Review : Shakespeare Wars, by Ron Rosenbaum

It’s taken me almost 2 years to finish Shakespeare Wars, and given how often I’ve blogged about individual pieces it’s somewhat anticlimactic to review it now.  But, I’ll give it a shot.

Start with a common assumption about the quality of Shakespeare’s works.  That it is possible to run into another person, discuss that special something that makes Shakespeare Shakespearean, and understand what each other is talking about, even if you can’t define it.  (I find, when I really get animated, that I either stop talking all together because words can’t adequately express it, or I just start cussing like George Carlin because of the outlet it provides in getting one’s point across :))

In one way, this book is Rosenbaum’s effort to define what that something is.  He gives plenty of examples that skirt around the issue.  His retelling of Brooks’ famous “split the atom and release the infinite energies” line, for example, is what convinced me to buy the book.  Lines like that abound throughout the book, making the Shakespeare lover in us all laugh and rock back and forth in our chairs and say, “Yes!  yes yes yes!  Exactly!” to no one in particular, because we know there’s someone on the other end of the page, the author, who has captured the feeling exactly as we felt it.

He speaks of Cordelia’s line, “No cause, no cause…” in such reverent tones that the memory of the moment brings tears to his eyes even as he types it, and we believe him. He describes Kevin Kline’s Falstaff almost entirely based on how the character gets up from a bench in the first scene, as if that were enough to capture the entire performance.  And we know it is, because we’ve all had moments like that, split seconds in time, where you feel some brief glimpse into the bottomlessness of what Shakespeare’s words provide.

I chose that word bottomlessness on purpose, because it is a major theme in the book and it’s where I think things start to go over the edge for me.  Rosenbaum’s position seems to be, “Ok, let’s assume that a true and perfect understanding of what it means to be Shakespearean is like a bottomless void, and we will never know the real answers for certain.   Now, having agreed to that, let’s spend our lives pursuing the answer anyway.”

And that’s where, as a logic-driven engineering sort, I mentally start to check out.  If you’ve agreed that there is no true answer, then pursuit of one can only lead to madness.  I had an idea once for a book called What Shakespeare Means To Me, which would essentially be a collection of those moments in time, those glimpses of the infinite, that we’ve all had the joy of experiencing.  I would read a book like that.  Just story after story of shared bliss.  Where Shakespeare Wars was that, I was all about it.  Heck, where it was about that it was all I could do to not rush back to the computer and blog about it (as I often did anyway).

But the remainder of the book ends up being an exploration of every corner of Shakespeare’s works by the various personalities who champion each direction as being the one true source for the one true answer.  There’s the Original Spelling group.  The Two Hamlets and the Three Lears war.  The “never blotted a line” argument.  The “close readers”.  Where each of these was a lesson in how one might study Shakespeare, I was all for it.  Where it turned into a story about one individual who has spent 30 thankless years trying to prove his point, I don’t know what I was. I can’t really say I was sympathetic.

There is more in this book that bored me than thrilled me.  Rosenbaum spends much of the book (he opens and closes with it) salivating over Brooks’ Dream, something that I never saw and apparently will never be able to see.  When he tries to define the infinite, either through his own experience or the example of others, I was usually lost.  But we he pointed to specific examples – Kline, Welles, even Clare Danes as Juliet – things that I could share in, I was hooked.  It was those moments that kept me reading this book, because they are just that good.

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4 thoughts on “Review : Shakespeare Wars, by Ron Rosenbaum

  1. I’m sure I’ll never read the thing straight through, although it is interesting to refer to once in a while. I probably haven’t read enough of it to have a good opinion–certainly, didn’t read the bit’s about Kline’s Falstaff, and perhaps I should. What I do remember is Rosenbaum raving, for pages at a time, about how wonderful the Brook _Dream_ was…wihtout EVER TELLING US ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Perhaps you had to be there…but if so, why are you even wasting the ink?

    Anyway, Ane Barton, wife of noted director John Barton and a distinguished scholar in her own right, wrote a pretty unenthusiastic review, available at (I always think bad reviews are worth reading, even of books I liked)

  2. The fawning over Brook (with which I agree completely) is almost made up for by the chapter entitled “Harold Bloom Is A Big Fat Idiot.”

    Ok, it’s not titled that, but it should have been. He’s not a fan. I only wish Rosenbaum had been even stronger in his criticism – he rants and raves about the elevation of Falstaff to Jesus, but then defeats his own arguments with too much of the “Well maybe I have to give Bloom the benefit of the doubt, maybe what he was really trying to say was this….”

    The Kline Falstaff, by the way, is presented under the heading of “You can’t have him, Harold!” as a battle of interpretations over Bloom’s favorite knight.

    His chapter on movies was interesting, by the way. He has praise for the Luhrman R&J and nothing but nasty things to say about Pacino’s Merchant.

  3. I rather enjoyed both of those films. What I always say about Bloom is that he’s spent so much time interpreting and reacting to Shakespeare’s creations, that the plays Shakespeare actually wrote are lees importatnt to him than his own imaginary landscape.

    Bloom’s interpretation of Falstaff as all that’s good and happy in humanity is difficult to square with the real article–whatever else Falstaff may be, he is also a liar, a coward and a thief, who happily sends his soldiers off to die after pocketing the money that should have paid to feed and equip them.

    Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t seem to care so much for the plays in performance–they forcibly remind him of the differences between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his own.

  4. Duane, I think your take on this book is right on target. I rather enjoyed reading it, despite its flaws, primarily because I agree with most of Rosenbaum’s views on Shakespearean criticism (especially his distaste for Harold Bloom). I also liked his breezy, self-referential style (he doesn’t seem to mind at all talking about himself). I also agree that Rosenbaum’s ravings about the transcendental power of brilliant Shakespeare performances (not just the Brook “Dream”)can get out of control. Made me groan a few times.
    I agree with Craig about Falstaff. I have always thought that “Merry Wives” was Shakespeare’s way of getting back at his audience for making Falstaff a hero instead of recognizing him for the cad he was. Harold Bloom hates the play! — Carl

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