Much ado about Shakespeare, and why

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, September 24, 2006

No one can accuse Ron Rosenbaum of thinking small.

The veteran journalist's acclaimed 1998 study "Explaining Hitler" investigated the multiple debates -- biographical, philosophical, theological -- surrounding the life and career of the 20th century's worst human being. Eight years later, Rosenbaum addresses the legacy of another outsize personality in his new work of intellectual reportage, "The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups" (Random House; 601 pages; $35).

Once again, Rosenbaum's prodigious curiosity and energetic prose transform potentially dry academic battles into the stuff of first-class drama. "The Shakespeare Wars" offers lucid accounts of the complex arguments over which of the multiple texts of "Hamlet" and "King Lear" are definitive, and profiles eminent Shakespeareans such as director Peter Brook and scholar Harold Bloom.

The author chronicles his own public combat with Donald Foster, who used a literary database "with the sleek James Bondish name of SHAXICON" to bolster the case for Shakespeare's authorship of the disputed "Funeral Elegy." Rosenbaum doesn't buy it -- mainly but not solely because the "Elegy" is a shabby piece of work.

The author's passion for Shakespeare -- whose finest plays he views as "bottomless" -- fairly vibrates from the page. Rosenbaum hits a different sort of stage Thursday, when he'll discuss "The Shakespeare Wars" during a visit to the New York State Writers Institute.

The 59-year-old writer spoke last week from his home in Manhattan, just after filing his regular column for the New York Observer. Here's an edited transcript of the discussion:

Q: To what extent is this book twinned with "Explaining Hitler"?

A: There were a couple of important connections. I spent 10 years working on the Hitler book, and I suppose all the time I thought I would find a satisfying explanation, if not a consoling one, and I really didn't. When Random House finally yanked the page proofs away from me, I found myself plunged into one of the worst depressions of my life, and it sort of lasted.

Even though the book got gratifying reviews, it didn't get me out of the depression. The only thing that -- accidentally, happily, luckily -- I happened upon that worked as a remedy was listening to Shakespeare recordings. I started listening to them on a DiscMan, and I had a boombox that I carried from room to room in my apartment. And it sort of retrospectively occurred to me why this worked -- it was the obverse side of human nature, of the human imagination: Hitler the genius for destruction, Shakespeare the genius for creation.

So I was immersing myself in Shakespeare -- walking around, even on the subways -- and then another connection occurred to me, and that was the "exceptionalist" question. In Hitler studies, the question is whether he's on the continuum of other evildoers -- just on the far, far edge -- or is he off the grid, in the realm of some radical evil all by himself?

And it occurred to me there's a similar question for Shakespeare: Is he on the continuum of other great writers or is he in some special realm? It made me think that there were questions like this one that would be worth spending time on. Believe me, it's a lot more pleasant spending time thinking about Shakespeare than thinking about Hitler.

Q: Is it fair to say that you're much more of a character in this book, stepping into fights such as the one over the "Funeral Elegy"?

A: I suppose that might be true, although in the Hitler book I got into a number of personal, face-to-face wrangles as well. I come to scholarship as someone who was in the academy briefly, but has the instincts of a journalist. I learned from the Hitler book that when you sit down face to face with someone and spend time talking to them that you often get insights from them that merely reading the literature and taking notes on it does not give you. I feel like it's important to give people the sense of who these people are, that they're not just faceless authors but real people with real passions.

Q: And vivid characters.

A: Yeah! They're great Shakespearean characters, many of them.

Q: Do you think that certain literary critics, and certainly deconstructionist critics, will have knives out for this book?

A: I am critical of a lot of the past couple of generations of scholarship, which has been dominated by scholars who pay less attention to Shakespeare's language than to other people's theories about language in the abstract; and deconstruction is one example. But I think there's been a turnaround in the profession. One of the chief theorists says in the book that we've got to stop masquerading as "an elite corps of yuppie guerrilla academics" endlessly deconstructing the bourgeois self. I think there's a realization within the academy and in Shakespeare studies that postmodern theory really didn't lead to anything productive. So I imagine it won't necessarily be pleasing to those who spent their career on it.

Q: Do you have a list of topics, like something you carry around in your breast pocket, that might end up being book-length works like this, or do you stumble into these larger topics as your pursue shorter pieces?

A: Well, finding a topic that's worth spending 10 years on like the Hitler book or seven years on like this book is really -- well, I feel lucky that I found subjects that kept me completely interested and fascinated through that time.

I could have kept writing this book forever. It was just so much fun writing about Shakespeare, and so intellectually stimulating. And talking to Shakespeareans -- they're really alive in a way that I think comes in some way from their contact with Shakespeare. A book is a large commitment, and you want to find something that's going to engage you and engage readers. But no, I don't have a list. If you have any ideas, let me know.

Q: What are your favorite Shakespeare plays?

A: It's hard not to name the obvious ones: "Hamlet," "Lear," "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet." I have a special affection for one of the lesser-known plays, "Troilus and Cressida," which I think is just a brilliant play -- a blackhearted anti-war comedy that holds all the revered heroes of Greek mythology up to ridicule: Achilles is a dolt and Helen of Troy is a slut. I've seen great productions of it, too: In 1999 or 2000, I saw Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theatre production, and it left me so shaken I couldn't sleep at night. It's supposedly a comedy, but it's incredibly powerful.

Casey Seiler is the Times Union's entertainment editor. He can be reached at 454-5619 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Ron Rosenbaum