Monday, August 16, 2010

Shakespeare skirmishes

So I picked up, right before we left for points north, a copy of Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (Random House, 2006). I got it for a song at the local second-hand place, priced next-to-nothing because of the copious markings some retiree had left in it: kinda reassuring, evidence that someone out there is still buying & reading carefully semi-serious books.

I read a decent amount of Shakespeare criticism, & know my way around most of the major textual controversies, which are the subject of much of Rosenbaum's book, especially the debates over the relationships among the three Hamlet texts and the two Lears. And even tho I've followed the hardcore scholarly debates, I wondered if a non-academic writer would be able to cast interesting light on what's at stake. After all, here's a book on Shakespeare by a professional writer that isn't an anti-Stratfordian tract or a specimen of "quote-and-dote" bardolatrical "appreciation."

I was hoping for something like the penetrating light Janet Malcolm shines on the Hughes/Plath industries, & on literary biography in general, in her The Silent Woman, or on Stein's life & writing in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. Alas, Rosenbaum's book simply demonstrates what can go wrong with the whole New Yorker approach to writing this sort of thing, the mixture of interview, factoids, & personal narrative. Somehow, the issues at hand – tho I confess I'm only around 100 pages in to a book that's almost 600 – never seem to come alive. The thumbnail sketches of protagonists – Gary Taylor, Harold Jenkins, Frank Kermode – seem strangely unfocused, or downright wrong. (I admire Sir Frank immensely, & his edition of The Tempest is still important, but while he's obviously among the preeminent British literary critics alive, I don't know anyone who'd call him "perhaps the preeminent British Shakespeare critic.") The interviews go on & on, rambling & foregrounding Rosenbaum himself in ways that Malcolm is careful never to do.

I dunno. The book's got some 500-ish pages in which to redeem itself (I'm really looking forward to what Rosenbaum has to say about Harold Bloom, the self-appointed Dr. Johnson/Falstaff/Zero Mostel of our day), but if the first 1/6 is any indication, it may well be a tedious slog.

Stones of Venice III, however, winds down to its conclusion quite energetically.

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