Friday, May 2, 2008

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

I spent a week thinking over this review, trying to decide if I was being fair to Ron Rosenbaum or not. In some ways it feels that I let my preconceived notions about the book influence m enjoyment of it, which there is nothing wrong with. However, as John Updike would say, it’s not really fair for me to criticize someone for not doing something they weren’t trying to do.

I have mixed feelings about
The Shakespeare Wars. In many ways it was quite informative. Even though I have taken a couple of classes that focused on the Bard entirely, those courses were taught through a certain critical lens that obscured other valid methods. For example, Rosenbaum’s copious interviews with directors like Peter Hall and Peter Brook, among others, gives a lot of insight into the performance studies aspects of the plays, and a lot of their comments were fascinating and insightful. These approaches also helped me identify a method I would use later to organize a paper around Pinter’s The Homecoming. Often he suggests other readings that may help explain more nuanced arguments, and I do feel that they are genuinely helpful.

But there is a lot that I didn’t like too. Rosenbaum spends forty pages covering the insignificant ‘Funeral Elegy’ issue, which is bad enough, but its inclusion seems to be based solely on the fact that Rosenbaum has a personal grudge to settle with Don Foster. Allegedly, Foster at one point said he could ‘bury’ Rosenbaum for questioning his methods. Forty pages used to essentially make Foster look like an ass.

After a lot of thought though, I really only have two major problems with the book. First, Rosenbaum claims that he will illuminate the battles in Shakespeare scholarship for the layman, and this is something that he does from time to time. But too often he presents only the view he thinks is right and obscures the other opposing view. For instance, he admits that there are some that feel Shakespeare should be experienced in the theater and not on the screen, but he does little more than this. Since he is a strong proponent of film, it receives the brunt of the attention.

Rosenbaum also hates postmodernism, even suggesting that Derrida and Foucault have little if anything to offer. Not in Shakespearean studies, but little to offer anyone, anywhere. This is na├»ve. It is easy to see his age and the time he went to school based on his love of the ‘close reading.’ While there is certainly something to be said for that critical approach, it fell out of vogue thirty years ago. Rosenbaum comes across as an old man, afraid of these new-fangled critical methods the kids are using these days.

Secondly, Rosenbaum is a journalist. He’s not a scholar. Sure, he may know a lot about Shakespeare, certainly more than me. And he is always cautiously deferential to Shakespearean scholars he cites, even though he really only bothers with the most elite. (It is easy to admit that a world-renowned expert in something knows more than you.) But he doesn’t seem to understand that what he is doing isn’t scholarship. Rosenbaum postulates as much as he reports, and the assumption is that we will respect his ideas as much as we would a scholar’s. But what makes scholarly work scholarly isn’t the idea so much as it is the approval that the scholarship is valid by a group of scholarly peers. To the best of my knowledge,
The Shakespeare Wars underwent no such review process.

In some ways I feel that I am nit-picking, that this criticism is unfair and that the book really isn’t that bad. (It’s not.) But Rosenbaum spends too much time on himself, to the point of distraction and frustration. I don’t know if he is a cocky asshole in real life, but he comes across as one in his writing. This is an interesting primer for further readings on Shakespeare, but as a text itself, it didn’t do much for me.


Brendan Moody said...

Interesting thoughts. I'll probably write a post of my own on the book later, but for now I'll just point to this review from the New York Review of Books, in case you haven't already seen it:

Jon Polk said...

Thanks for the link. Barton seems to have had many of the same problems with the book as I did, yet of course expresses herself in a much more eloquent fashion. Her comments on the misquotation in Othello are especially on the nose.

I've always wanted to read the New York Review of Books with some regularity, but ever since I subscribed to The New Yorker I can barely stay caught up.