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Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Shakespeare Wars

This book was an intense and rewarding read. I picked it up as a corrective to the idiocy that was Anonymous and its hype, because it covers the real, meaty issues about Shakespeare -- the interplay of the different texts, the vicious debates over spelling and language and meaning, the arguments over why, exactly, Shakespeare's works are so compelling. Rosenbaum is ideally suited to the task -- an academic outsider (a journalist) who is highly literate and educated, he is also profoundly passionate about Shakespeare. His writing is casual, engaging, and snarky, and he has little patience for those he thinks have foolish or very wrong ideas (to his credit, he will also openly acknowledge his own mistakes).

There is so much to think about in this book that I could write a dozen essays. Rosenbaum reminded me how much I love Hamlet, and how immersed I once got in debates and discussions over Hamlet's age, costuming, the brilliance that is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Gertrude's role, and so on. Rosenbaum also vindicated my love of love for Luhrman's movie William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, and the absolutely stunning opening monologue. (Despite the fact that I never cared too much about the play. They are too young for eternal true love. There are too many misunderstandings and stupid things in the way of love. And they are too willing to die because their passion cannot be fulfilled, when there is so much more to life. I prefer my heroines tough and strong, like Jane Eyre, who is parted from Rochester not because of misunderstandings or foolish pride, but because of her integrity and moral strength. But I digress.)

I'd also love to have lunch with Rosenbaum, and ask if he ever saw the Hamlet O-groans that appeared in Frasier, of all places (starting around 1:45). Has he read Neil Gaiman's "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest", issues 19 and 75 from the Sandman comic? What does he think about the conceit of the fairies being much more capricious and amoral in "real life" than in the play, and the absolutely sinister version of Puck (something I can never not think of whenever I see any other portrayal of him)? Or the moving way Gaiman tied together Prospero and the end of Shakespeare's career with the ultimate fate of Dream? What does he really think about Oxfordians? (Snerk.)

If there could be a theme to all the disparate Shakespearean questions and puzzles Rosenbaum discusses, it would be one of ambiguity or multiplicity. Which of the two texts of King Lear is the "right" one -- the Quarto or the Folio? Which of the three Hamlets -- the "good" quarto, the "bad" quarto, or the folio? Did Shakespeare leave each play once written, or did he revise his works over time? If the latter, which then would be his final version? Did he have both literary and stage versions, or were the stage versions (shorter and with directions) products of directors and producers? What spellings and punctuations should we use (sallied/sullied/solid, shroudly/shrewdly, O/o'), and are they the result of Shakespeare's intent or decisions by later printers and typesetters? What did Shakespeare mean with particular words he chose, like "accidents/accidence" -- the primary definition (coincidence), a second one (resonance), one of his own devising, none of these, all of these at once? Are Lear's words in the Folio cause for hope or despair? How can a reader make sense of the myriad, conflicting ways one line about love in Sonnet 40 can be interpreted, let alone the rest of the poem?

The fact is, none of these questions can be answered definitively, and probably never will be. Rosenbaum repeatedly analogizes it to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, where an electron can never be pinned down precisely in both speed and location but instead occupies a penumbra of probabilities. Shakespeare's works, then, are "a wave-array of possible variations and interpretations of [] single word[s] or phrase[s]" (p. 90; see also p. 463 on). I (and many others) think this is Shakespeare's genius -- the multiplicity of meaning. The fact that you can read (or see) the plays over and over and find something new. The fact that there can be two or more perfectly valid understandings. The fact that the plays are flexible enough to allow directors and actors their own interpretations of a scene or character. What other writer can offer such sheer versatility?

I've often heard (and Rosenbaum mentions it) that we will be the last generation to be able to understand Shakespeare in its "original language"; future readers and audiences will need the works to be translated for them, much as Chaucer needs to be translated for most people, and Beowulf for everyone. Such a thing is inevitable; languages change or die, many of the great works of literature have to be translated for someone, and it certainly need not keep us from recognizing Shakespeare's genius. Yet it makes me sad to think of it, because much will inevitably be lost. Clever wordplay based on a multiplicity of meaning and similarity of sound will be gone. It will force editors to make decisions on spelling and meaning and punctuation, even more than they do now. Many of the debates Rosenbaum discusses will become available only to those few who can read "Shakespearean English" well enough to understand the stakes. That will be the true loss, not the silliness over Shakespeare's "lost" identity.

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