Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Monday, October 30, 2006

Shakespeare Wars

Ron Rosenbaum's new book The Shakespeare Wars has been bothering me for some time now. I dove in with unadulterated enthusiasm, being a huge devotee of his prior outings (Explaining Hitler, a dark odyssey into the weird underworld of Hitler scholarship should be required reading for the world; The Secret Parts of Fortune, a collection of reviews and articles is a madcap embarrassment of riches; and even the book he edited about Israel, Those Who Forget the Past, is fascinating and as complex as his topic warrants, agree with him or no) and after reading found myself slightly soured. Why, I could not tell for some time.

Perhaps it was too short: at around 600 pages, any attempt to not only explain Shakespeare but the people who explain (or interpret) Shakespeare is still merely going to glance the surface. Perhaps it was too narrow: glaring omissions (Kenneth Brannagh, actors aside from Kevin Kline, the entire anti-Stratfordian movement) made the book come off as light rather than tendentious. Perhaps it was too much about Mr. Rosenbaum himself: I do appreciate that he was knocked sideways by Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream (in an era before documentation so nobody who wasn't there could possibly know--which came off as charming, wispy elusiveness to Mr. Rosenbaum's credit). Perhaps it was too spiteful: more space was devoted to the bonehead who misclaimed the arduous Funeral Elegie to be Shakespeare's and the vivisection of Harold Bloom (ouch!) than to the entire profession of acting.

Mostly, I think it is because the project has such promise--exploring not Shakespeare but those who explore Shakespeare, just as he did previously with Hitler--that it could not deliver. I will no doubt get into a wooly thoughthole by saying that it is easier to dig at the heart of Hitler (who was pure, unadulterated evil, not open to interpretation because, should you disagree, you too are pure, unadulterated evil) than the genius of Shakespeare (whose genius, because it comes in the form of art not murder, annihalation, or occupation, is more difficult to get a bead on). Perhaps his unbridled enthusiasm for the Swan of Avon makes him unable to get past his hero-crush and on to a serious look at what is a rather rich topic: in other words (those of the bard, sort of), he loves his subject not wisely but too well.

What was most niggling was his own inability to get over himself, his past projects, his early, swoony days in college where the world laid before him like a sonnet, ready to be parced, interpreted, splayed, formulated, and ridden home on the wings of language's ineffable beauty. His animosity toward Bloom's notions that Shakespeare not only outlined human nature but had a hand in inventing it--bardolatry, this is often called--seems to stem from some uncomfortable moments in his Yale seminar with the professor (or a discomfort with Bloom's celebrity). I have to give him credit for not launching, Joseph Epstein style, a full assault on Mr. Bloom, but I did get the sense that was an editorial choice more than anything. Really, the tone of the book feels (and this he does share with Epstein) like the nagging reflectiveness of someone who cannot stop reminding you he caught that pass in high school.

Clearly, this is a book that needs to be written, and the force of my criticism--the fact that I could not stop thinking about it--means that Mr. Rosenbaum was (is) on to something. Believe it or not, I look forward to the next volume (if one is to be) because perhaps he's heading somewhere, a vast somewhere, I cannot understand from close viewing. I certainly hope so, because he's unleashed something really precious here, something that truly needs to be said--eventually.


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