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The Shakespeare Wars

Cover of The Shakespeare Wars

The Shakespeare Wars

Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
Borrow Borrow Borrow

"[Ron Rosenbaum] is one of the most original journalists and writers of our time."
--David Remnick

In The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum gives readers an unforgettable way of rethinking the greatest works of the human imagination. As he did in his groundbreaking Explaining Hitler, he shakes up much that we thought we understood about a vital subject and renews our sense of excitement and urgency. He gives us a Shakespeare book like no other. Rather than raking over worn-out fragments of biography, Rosenbaum focuses on cutting-edge controversies about the true source of Shakespeare's enchantment and illumination--the astonishing language itself. How best to unlock the secrets of its spell?

With quicksilver wit and provocative insight, Rosenbaum takes readers into the midst of fierce battles among the most brilliant Shakespearean scholars and directors over just how to delve deeper into the Shakespearean experience--deeper into the mind of Shakespeare.

Was Shakespeare the one-draft wonder of Shakespeare in Love? Or was he rather--as an embattled faction of textual scholars now argues--a different kind of writer entirely: a conscientious reviser of his greatest plays? Must we then revise our way of reading, staging, and interpreting such works as Hamlet and King Lear?

Rosenbaum pursues key partisans in these debates from the high tables of Oxford to a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in a strip mall in the Deep South. He makes ostensibly arcane textual scholarship intensely seductive--and sometimes even explicitly sexual. At an academic "Pleasure Seminar" in Bermuda, for instance, he examines one scholar's quest to find an orgasm in Romeo and Juliet. Rosenbaum shows us great directors as Shakespearean scholars in their own right: We hear Peter Brook--perhaps the most influential Shakespearean director of the past century--disclose his quest for a "secret play" hidden within the Bard's comedies and dramas. We listen to Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as he launches into an impassioned, table-pounding fury while discussing how the means of unleashing the full intensity of Shakespeare's language has been lost--and how to restore it. Rosenbaum's hilarious inside account of "the Great Shakespeare 'Funeral Elegy' Fiasco," a man-versus-computer clash, illustrates the iconic struggle to define what is and isn't "Shakespearean." And he demonstrates the way Shakespearean scholars such as Harold Bloom can become great Shakespearean characters in their own right.

The Shakespeare Wars offers a thrilling opportunity to engage with Shakespeare's work at its deepest levels. Like Explaining Hitler, this book is destined to revolutionize the way we think about one of the overwhelming obsessions of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.

"[Ron Rosenbaum] is one of the most original journalists and writers of our time."
--David Remnick

In The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum gives readers an unforgettable way of rethinking the greatest works of the human imagination. As he did in his groundbreaking Explaining Hitler, he shakes up much that we thought we understood about a vital subject and renews our sense of excitement and urgency. He gives us a Shakespeare book like no other. Rather than raking over worn-out fragments of biography, Rosenbaum focuses on cutting-edge controversies about the true source of Shakespeare's enchantment and illumination--the astonishing language itself. How best to unlock the secrets of its spell?

With quicksilver wit and provocative insight, Rosenbaum takes readers into the midst of fierce battles among the most brilliant Shakespearean scholars and directors over just how to delve deeper into the Shakespearean experience--deeper into the mind of Shakespeare.

Was Shakespeare the one-draft wonder of Shakespeare in Love? Or was he rather--as an embattled faction of textual scholars now argues--a different kind of writer entirely: a conscientious reviser of his greatest plays? Must we then revise our way of reading, staging, and interpreting such works as Hamlet and King Lear?

Rosenbaum pursues key partisans in these debates from the high tables of Oxford to a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in a strip mall in the Deep South. He makes ostensibly arcane textual scholarship intensely seductive--and sometimes even explicitly sexual. At an academic "Pleasure Seminar" in Bermuda, for instance, he examines one scholar's quest to find an orgasm in Romeo and Juliet. Rosenbaum shows us great directors as Shakespearean scholars in their own right: We hear Peter Brook--perhaps the most influential Shakespearean director of the past century--disclose his quest for a "secret play" hidden within the Bard's comedies and dramas. We listen to Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as he launches into an impassioned, table-pounding fury while discussing how the means of unleashing the full intensity of Shakespeare's language has been lost--and how to restore it. Rosenbaum's hilarious inside account of "the Great Shakespeare 'Funeral Elegy' Fiasco," a man-versus-computer clash, illustrates the iconic struggle to define what is and isn't "Shakespearean." And he demonstrates the way Shakespearean scholars such as Harold Bloom can become great Shakespearean characters in their own right.

The Shakespeare Wars offers a thrilling opportunity to engage with Shakespeare's work at its deepest levels. Like Explaining Hitler, this book is destined to revolutionize the way we think about one of the overwhelming obsessions of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    The Dream Induction

    On the last evening of the summer of 1970 in the vil- lage of Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare, I had an experience that changed my life and has haunted me ever since. One that left me, ever after, with a question I've been trying to answer: What was that about?

    An improbable chain of circumstances had resulted in my witnessing one of the first performances of a now-legendary production of A Mid- summer Night's Dream, one that I subsequently learned changed more lives than mine: it changed the lives of an entire generation of Shakespearean players and directors, changed the way Shakespeare has been played ever since.

    But for me, that Dream--a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Peter Brook--was a kind of initiation into a new realm, a realm I've sought with mixed success to return to ever after. It was the experience that, for me, gave a lifelong urgency to the conflicts over Shakespearean questions examined in the ensuing chapters.

    Perhaps I should introduce the conflicted, divided person I was back then when I piloted my rented Austin Mini into Stratford by introducing the forbidden question that led me to flee graduate school, and indirectly set me on the path to that life-changing experience at Stratford.

    Just two years before that I had begun what seemed like a promising academic career at Yale Graduate School's Department of English Literature. As an undergraduate at Yale, I had studied primarily pre-seventeenth-century literature and had been granted a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship to Yale Graduate School, a fellowship designed to spur those undecided about an academic career to spend a year tasting the supposed fruits of such a career without many onerous responsibilities. I was only required to take one graduate seminar and teach one undergraduate class per semester, in return for which I was given an official-sounding appointment to the Yale faculty and named a Junior Fellow of Jonathan Edwards (residential) College.

    The latter made me briefly a colleague of Stephen Greenblatt, also a Junior Fellow there that year. Greenblatt would go on to found the most influential new school of Shakespeare scholarship in America--New Historicism--and like many original thinkers develop a cultlike following. He would of course end up as star of the Harvard English department and the author of a best-selling Shakespeare biography. I'll never forget an argument Greenblatt and I had that year about the Black Panthers and historical truth, which oddly foreshadowed, in transposed form, our subsequent positions on New Historicism and Shakespeare. (I discuss it further in chapter 4.)

    At first things went swimmingly: I was thrilled to find I'd been admitted to a select seminar with Richard Ellmann, the acclaimed biographer of Yeats and Joyce, masterminds of modernism, and felt quite vain when Ellmann singled out a paper I'd read at the seminar, a critique of the determinism of Yeats's muddleheaded mystical cosmology.

    But sometime in the second semester, although enjoying a Shakespeare seminar with Howard Felperin, I lost heart, or maybe it was more that my heart was broken. In point of fact, my heart was broken by a question I asked--and an answer I got--about love.

    The occasion was a special, ad hoc, invitation-only seminar I'd been asked to, a presentation by one of the English department's favorite wunderkind scholars. A paper on Chaucer's lesser-known love-vision poems, including the Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowles.

    Unlike the wild digressive fabliaux of The...

About the Author-
  • Ron Rosenbaum studied Shakespeare at Yale. His bestselling work of cultural history, Explaining Hitler, has been translated into ten languages. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He writes a column for The New York Observer and lives in New York City.

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