This book is about what scholarly experts in Shakespeare are debating these days, and the issues are more interesting than you might think. Why are there variations among the early editions of Shakespeare plays – did the author revise his work, were some editions prepared from the shaky memory of actors, or were the printers to blame? And given the variations, what texts should an edition of King Lear be based on, and what should directors use? Why are some of the passages in the late plays so obscure? How much of an ass is Harold Bloom? Or the discussion that especially grabbed me: do stimulating new ideas and images pop out if you read Shakespeare in the original unanchored spelling?
I was disappointed that none of the issues selected for full-chapter discussions by Ron Rosenbaum in The Shakespeare Wars was the question of authorship, despite the rising tide of opinion in recent years that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, actually authored the plays and sonnets. The reason is surely that most of the startling new research in the field has been done by people who do not teach Shakespeare at major universities. The academics, heavily invested in the status quo, apparently don’t take it seriously. Surely, however, if this isn’t the most burning issue in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, it should be, given all the energy exerted by scholars in trying to relate the plays to what little is known of the life of William Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, The Shakespeare Wars is also too much about the author, whose personality obtrudes and distracts. It appears from the book’s biographical information that Ron Rosenbaum bailed out of a potential academic career to become a writer. But he still likes to fly with the eagles – that is, the big names in Shakespeare scholarship, who are the real subjects of this book, more than the issues. So Rosenbaum interviews them, corresponds with them, goes to their conferences in Bermuda, and takes sides with them. In passing, he also echoes their dismissive attitude toward the Oxford partisans).
All the while, he’s careful to make it clear that he, Rosenbaum, a non-academic, could be doing what they’re doing and doing it better, if he wanted. He takes particular delight in skewering scholars who write impenetrable prose in their own peculiar jargon, and who get so caught up in post-modern ideology that they can’t appreciate the plays on an aesthetic level. And at every turn, he unkindly mocks America’s best-known writer on Shakespeare, Harold Bloom, a former professor of his at Yale.
This books has real merits. But it’s the last book by Ron Rosenbaum that I’ll buy. Only an outsized, overbearing ego could have persuaded editors at Random House to let Rosenbaum litter his book with so many sentence fragments. This problem is not just an occasional glitch; it’s so pervasive that it was clearly deliberate. It’s one thing to try to make one’s book more readable by adopting a moderately breezy style, as Rosenbaum does (he could have spared us that, too); it’s another to abuse and irritate readers by amputating dependent clauses from sentences and leaving them to twitch by themselves. Educated readers rely on subjects and verbs as guideposts to comprehension. Time and again I read one of Rosenbaum’s “sentences”, thought I had missed something, went back to read it again, then realized that a subject or predicate simply wasn’t there. Never again.