, who was in fact an actor and a playwright, and everyone at the time agreed he wrote the plays. What Rosenbaum notes here is that the “anti-Stratfordians” have a deep need for Shakespeare to be an aristocrat, not a self taught lower-class actor. They have, as Rosenbaum points out, aristocratic pretensions themselves, and want Shakespeare to be someone more like them.

The first section of the book addresses textual issues. For example the fact that what we think of as Hamlet and King Lear did not exist as we know them until fairly recently. There are two fairly different versions of Hamlet, and what we usually experience is actually a conflation - a blending of the “best” of both versions. Likewise, for Lear, there are two versions with significant differences. These differences in each play have some potentially revolutionary implications to the meaning of the play - these aren’t really just minor omissions. So the question arises, was the later version Shakespeare’s revision? Or a “cut” version put together by a later director or publisher. And then there is the decision of which of the versions to publish, and why. This is all quite fascinating.

One line I do have to quote is from an interview Rosenbaum had with Ann Thompson, who edited the Arden edition of Lear recently (and made the decision to publish all the versions.) Rosenbaum was asking her about her willingness to embrace uncertainty and present the options, rather than dogmatically insist one version was “correct.” He prefaced a question with:

“American feminists have a phrase - ‘Male Answer Syndrome’ - for the tendency of men to insist they’ve always got things figured out…”

Um, no joke. In fact, I myself have concluded that this is the one of the things that most irritates me about openly Patriarchal systems (particularly the religious ones, because I have had too much experience there.) One nasty side effect of excluding women from leadership is that it feeds this whole “we have it ALL figured out, so shut up and stop challenging our dogma” attitude which in turn feeds the worship of the past, before women butted in.

The textual issues led into another really fun historical episode. Shakespeare roomed in London for a while with a wigmaker. An apprentice was convinced to marry the wigmaker’s daughter, purportedly in exchange for a generous financial settlement. Shakespeare was apparently the negotiator, and there are hints of a deeper scandal. So anyway, the payment isn’t made to satisfaction, the apprentice sues the wigmaker, and Shakespeare is deposed as a witness. We don’t get Shakespeare’s actual words, alas, just the summary from the clerk, which is in rather dry language like typical of proceedings of the time. (Read court opinions from this era to get the flavor.) However, even in the dry legalese, it appears Shakespeare was a master of ambiguity even in testimony, refusing to be nailed down to any specifics on the discussion. It seems possible he may have over promised both sides. It is a fun tale, and Rosenbaum writes well about it.

Throughout the book, a theme that emerges is Rosenbaum’s personal war against the Historicist approach to Shakespeare. Not having sat through advanced literature courses in my younger years, I wasn’t that familiar with literary theory and the historicist/deconstructionist school of thought until later. The best thing I ever read on it, actually, was David Foster Wallace’s essay on that topic. At that time, Wallace expanded my view of literary interpretation (and his fairly neutral discussion really resonated with how we go wrong in biblical interpretation.) Rosenbaum isn’t a fan of deconstructionist approaches, even as he acknowledges the role that theory has in understanding the greater sweep of literature. Rosenbaum’s point is more that even if some of Shakespeare’s themes and concerns arose from the time in which he lived, Shakespeare himself, and the transcendence of his art were not inevitable results of impersonal forces. Perhaps one could see in this as well the greater argument about whether free will exists.

The section in which this occurs most strikingly is in a digression on Stephen Greenblatt’s defense of a pre-historicist approach - one that acknowledges the role of free will. I particularly liked this line:

Greenblatt’s calm defense, back then, of the validity of personal reflection, of the possibility of an autonomous, intellectual free will seeking truth (rather than the notion that one’s thoughts, one’s will, one’s truth were historically, culturally, racially “determined” - “authored” by the culture), had an impact on me back then as it does now in assessing the claims of much of lit crit theory...

This rings true for me, as I wrestle with the cultural conditioning that I endured (suffered in many cases) that I have had to do the hard work of evaluating and in many cases rejecting in favor of truth as I discover it.

One of these truths, that Rosenbaum asserts Shakespeare’s art rests on, is ambiguity. Of uncertainty. Of problems that defy resolution. Even the two endings of Lear (and that is a fascinating  topic) cannot be truly resolved. Even once you decide which words are the “right” ones, the meaning remains elusive. Or perhaps better put, the mean(ings) are in tension. Rosenbaum ends this discussion with a great line from Simon Blackburn, the British philosopher:

“The process of understanding the problem is itself a good thing.”

Perhaps this is what is so often missing in our religious and philosophical discussions (and is all but absent in Evangelical thought): the recognition that there are problems in the first place, that not all questions have clear yes/no answers. The problems we have interpreting Shakespeare - who lived a mere 400ish years ago, and spoke largely the same language as we do - are pretty minor by comparison to the problems in interpretation of a certain far more ancient work.

Rosenbaum asserts - and I tend to agree - that it is Shakespeare’s command of the language in the service of nuance and ambiguity that makes him such an enduring artist. That sense of both/and rather than a clear either/or means that the depth of thought and interpretation is - or at least feels - “bottomless,” to use a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Rosenbaum makes much of this line, which is both a cute pun spoken inadvertently by Bottom, and likely a reference to the way the Bishop’s Bible translated a passage in I Corinthians. (The version Shakespeare would have read referred to “the bottom of God’s secrets.”)

In addition to the summarized testimony, there is one more potential glimpse of the “original” Shakespeare. In the collaborative play, Sir Thomas More, there are handwritten passages which seem rather “Shakespearean.” In particular, there is an absolutely fantastic scene in which More confronts those seeking to evict immigrants. I quoted it extensively in my post responding to Le Toupee’s “Shithole countries” comment. The scene wasn’t fiction entirely, however. It was based on the race riots of 1517. In what sounds all too familiar in our own times. A bunch of nativist tradesmen and workers rioted against foreign (largely Italian…) immigrants allegedly undercutting the natives. Rosenbaum points out that this was probably one of the first recorded anti-globalist riots too. While other parts of the play (which is as uneven as you might expect with several authors) are sympathetic to the nativists, Shakespeare writes a thoroughly convincing plea for both the immigrants and the rule of law and social justice. It’s really amazing. And it is several elements in the text that lead to the likelihood that Shakespeare wrote it.

Regarding this passage, Rosenbaum also nails an interesting point about Shakespeare’s relationship to authority. Shakespeare deeply distrusted mobs, but he was no authoritarian, and to the extent he tended to support existing authority, he didn’t do so out of a belief in the divine right of kings. Rather, well, let me quote Rosenbaum here:

Not one that derives from Divine Right, but a different attitude toward authority found in canonical Shakespeare. One that doesn’t favor order for order’s sake, for tradition’s sake, for the sake of preserving the privileges of the privileged class. That’s all ruff. It’s rather an attitude that favors authority because it is often the only thing that protects the weak from the strong, restrains the unleashed tyranny of appetite, of self-devouring human nature - restrains the rough beast within human nature.

That’s just fantastic. In fact, it is why I tend towards a conservative approach to politics most of the time. The problem for me is that the “conservative” side of American politics right now is on the side of the powerful and privileged class, while leveraging the hatred of the mob toward brown people, “foreigners,” while the powerful plunder our country. That’s not “conservative” in any real sense. It’s radical hatred and utopian Social Darwinism leveraged by those who do indeed “shark” on all, to use Shakespeare’s (likely) memorable phrase. The whole discussion of this play and the controversy over how much Shakespeare himself wrote is fascinating.

All these questions of authorship lead to a deeper one: what exactly does make something “Shakespearean” anyway? That isn’t an easy question to answer. Maybe like Justice Potter Stewart in his famous quote on obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” What is clear is that even when Shakespeare is paraphrasing pretty directly an earlier source, he makes it transcend. Rosenbaum cites a particularly illuminating example from Antony and Cleopatra, which crips extensively from Plutarch.

But what a difference, where Plutarch gives a fairly leaden (if detail laden) description, Shakespeare’s language soars, and puts us in the glorious moment, rather than in the orchestra pit counting the instruments.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
...At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ th’ marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

I have yet to see this play in person (yeah, bucket list moment: see every Shakespeare play live…) but goodness, the language and the picture. It’s simply amazing - and “Shakespearean,” even if it is tough to explain exactly why.

 Just a couple more observations.

First is about Shakespeare’s sexuality. Much hay has been made about it, despite a rather paucity of evidence. Much of this comes from the Sonnets, which were cryptically dedicated to “Mr. W.H.,” and are, like, well, most love songs or poems, not exactly gendered. That’s kind of the point. Love is love, and isn’t all that different of an experience for men and women. Case in point: I absolutely adore Sonnets From the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I feel like they express love in an amazing way - she could be speaking my own thoughts, but so much better than I could. She. A woman. And yet, I find the experience is universal. Likewise with Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They are timeless, and universal, and often profound. The speaker doesn’t really matter, nor does the intended recipient (if any.) For some artists, sexuality is relevant, and sometimes that is part of the art. But not necessarily in the Sonnets. Anyway, Stephen Booth has one of the best quotes of all time about Shakespeare’s sexuality:

“William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The Sonnets provide no evidence on that matter.”

Exactly. On a related note, I need to go back and read all the Sonnets in order one of these days.

One final thought: Rosenbaum discusses Booth at length, in a very interesting chapter. One of his conclusions from what Booth has said over the years is that there is a whole deeper level of understanding to be gained from performing Shakespeare. He analogizes it to a violinist playing Mozart. Even the most skilled listener cannot quite match that experience. There is the experience a skilled music reader can have simply looking at the notes on the score (many musicians can hear in their heads what they see), there is the experience of hearing music in real time. But nothing is quite like playing it. I can concur from my experience as a musician. It is particularly great when you get to play multiple parts. I feel like I have a particularly rich experience of Handel’s Messiah because I have, over the years, played first violin, second violin, and viola. Three of the four string parts (basses mostly double the celli) - at that point, you can see the guts of the harmonies, so to speak.

I suspect Rosenbaum is correct about this. Just as the experience of reading a poem aloud - particularly for an audience - makes it come alive in a way that silently reading doesn’t. Although I am not an actor, I can see that being in the center of a Shakespeare play must be an immersive experience, and internalizing those glorious lines must be transcendent.

In general, this book was a great read. I have always felt that Rosenbaum’s writing was compelling, and that his analysis of many things made sense, even when I disagreed with the conclusion. As I said at the outset, they are always “defensible,” and based on evidence and logic. As with the origins of the universe, I have appreciated that he declines to make claims beyond what he can support, and thus avoids a lot of the excesses of the most partisan writers. On the origins of the universe, I find his admission of uncertainty to be more convincing than, for example, Richard Dawkins’ refusal to allow for doubt or ambiguity. Likewise, Rosenbaum isn’t as bombastic or dogmatic as Harold Bloom - whose book on Shakespeare I enjoy as a reference, even as I agree with Rosenbaum that he overreaches quite a bit in places. The Shakespeare Wars is, in my opinion, a book that any true fan of Shakespeare should read. It is fascinating in its exploration of history, of theories, and of the glory that makes Shakespeare’s art part of the pantheon of literature.


Rosenbaum’s other major book, Explaining Hitler, looks like a great read. He mentions it in a few places in this book, in the context of whether Hitler and Shakespeare were outliers. In other words, was Shakespeare merely the best on a regular continuum, or was he something else entirely. And likewise, was Hitler merely another evil despot, or was there something “transcendently” evil about him. An interesting thought, to say the least, and Rosenbaum doesn’t answer it in this book. Probably, he leaves the answer, well, ambiguous. Maybe they were both/and, not one or the other. I think I need to put that book on my list.

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