Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

In the mid-90's, journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum fired a volley into a battle that had, until that point, been strictly confined to the fields of academia: He claimed in the pages of The New York Observer that critic Don Foster's attribution to Shakespeare of a long poem called "The Funeral Elegy" was erroneous.  "The Funeral Elegy" is tedious and long, but it is signed W.S., and Foster claimed that by using a database called SHAXICON that compared word usage in the "Elegy" to Shakespeare's body of work he could positively identify the work as the Bard's.  Nonsense, Rosenbaum said (more or less), just read it:

He from the happy knowledge of the wise
Draws virtue to reprove secured fools
And shuns the glad sleights of ensnaring vice
To spend his spring of days in sacred schools.

The "Elegy" is shallow, clunky and just plain bad, but it is bad in a way that doesn't sound like Shakespeare.  In the early 2000's, after years of public sniping that was probably more contentious than it might have been had Rosenbaum not stepped in, Foster conceded the battle, admitting that the "Elegy" was probably the work of Shakespeare's contemporary John Ford.  (In defense of Ford, he also composed one of the all-time best dramatic titles: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.)  It wasn't exactly V-E Day, to be sure, but in his book The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum tells us why we should care by putting the controversy in context:

Now all that wooly literary judgment stuff could be junked--number-crunching had arrived at a state of Fosterian sophistication.  Literary value was to be defined by digitized statistics.  And the only reason his opponents, mostly in the United Kingdom, couldn't abide his claim was that they were--like fearful and ignorant primitives (bardolaters, idolaters)--primitives now forced to bow before the superior judgmental power of the number-crunching computer.

Literary judgment, literary value was already under assault from the pseudo-science of Theory whose partisans believed their job was to demonstrate that literary judgment was always incoherent, inconsistent, irredeemably subjective, the product of unacknowledged personal prejudice.  Or that "literary value" was just a construct, a slavish reflection of the internalized values of the power relations of an oppressive hegemony.

In other words, the "Elegy" controversy reflects something rotten at the heart of modern criticism, and forces us to confront why Shakespeare--and all great literature--matters to us.  What does it mean to be fundamentally "Shakespearean," and is it something that we can describe and discern?  And what is all the "fuss about," as one of the critics quoted in The Shakespeare Wars puts it?

In The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum sets out to investigate a handful of arguments about Shakespeare's works.  The "Elegy" question is the most fascinating--and bloodiest--but there are others.  What do the different endings of Hamlet and Lear in the Quarto and Folio versions tell us about how Shakespeare wrote, edited, and regarded his own work?  Does the play Sir Thomas More contain a passage written by Shakespeare, in his own handwriting at that?  These questions matter, Rosenbaum says, because they are at the heart of why Shakespeare matters.

Nor are all the questions academic--some of the most fascinating arguments deal with Shakespeare on film and on stage, with the way Shakespeare's words are presented.  How, for example, should one play Shylock, the villainous Jew of The Merchant of Venice?  As a victim of prejudice, lashing out at his oppressors, or as an anti-Semitic stereotype?  (In this case, I agree with Rosenbaum--the play is virtually impossible to perform for modern audiences in its intended spirit.)  Or, for a simpler question: Can Shakespeare be effectively performed on film?

The back half of The Shakespeare Wars largely drops this premise, and instead becomes a kind of free-form investigation into what Rosenbaum sees as the most valuable of modern Shakespeare criticism.  Rosenbaum, who once abandoned the English department at Yale and in a way straddles the line between critic and journalist, is especially suited to this task, but something about these chapters seems half-baked.  Rosenbaum has a way, I find, of introducing an interesting idea, but never concluding it satisfactorily before moving on to the next.  (It would take too much space to really show what I mean, but much of it is present in a chapter about critic Stephen Booth and his concept of ambiguity--which Rosenbaum treats with too much ambiguity himself.)

But even when the thread is lost, The Shakespeare Wars is enjoyable because Rosenbaum's love of Shakespeare is so palpable.  It reminds me of reading Harold Bloom, though Rosenbaum would hate that I said that.  (He excoriates Bloom in a chapter about "recovering" Henry IV's Falstaff from Bloom's "overblown generalizations.)  Like Bloom, Rosenbaum believes that Shakespeare is vital--that's why these questions are so important.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

Upon my reading list lies this fair text,
But with the other volumes in my view,
Will this slim pamphlet sate and and please, or vex,
In short, you liked it--will I like it too?