Monday, April 23, 2007

Ron Rosenbaum & "The Shakespeare Wars"

This is a review written for Amazon US today (hey-- I made it to #750 and over 700 reviews. Thanks for voting, hint, hint.) on a book that while it took forever to finish and gained three stars for its author's tendency to gobble more than it could digest, nevertheless deserves its turn before the literary limelights. Proof too that you need not have a Ph.D. (although lots of research money, tenure, and endless acclaim from one's peers at conferences seem to all be perks) to explain lit crit. This image is from a wonderful cover of the NY Times Book Review on this book, showing little Willies cavorting about Central Park, or the Forest of Arden, all reading about themselves as they played.

In studying and teaching the Bard, I always wonder if I am over-praising or under-estimating Shakespeare's achievement. "Is it him or is it we who are not making sense?" (524) Rosenbaum replies we are at fault. But this is a felix culpa, a happy fault. He energetically plows through dozens of topics revolving around reactions of critics and directors of Shakespeare. This is not a biography; Rosenbaum has choice words for Stephen Greenblatt's recent "Will in the World." Rosenbaum's dogged pace shows his journalistic knack for standing outside the "public fiascos, palace coups" of his book's subtitle, the better to examine "clashing scholars." Digging in, he holds his ground against formidable experts.

He's able to summarize Stephen Bloom's rhetorical application of antanaclasis in Sonnet 40: "like pulsating alliteration, evokes a sense of insecurity, of flux, of motion..." (471) This whole book, in fact, is Rosenbaum's effort to come to grips with a day as a grad student at Yale when he first realized this disassociation, this suspension between meanings, this either-and-or-plus-more capability that he argues Shakespeare, more than any other writer ever, at his best conveys to us. Still, this "exegetical despair" at never having enough time to get to the bottom of Shakespeare's "floating signifiers" persists.

In fact, Rosenbaum's status as a drop-out from an Ivy League doctoral program in English enables him to return to textual studies, critical debates, academic cogitation, and performance anxieties with aplomb-- and perhaps a wish to settle scores with fusty scholars and fussy thespians.
I found myself certainly eager to return to my student seminar on Lear, to pick up for the first time since college Antony & Cleopatra, or to re-discover the overlooked Troilus & Cressida. But, admittedly, the amount of detail, the intricacy of the arguments, and the rapidity with which parts of this study move too quickly all present any prospective reader of "The Shakespeare Wars" (not the best title, either) with reason to reflect. This book took me over two weeks on and off, and it demands-- as is only fair given its subject-- close attention and unwavering recall.

Often Rosenbaum sets up a point that he may not return to for hundreds of pages; he takes up as an aside concerns that far ago at a later stage in his quest to uncover Shakespeare's spell. [Part not on Amazon I added later: For instance, he builds up Booth's amazing ten-minute talk at Shenandoah but the climax-- where the prof's going with the idea of the Wall in "Midsummer's Night's Dream"-- gets muffled and barely's mentioned, after Rosenbaum's expended enormous energy on Booth's earlier two points. (Hard to believe the lecturer however learned packed so much into so little time, no matter how erudite the conference.]

[This book, as this example shows, is both too fast-paced and too-detailed. Rosenbaum has so much to say that he seems to forget his larger point in places such as I have mentioned. Dealing with how we deal with what's Shakespearean, what makes his work so dazzling, depends upon intricate arguments that in turn demand that we rise to a considerably higher level of Shakespearean literacy than I gather most of us have. Nothing wrong with that, but fair warning and be prepared for a long cruise through choppy waters.] He expects more than that elusive "generally educated reader" for you need to have read the plays he talks about. No plot summaries here; he takes what is odd for a mass-market account of the drama in that he writes at a level thankfully more accessible than the usual critic (which isn't hard these days, admittedly) but nonetheless a tone that implies on every page you need to have done as nearly an intensive scrutiny of the plays as he has had the stamina, the intellect, and the passion to pursue over thirty-five years.

The high points for me were his treatment of Shylock as performed too genteely by actors today afraid to admit that Shakespeare may have been one of his time and not above it in some universalist humanism in presenting a Jewish villain. Rosenbaum confronts Steven Berkoff and Henry Goodman, both British Jewish actors who in Rosenbaum's estimation have with varying degrees of success tried to make this play and its main character still worthy of a post-1945 performance of a drama more controversial now perhaps than it presumably in Shakespeare's London. Rosenbaum's own determination to argue for the play's antisemitism as its central and essential core despite "universalist" efforts to soften its edge make for stimulating reading.

He also, after a suitable interlude treating that Shakespeare on film for us can best its theatrical productions today-- by virtue of close-ups, subtle vocal expression, voiceover of soliloquys, and crafting of scenes without the stage's necessity to thunder out and soldier on for hours more. He recommends Welles' Falstaff, Burton's Hamlet, Olivier's Richard III, and Brook's Lear above all else. To his credit, he gives fair space to Harold Perrineau's stunning Mercutio in Luhrmann's Romeo; on the other hand he barely mentions Taymor's Titus, Parker's Othello, Branagh's Hamlet & Henry or Almeyredra's Hamlet although he seems to like much in them at their best. Not to mention his lack of explanation of what's good and bad in the 1980s BBC TV series that filmed for the first time the entire set of plays. Much more is needed than what his film chapter gives.

Too often, Rosenbaum mentions asides that to me proved more appealing than his main examples. I never figured out what adds up from Brook's "Secret Play" concept or the cumulative effect on stage of Cic Berry's vocal experiments in rehearsals. The Socinian heresy may have much to suggest about Merchant and Empson in "Milton's God" had much to provide about the Doctrine of Christian Satisfaction, but Rosenbaum raises such points only to then rush past them in his determination to transcribe yet another interview with an actor or director. These conversations are often enlightening, but there lurks an understandable if still awkward tendency of the journalist to put himself too forward as the antagonist, the devil's advocate, the naysayer.

There are places, as with his demolishment of Harold Bloom's ridiculous claims for Falstaff as the epitome of Shakespeare's "invention of the human" as we have inherited his conceptual paradigm, where he seems to have that personal agenda come out too much. Revenge for those Yale sherry parties when he witnessed his classmates fawning over Bloom is understandable. But it does undermine the intellectual rigor of his critique of that orotund mandarin.

Unfortunately, this hefty and handsomely designed book lacks any way to track down quotations from his sources. Bibliographic endnotes are engrossing, but the lack of specific citations for hundreds of quotes is disappointing in a book that tries to connect a wider audience to insider debates. Despite an imperfect result, this is one of the rare books that bridges the gap between the ranks of (in the phrase of one of them, Linda Charnes) "yuppie guerrilla academics" and the rest of us. Rosenbaum, for all this book's unevenness and exhausting mass of half-digested material, cares about getting us to share his enthusiasm. Pleasure-- how rarely do we find this concept at the heart of a critic's search for aesthetic wonder? Grace, infinitude, love, sea change, the abyss, forgiveness, transport outside of ourselves: Rosenbaum seeks the source of his "reader reception" by hunting down everyone he can who may guide him to the elusive source of Shakespeare's power and control over him-- and, he urges, if we wish to follow him, Shakespeare's trail blazed for us.

I don't understand, apropos, why Rosenbaum agrees with an assertion that we are the last generation who will be able to comprehend Shakespeare's language before it becomes as antiquated and inaccessible as is Chaucer's Middle English to non-specialists. He raises this point, typically, but never elaborates on it. He raves about Kevin Kline's Falstaff but skims over how Kline's acting in part 2 of Henry IV alters from part 1: a topic that previously Rosenbaum insists upon for many detailed pages. Too often, Rosenbaum seems so excited about his adventure that he forgets we have a hard time keeping up with his dash.

He's no Bardolator. Rather, he wishes us to uncover the intensity of what we read and witness as "the language of thought" as it emerges onto paper or into the spotlights. He argues for what matters in Shakespeare as an aesthetic achievement-- in fact one more apparent to those of us outside today's academy. We may be mocked by those claiming "the institutionalist debunking of the bourgeois subject" from ivory towers to speak rather for the oppressed. I teach some of these less- privileged, literarily-challenged students every day, far from the Ivy League. I'd ask Charnes: how should I teach them Shakespeare? How explain his appeal to the person next to me on the bus? Getting "ordinary folks" to understand a bit of Shakespeare's art brings the original aim of the playwright home. As one critic mentions, anyone can experience the complex reactions Rosenbaum or critics or directors know. The only difference is that the professionals know how to articulate it, and can re-experience it with increasingly adept awareness. What Wordsworth labelled as simultaneous dissassociation and association: this quality marks Shakespeare's inexhaustible, endlessly renewable "moral complexity" as well as artistic achievement.

The inexhaustability of good art may sound old-fashioned, but Rosenbaum near the opening of his book shows how Shakespeare rewards our investment-- with compound interest. For many people today, accustomed to obvious presentation of vapid messages, Shakespeare may nudge them out of their shell. They are often scared of him. Rosenbaum likewise demystifies Shakespeare for a wider audience. He understands the academic arguments and translates their findings to those of us whom scholarly articles and learned books may rarely reach: the common reader.

[P.S. Happy birthday, Man of Stratford!]

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