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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Walter Kirn on Ron Rosenbaum on William Shakespeare

In tomorrow's New York Times (October 8th), Walter Kirn reviews Ron Rosenbaum's new book, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups. On the whole, it's a pretty good review of a book that looks like it could be pretty interesting (though at 601pp., I suspect the book may be too long and would have been improved by cutting it in half; I'll be buying it nonetheless).

But there's a general theme running through the review that I'm finding myself unnecessarily annoyed by--take this passage, for instance:
"The book’s first few chapters are tricky going, devoted to the arcane relationships between the early editions of the plays (the Quartos) and the later ones (the Folios). Soliloquy by soliloquy, line by line, and finally word by word, Rosenbaum and a roster of all-star scholars (who endlessly feud and squabble with one another, vying for power on a tiny stage) weigh the urgent question of whether Shakespeare was a spouting poetic fountainhead, whose output fell perfectly upon the page, or a deliberate literary craftsman who revised his works as he grew older."
And this:
"But then — in just the last few decades — came a revolution in academe that killed off the poet who could do no wrong and substituted, using evidence gathered from painstaking textual analysis, a man of many second thoughts (usually, it was felt, superior ones). The iconoclasts behind this uprising, the so-called “new disintegrators,” are posed by Rosenbaum against the classicists, who seem to doubt that Shakespeare could be bettered, even by an older and wiser Shakespeare. It’s an informative, diverting tussle, with Rosenbaum jetting back and forth between the brainiacs’ ivy-covered strongholds to referee, and sometimes rev up, the fight."
And this:
"Further, by making no apologies for his bouncy hobbyist’s zeal, Rosenbaum reminds us that scholarship need not be an insular, impotent pursuit but, when the subject is grand enough, can be a freewheeling battle royal. By getting a word in edgewise with the know-it-alls, he convinces us that we could, too, if only we were as knowledgeable and agitated."
You know, if Rosenbaum hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise in his own book, he would have been a very unusual author.

There seems to be a fundamental inconsistency in Kirn's account. On the one hand, Kirn applauds those like Rosenbaum who energetically and breathlessly love Shakespeare, ending his review by praising Rosenbaum for acting as a "romantic surrogate" for Shakespeare lovers: "His sighs are the sighs of all Shakespeare lovers, concentrated." On the other hand, people who write, think, and talk about Shakespeare for a living, who have spent decades pursuing research on Shakespeare, who might be said to be the most committed of Shakespeare lovers, are "brainiacs" and "know-it-alls" and their research "insular" and "impotent." These "know-it-alls" squabble among themselves on a "tiny stage" (which I assume means the "limited sphere of Shakespeare studies" and not the limited confines of Rosenbaum's book), a stage whose size must in some part be attributed to the general indifference of the wider world to Shakespeare and literary criticism. And when Rosenbaum is among those who correctly doubted Don Foster's attribution of "A Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare, Kirn tells us that Rosenbaum, the enthusiastic amateur author, "felt firsthand the exaltation of the triumphant professional pedant."

Now, I realize this is an old debate, the amateur vs. the professional pedant. But it's still an annoying, and odd, cliche to trot out in a book that seems to applaud the intellectual pursuits of professionial Shakespeare scholars. That not all books on Shakespeare are dedicated to proving that he was "The Best Author Ever!" is perhaps lamentable to Kirn, but, thankfully, not to Rosenbaum.

  • At 10/08/2006 01:50:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Whew. I'm scared just to pick up the book now. The "New Disintegrators"? Who ever heard of them? Am I one of them? Is that a nasty word for people interested in material texts, or is it something else?

    Two things jump out at me, just from the bits of the review you've cited:

    1. There seems to be no question in the author's mind that Shakespeare was a genius who single-handedly wrote everything and the controversy appears to be whether he revised or not. Is there *anyone* left who still subscribes to this one-bodied genius theory, after the materialty of the shakespearean text was exposed or should I say "disintegrated" 15 years ago?

    2. Apparently the only alternative to scholarly isolation is to involve oneself in a "diverting tussle." Ain't nobody heard of collaboration? (See pt. one on the materiality of the shakespearean text).

    Grrr. I guess no one writes popular books about all the happy shakespeareans writing books and articles together about how shakespeare is the product of many hands because it wouldn't be as exciting as a frustrated genius and an endless "feud and squabble." Sigh.


  • At 10/08/2006 10:10:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Soliloquy by soliloquy, line by line, and finally word by word...

    You know them profs, always reading too much into everything. Reading each word?! Well, I never...


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