Hot in pursuit of Shakespeare

How little we know of what the Bard truly intended.

Some years ago, while I was working as an education reporter, I visited a tiny storefront school on a nasty street in one of the toughest cities in America. There, I met a bunch of seventh-graders head over heels in love with Shakespeare. When I asked them if they preferred "Hamlet" or "Othello" they bounced on the edge of their seats as if given a choice between pizza and popcorn. "Both, both!" they shouted.

Later in the discussion, one young scholar stretched across his desk and sighed. "If only Shakespeare was still alive," he lamented.. "We have so many questions we could ask him."

And so Shakespeare lives on to greet a new generation. That classroom was many leagues removed from the kind of hallowed halls that Ron Rosenbaum visits in The Shakespeare Wars and yetit is the kind of passion found there that animates his book.

Ron Rosenbaum is not a Shakespearean scholar. He's a writer and journalist who long ago saw a Peter Brooks production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that rocked his world.

But the love of Shakespeare, Rosenbaum discovered as he probed more deeply, is not an entirely straightforward matter. It's complicated by exactly the thing that caused my seventh-grader to sigh: Shakespeare is no longer with us and there are so many things we cannot ask him. That's why scholars spend so much time fighting.

And that's why Rosenbaum wrote his book – to illuminate some of the things these scholars fight about and to tell us why we should care. (Rosenbaum's interest, I should say at the outset, is confined to Shakespeare's words and work. He's not a biographer, so don't look here for debates about the Bard's true identity.)

Shakespeare criticism may seem an odd topic for a pleasure book (i.e., something no teacher is making you read) but between deep love for his subject and breezy, journalistic prose, Rosenbaum pulls it off rather neatly.

He plunges in with the question of "Hamlet." How many of us think much, when we read "Hamlet" or see it performed, about the fact that there are three different versions of the play, and that the one we think we know is probably a "conflated" version, the work of an editor who cut and pasted as he saw fit?

Or that "King Lear" has two very different endings? One allows an audience to believe that Lear died in a state of hope, while the other suggests that he drew his last breath in a state of utter and cosmic despair – a radically different conclusion.

Such uncertainties, as Rosenbaum spells them out, become quite compelling, and if there are moments when it all begins to appear a bit inane (and there are such moments), Rosenbaum is a skilled enough writer to allow his readers to smirk a bit without ceasing to care about the subject.

The characters involved are numerous and fascinating in their diversity. At one point, Rosenbaum interviews a long-haired Alabama professor at a Krispy Kreme in Tuscaloosa and then later, his opponent, an elderly scholar in a tidy little cottage in London. The stakes for these experts, we come to understand, are incredibly high. The older man suggests to Rosenbaum that he'd rather die before seeing his work on Shakespeare superseded.

Some of the controversies Rosenbaum wanders into are more obscure than others and there are a few places – for example, where he delves into questions about Shakespeare's spelling and punctuation – that I frankly hesitated to follow.

And yet, reading on, I was hooked. In one version of "Hamlet,"for example, Hamlet says, "The air bites shroudly" – a word some editors assume to be outdated spelling of "shrewdly." But what if it's not? What if Shakespeare really intended to convey the notion of "shroud," a hint of death? In context it makes perfect sense and in fact neatly enriches the exchange being examined. It's hard not to agree that it's a point worth fighting over.

"The Shakespeare Wars" also offers some quirky but rewarding detours. There is the story of Teena Rochfort-Smith, a young 19th-century Shakespeare enthusiast who was busy preparing a four-column parallel edition of "Hamlet" when her clothes caught on fire and she was burned to death. An eerie tale, but it speaks poignantly to the ranks of almost forgotten scholars who, in their time, lived and breathed Shakespeare.

There is also the story of the Wigmaker's Lawsuit, a cryptic incident in 1604 when Shakespeare was sued by a wigmaker's apprentice over the role he had played in helping to arrange a marriage. It may seem a bit of trivia, but it is one of the few times in history that Shakespeare's actual voice was caught on the public record and as such it fascinates.

Rosenbaum offers at least one assertion likely to infuriate any number of Shakespeare scholars. He suggests that today many people can better experience the Bard through film rather than on stage. He even specifies the four films that he considers must-sees. (I'm not telling – for that you'll have to buy the book.)

"The Shakespeare Wars" suffers from some excess and there are definitely chapters that would have benefited from a disciplined recognition that more is sometimes less. A shorter, tighter book would still have had plenty of punch.

What is lovely about this book, however, is its exaltation of the vastness of Shakespearean riches – a vastness proven by the endless intensity of the very debates that Rosenbaum writes about. "The works will exhaust us, outlive us before we reach bottom," Rosenbaum writes. "Life is too short to really plumb the depths."

And then there's Rosenbaum's passion for his subject. It's genuine and highly infectious. Someday, when they're old enough, I bet that some of those seventh-graders I met will enjoy this book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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