In 1933, Logan Pearsall Smith published a small, compact, engagingly personal book called On Reading Shakespeare. In its first chapter, he recalled how a great divine of the Elizabethan era describes in one of his sermons a region in the East, in Georgia, which was so immersed all day in gloom that no one could see his own hand within its borders; those who dwelt upon its frontiers could hear the noise of cocks crowing, horses neighing, and the cries of human beings, but no one outside dared to venture in, for fear of losing his way in that land of eternal darkness. Thus, he said,

the cries of the distracted inhabitants sometimes reach us from the dark realm of Shakespearean interpretation. We hear the bleating of idiot adorers and the eternal swish of their whitewash brushes; we hear the squeals of the idealists…; the war-cries of the Foliolators and Disintegrators as they rush upon each other and even wilder battle cries than these (for it is impossible to exaggerate their strangeness) will reach our ears. For listen!

Smith then reminded his readers of the cries emitted by the followers of “no less than five ghostly resurrected Elizabethan Earls”; of those heard from the supporters of Derby, Oxford, Rutland, and other claimants to be the true author of the man from Stratford’s plays; of the Pembrokians and Southamptonians quarreling vociferously over the identity of the young man addressed in the Sonnets; and finally, “as the wind shifts, we hear the ululations of those vaster herds of Baconian believers, as they plunge squeaking down the Gadarene slope of their delusion.”

The underlying myth here is, of course, classical in origin. In Book XI of the Odyssey, Odysseus anchors briefly off the shores of the land of the Cimmerians, a country of perpetual darkness even at midday, located on the furthest edge of the sea that bounds the world, but he is too prudent to venture inland. No outsider who does is likely to emerge again into the light. Logan Pearsall Smith, wittily reimagining Cimmeria as “the darkling plain” of Shakespeare scholarship (including biography and interpretation), a place where Matthew Arnold’s “ignorant armies clash by night,” doesn’t really cross its frontiers either, contenting himself with isolating a few overheard voices. What cohesion the place has was provided for him by A.C. Bradley, E.K. Chambers, and Harley Granville- Barker, commentators who seemed to him to make sense.

Ron Rosenbaum, by contrast, in The Shakespeare Wars, boldly rushes in, emerging (after some six hundred pages) with an attempted map of the whole region (now geographically far more extensive as well as populous than in Smith’s day), together with a detailed description of its many contemporary inhabitants, some—in his view—more benighted than others. Not all readers will find his account persuasive, or, indeed, find the present state of Shakespeare scholarship (critical interpretation and textual studies included) quite so dark and conflict-ridden as Rosenbaum makes it out to be.

Rosenbaum’s real bugbear—“literary theory” as applied to Shakespeare—although alluded to darkly throughout his book, is never something with which he truly engages. It is, in any case, no longer a subject of contention, having been (as many commentators have pointed out) by now largely absorbed into critical discussion. Revision theory, the idea that Shakespeare had second thoughts, and rewrote some of his popular plays, including Hamlet and Lear, is another matter, and one that engages Rosenbaum throughout, although one may query his sense of the intensity of the current controversy.

This is not so much a book as the rough draft for one. Grossly overlong, it constantly repeats itself, and there is no real logic governing the sequence of its chapters. What cohesion it has is provided by Rosenbaum’s personality, something everywhere on display. At the heart of it lie his two “epiphanies”—the transforming experience he had in 1970 when he saw Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the RSC at Stratford and, before that, the dizzying sensation he had of losing grip on his own single identity (“shifting, sliding back and forth from presence to absence”) when writing out Shakespeare’s riddling Sonnet 45 (or was it 44? Rosenbaum can’t quite remember) on a blackboard at Yale.

It is characteristic of The Shakespeare Wars that Rosenbaum makes virtually no attempt to recreate his experience of Peter Brook’s Dream for the reader, let alone describe the production, other than remarking on its famously phallic Bottom and talking vaguely about the clarity and unexpected resonance of its verse-speaking. He simply ignores Brook’s doubling of Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania, with its consequent suggestion that everything that happens in the wood is Theseus’ dream on the night before his wedding. This is not an idea original with Brook, and it is one that creates problems (how could Theseus possibly “dream” Bottom?). As for Sonnet 44 or 45, it seems to have been only years later that Stephen Booth’s close reading explained to Rosenbaum’s own satisfaction just why the poem might have created in him such a perplexing disorientation of self.


Booth and Brook are Rosenbaum’s two heroes. (The Shakespeare Wars is dedicated to the latter, and to the cast of Brook’s Dream.) The late Harold Jenkins is also a hero, but receives far less attention in the book than Brook and Booth. Jenkins was the editor of the Arden II Hamlet, a traditional conflated text—i.e., one that adds to the Folio version the 222 lines, including Hamlet’s final soliloquy, “how all occasions do inform against me,” that were present in the 1604/5 Quarto edition, but cut in 1623. It was recently replaced by Arden’s two-volume edition prepared by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, which sets out the first and second Quartos and the Folio Hamlet independently. Jenkins does not feature at all in Rosenbaum’s Part V, in the section entitled “Three Giants,” a misleading heading, as it turns out, because Harold Bloom, the third “giant” included there, is unlike Booth and Brook in being for Rosenbaum just a large ogre: an overrated although much-celebrated academic.

Rosenbaum has it in for Bloom not simply on the basis of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a book with which he is scarcely alone in finding fault, but because of a grudge going back it seems to Rosenbaum’s days as a graduate student at Yale. His assessment of Bloom—like his praise of other scholars and critics—is intensely personal, including jibes about his physical girth and style of delivery (“Bloom/Boom”) and not the better for it. Even the unfortunate poet Shelley, because admired by Bloom in lectures Rosenbaum heard as a graduate student, gets caught up in the indictment, dismissed in The Shakespeare Wars in crassly reductivist and inadequate terms: he is the “supreme poet of windy abstractions and empty personifications,” a judgment which seems to be based upon a naive reaction to Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” while ignoring the diversity and concrete specificity of other great poems such as “The Mask of Anarchy,” “Julian and Maddalo,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Triumph of Life,” “Mont Blanc,” and his remarkable drama The Cenci.

The virtue of Rosenbaum’s book lies not in its critical acumen but in its sheer energy, in the assiduity with which he has sought out and interviewed an enormous number of Shakespeare scholars, editors, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Presumably he recorded on tape or in notes what they had to say to him, sometimes over drinks or an informal meal, and these comments, as edited by himself, he reproduces as direct quotation throughout. It seems a somewhat questionable method for dealing with some of the scholarly issues he discusses.

Rosenbaum has even less interest than Logan Pearsall Smith had in literary biographies of Shakespeare, of which there has been a recent spate, and—sensibly—less interest as well in the various, invariably aristocratic anti-Stratfordian candidates (the Earl of Oxford, Sir Henry Neville, Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, etc.) who continue to be put forward. His quest throughout is for a different chimera, something he likes to think of as the quintessentially Shakespearean quality—what makes his voice recognizably unique and how its singularity and “bottomlessness,” to use another of his favorite terms, can best be characterized.

One might think that this search would lead him naturally into the territory of the plays Shakespeare seems to have collaborated on with writers as diverse as Peele, Nashe, Middleton, Wilkins, and Fletcher—Titus Andronicus, the first part of Henry VI, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. How does one distinguish the Shakespearean portions of these works from the contributions of other men? The closest, however, that Rosenbaum comes to entering this minefield is with his discussion of “Hand D”—identical with Shakespeare’s—in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, a play neither acted nor published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, to which five different dramatists seem to have contributed. Here, he argues against the skeptic for Shakespeare’s distinctive handwriting, as well as his voice and cast of mind, these being recognizable in one section of the play because of its sympathy with the immigrant poor and attitudes toward authority, as well as verbal echoes in attested Shakespeare plays.

Elsewhere in the book, Rosenbaum turns his attention to the advantages of reading Shakespeare in old-spelling editions. It is true that some subtleties and nuances can be obscured by modern spelling. That, however, seems a small price to pay when weighed against the distancing of Shakespeare from the contemporary reader that old spellings impose. That is why all good recent editions—the New Cambridge, the Arden, the New Oxford—modernize. Oxford did put out a one-volume original-spelling edition in 1986 (edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor) but it has not proved to be a success. There is no real controversy here.


He argues—rather surprisingly, given the importance to him of Brook’s production of the Dream, and also his ecstatic praise of a recent production of As You Like It directed by Peter Hall and starring Hall’s daughter Rebecca—that the medium of film, especially such old films as the Olivier Henry V, Hamlet, and Othello, Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, and Brook’s King Lear, present more of the “quintessential” Shakespeare than any stage production his readers are likely to see. He also pauses briefly to flog what by now is that very dead horse, the William Peter funeral elegy, with a side glance at another spurious addition to the canon, the nine-stanza lyric “Shall I die, shall I fly,” both accepted for a time by credulous editors.

Rosenbaum also examines Shakespeare’s recorded testimony in the Bellott/Mountjoy lawsuit of 1612, in an attempt to find the man himself, speaking in his own voice, and returning to revise his original testimony—but without coming up with much of note. (Mountjoy was the wigmaker with whom Shakespeare lodged for a time in London, becoming party to the marriage settlement—later disputed—made for Mountjoy’s daughter and his former apprentice Bellott.) Rosenbaum also pauses, again inconclusively, over the recent and still unresolved claims that the “Will Shakeshafte” employed for a time at Hoghton Towers, a great Catholic household in the north of England, was in fact Shakespeare under a slightly different name, which might account in part for the so-called “lost years” of his life between 1585 and 1592, when he emerged as a dramatist in London. He also glances at Peter Hall’s “iambic fundamentalism”—his insistence that there should always be a “delicate pause” at the end of a pentameter line, even the run-on ones.

More striking is the quite extraordinary argument he puts forth against making Shylock in the least a sympathetic character on stage. Rosenbaum believes that it was only in the nineteenth century that the red-wigged, hook-nosed Jew of the Elizabethan stereotype—one inherited from a medieval, theologically based Jew-hating tradition—was replaced by more nuanced portrayals of the Jew as a suffering human being, despite being in many ways a bad and certainly a vindictive one. But this is palpably false. (And it is by no means his only error of fact in this book—Byron, for instance, did not, as he claims, “swoon and fall into a faint” while witnessing Kean’s performance in Othello, although he admired it. It was Kean’s stage realization of Sir Giles Overeach in Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts that threw him, he later said, “into convulsions.”) The revolution in theatrical realizations of Shylock was pioneered famously by the actor Charles Macklin in 1741, after which time the caricature villain largely disappeared from the theater until resurrected by Steven Berkoff in his one-man show “Shakespeare’s Villains,” which Rosenbaum saw in New York.

Rosenbaum appears to find Berkoff’s portrayal of Shylock as a character of “unvarnished loathesomeness” infinitely preferable to the “gentrified,” “goody-goody,” or “feel-good” Shylocks familiar in most of what he sees as “misguided” contemporary productions. He even suggests that such interpretations are in fact more anti-Semitic, because they imply that however human and sympathetic a Jew may appear on the surface, he will always be ready to cut a Christian’s heart out. We have no way of knowing how Shakespeare’s original Shylock (as opposed to Marlowe’s Barabas in The Jew of Malta) was portrayed on stage, and to what extent the theatrical tradition challenged by Macklin in 1741 had the original blessing of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. What does seem clear is that Shakespeare’s text simply will not support such a crudely simplistic reading—one that makes those other “villains” (Richard III, Iago, Edmund in King Lear, Macbeth, and even Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus) seem like a race apart, not merely sympathetic by comparison, but creatures spawned by a totally different kind of creative imagination.

Before asserting that in Shylock Shakespeare created a “deeply repellent character” and that the play should no longer be acted, merely read as a “historical artifact,” the record of an old prejudice and fear, Rosenbaum might have looked at the dialogue between Patrick Stewart and David Suchet (the latter himself a Jew), two remarkable and certainly unsentimentalized Shylocks of recent times, as set out in John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare (1984). Both make it plain that Shylock (unlike Tubal or his own daughter Jessica) is a bad Jew and a bad and vindictive man, but that the play as a whole is not anti-Semitic. That is why it can still be performed in present-day Israel. Stewart wants to stress that Shylock is an alien, “an outsider who happens to be a Jew,” in Venetian society. Suchet wants to emphasize Shylock’s particular Jewishness. Both, however, are at one in finding Shylock a character for whom Shakespeare expresses considerable sympathy.

Rosenbaum, however, for all his veneration of Shakespeare, does not read this or other of the plays very accurately or sensitively. So he can believe that Hamlet actually “overhears Claudius attempting to ask forgiveness for his sins” after the Mouse-Trap scene (“O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven;/It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,/A brother’s murder”), when it is clear in the text that the prince enters only after Claudius has stopped speaking and knelt in silent prayer. That is when Hamlet thinks of killing him (“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying”) but rejects the idea because to do so might ensure the king’s safe passage to Heaven. Hamlet leaves to go to his mother before Claudius rises and confesses aloud that although his silent prayers “fly up, my thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.” This is a mistake that matters, allowing Hamlet to have clear confirmation of his uncle’s villainy—and the Ghost’s veracity—before he clandestinely unseals the packet entrusted to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on board the ship bearing him perforce to England, and learns that his uncle means to have him summarily executed there.

Inattentive reading of a somewhat different kind—in this case compounded by misquotation—occurs on page 209 of The Shakespeare Wars when Rosenbaum refers to “Othello’s dying boast that ‘in Aleppo once I smote a turban’d Turk.'” In the passage to which he refers, Othello in fact says no such thing, but recalls how

in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him—thus!

Clearly, on the word “thus” Othello gives himself his own death stroke, deliberately fusing the heroic Othello of time past with the one who now has, like the infidel he once punished, injured both a Venetian and thus the Venetian state, and so deserves the same fate. The misquotation here is far from the only one in Rosenbaum’s book. When he apparently relies upon his memory, as opposed to looking passages up, he is likely to produce such garbled lines as “That which is most feigning is most true,” instead of Touchstone’s “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” or even to transform one of the most famous passages in King Lear, Gloucester’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport,” into “We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys,/They kill us for their sport.”

This kind of sloppiness might matter less were it not for Rosenbaum’s insistence throughout upon the single, inviolable nature of Shakespeare’s text, as he originally wrote it. A firm believer (like Harold Jenkins) in the so-called “lost archetype,” the true and original Shakespeare manuscript to which Quartos and the Folio are said to conform, with more or less approximate accuracy, he seems unable to countenance the idea of a Shakespeare capable of changing his mind about a play over time, either because of things he learned when it was was performed, or simply because he was rethinking it, perhaps with what was to become the 1623 Folio in mind. He has no patience with “revision theory,” with the Shakespeare who felt impelled to revise his own work, although this is arguably the most important development in Shakespeare studies over the past twenty-five years (an attitude he has already made clear in a New Yorker article). Or with books like Lukas Erne’s important Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (which he retitles Shakespeare as a Literary Artist). He even manages to praise John Jones’s Shakespeare at Work (1995)—quite rightly—for the subtlety and and nuance of its individual readings, while ignoring what Jones’s title clearly declares, and the book as a whole explores: Shakespeare’s meticulous and brilliant second thoughts.

Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare (despite the clear evidence of authorial correction in the Hand D portion of Sir Thomas More) apparently never blotted a line, as the players liked to boast—incurring Ben Jonson’s famous retort, “would he had blotted a thousand.” Like the Tablets of the Law, words inscribed permanently on stone, a Shakespeare text is for him something immovable, issuing from Shakespeare’s mind pristine and permanent, and there can be only one correct version, whether Quarto or Folio—or neither.

Hence what he calls “The Scandal of Lear’s Last Words,” by which he means the discrepancy between the Quarto version (“Break, heart, I prithee break,” a line transferred to Kent in the Folio) and the Folio’s (“Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips,/Look there, look there,” lines which allow Lear to die believing, pathetically, that Cordelia still lives). The presence of these two alternative versions is, he says, “the most important, difficult, complex, embarrassing, humbling, scandalous, unresolved question in Shakespeare studies.” But is it?

Unless one of these versions is shown to be inauthentic, why should a theater director not choose the Quarto reading in a given production and the Folio one in another? Just as he or she might give the last speech of the play to Edgar, as in the Folio, or to Albany as in the Quarto version, depending on which text is being used, a choice possibly influenced by the abilities of the actor playing Edgar. Rosenbaum makes a mountain out of a molehill.

It has not been a pleasure to write this review. The Shakespeare Wars, however, has already been much praised, and is being widely read. It seems more than time someone pointed out that it is, in many respects, inaccurate and seriously misleading. The current state of Shakespeare scholarship and criticism is by no means as embattled as Rosenbaum tries to make out. There are healthy differences of opinion, of course, as there always have been—and indeed ought to be, revision theory being one. There are fairly dubious new ideas as well, for instance “Presentism,” the insistence on reading Shakespeare’s texts for what they may say about such current issues as global warming or the Iraq war. The dense Cimmerian darkness that Rosenbaum imagines enveloping the field is, however, a fantasy, and one that, unlike Logan Pearsall Smith, he seems to take seriously. It ought not to be credited.

This Issue

March 29, 2007