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.