Sept/Oct/Nov 2006

Much Ado About Shakespeare

James Shapiro


The title of Ron Rosenbaum's new book, The Shakespeare Wars, exaggerates: There may be occasional skirmishes, but real battles over the plays of William Shakespeare these days are few and far between (other than whether Shakespeare really wrote them, though this is not what interests Rosenbaum). The Shakespeare wars have in fact been over for a while. They had just begun when Rosenbaum quit graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s. Unhappy with where the profession was heading, Rosenbaum turned from teaching Shakespeare's sonnets to a career in journalism, and in the ensuing decades he has written books, essays, and opinion pieces on everything from Seinfeld to Hitler.

It was a smart career move. Had Rosenbaum finished up at Yale and landed an academic job (at a time when it was still possible to find one), he would probably have been one of those colleagues soured by the success of New Historicism, cultural materialism, and deconstruction. By the 1980s, Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries had replaced Cleanth Brooks's reading of Macbeth on syllabi, feminists had shown how much earlier Shakespeare scholarship had ignored, and Irving Ribner's providential approach to the history plays had given way to Stephen Greenblatt's "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V" and other brilliant readings.

Like all paradigm shifts, this one too came to an end: The torrent of groundbreaking scholarship slowed to a trickle, university presses lost interest, and what was once transgressive was now on the final exam. You knew the wars were all but over when even the dullest of undergraduates could show that E. M. W. Tillyard's long-dominant view of Shakespeare's age, The Elizabethan World Picture, was an embarrassing piece of special pleading for hierarchy and order. A rash of biographies belatedly appeared, eager to align Shakespeare's portrait with fresh ways of thinking about his world and work. To mark just how much had changed, the field itself was rechristened: What had been the Renaissance was now the Early Modern.

Rosenbaum blames "Theory" for this turn of events, and his book is in part an attempt to persuade us that, in the end, Theory lost and Shakespeareans are beginning to cast off its shackles and once again celebrate beauty, pleasure, and ambiguity. This is wishful thinking. Theory didn't lose; its victory was so complete that we no longer need Theory with a big T anymore because we all do theory, though most of us do it without giving it much thought. Rosenbaum also maintains that the problem was never with the stultifying '60s-style close reading he still longs for (with its refusal to engage history, politics, or the cultural forces that shape how literature is written and read). Rather, he strangely insists—in overheated prose—that close reading failed because it was too successful, transporting readers "too close to a core meltdown, so to speak, too close to pleasures whose destabilizing intensity threatens the dissolution of the self."

Luckily, most of Rosenbaum's book is a lot less tendentious than this and concerns itself with what might better be described as the postwar years, in which Shakespeare scholars, old and young, have gone about wondering "What next?" His investigations lead him down some fascinating byways, as he seeks out those who can tell him about Shakespeare's singularity, how his verse was originally spelled and spoken, how film captures something essentially Shakespearean that stage productions cannot, and what accounts for the mystery of life-changing productions—such as Peter Brook's magical A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Rosenbaum first saw performed at Stratford-on-Avon in 1970, and which struck him with conversionary force.

By far the best material in this long and digressive book is to be found in the first 150 pages, in which Rosenbaum enthuses about editing. Expanding on a fine piece that ran in the New Yorker a few years ago, he interviews some of the leading textual editors at work today and makes clear—in ways they themselves do a poor job of explaining—just what is at stake in their labors. Editing, once a quiet backwater, has become central to resolving two related questions: What is Shakespearean? And did Shakespeare revise what he wrote? These aren't new questions, but they have been lent greater urgency by how much has been invested of late by publishers who, having given up on Shakespeare criticism that doesn't sell, are competing over what does: the Shakespeare texts assigned every year to tens of thousands of high school and college students. (It's surprising that a journalist as enterprising as Rosenbaum never considers the market forces that help drive the Shakespeare business, but this is of a piece with his lack of interest in the economic world in which Shakespeare himself wrote and was published.)

Prestige and visibility, as well as the money being plowed into producing ever-new-and-improved editions, have attracted some of the finest minds in the field to editing. Oxford University Press has come out with a line of individual volumes and has recently published an updated version of its complete works, Cambridge University Press is producing an excellent rival series, and both are hoping to chip away at the dominance of the Arden Shakespeare, which has responded with Arden 3, the third generation of its leading series. The Riverside, Bevington, Bantam, Norton, Pelican, Signet, and Folger editions continue to get face-lifts as well, while a new contender, the RSC Shakespeare, is about to enter the fray, offering a text based on the 1623 folio, the versions of Shakespeare plays posthumously collected and published by his friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell. Barnes & Noble has decided to publish a serious scholarly series of its own, sure to make other publishers, who depend on shelf space in superstores, very nervous. With this much competition, the need to distinguish editions has put pressure on scholars reluctant to include things like disputed poems claimed for Shakespeare, including "Shall I Die? Shall I Fly?" and "Funeral Elegy," and Rosenbaum is justifiably withering in his scorn for those who foolishly pressed their claims for the Shakespearean qualities of these dismal poems. It has also forced editors to confront afresh the multiple versions of two of Shakespeare's greatest plays, Hamlet and King Lear.

Most of us grew up believing that the versions of Hamlet and Lear we were taught in school were more or less what Shakespeare wrote. Editors, who have long combined the best bits of earlier and later published texts of these works, knew better. The tradition of conflating texts began to unravel in the early 1980s, when a group of scholars, including Gary Taylor, Michael Warren, and Peter Blayney, argued that the 1608 quarto and 1623 folio editions of King Lear were so different that they should be treated as distinct works of art. Since undergraduates couldn't be expected to read and compare two editions of the play, the question then became: Which one should be taught? Publishers like Norton have tried to get around this problem by publishing not only the two distinct versions but also a third, old-fashioned and conflated text, in case instructors still prefer to teach what they themselves had been taught.

Rosenbaum does an excellent job of clarifying how much these choices matter and on what small fragments of evidence consequential arguments turn, and to this end he focuses a good deal of attention on Lear's dying words. In the folio edition, Lear, his daughter Cordelia dead in his arms, cries out, "Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips, / Look there, look there." For Rosenbaum, this is a Lear who "dies thinking (or deluding himself) that she lives. He dies, some say, with a redemptive, even hopeful vision emerging provisionally, perhaps delusively from the suffering of the tragedy." This folio ending stands, for him, in sharp contrast to the one in the earlier, bleaker quarto, where "apparently without hope of any kind, real or delusional," Lear dies uttering, "Break, heart, I prithee break"—words, Rosenbaum concludes, "which some scholars see not just as a cry of brokenheartedness, but as a wish for self-annihilation." Do we want our Shakespeare redemptive or crushing? More to the point, was Shakespeare—or, alternatively, one or more anonymous actors, collaborators, scribes, or compositors—responsible for this crucial alteration? It's impossible to know for sure.

The choices editors face with Hamlet are, if anything, starker, for three early printed versions of that play survive: an abbreviated quarto of 1603, a longer, grimmer quarto published in 1604, and a folio text, printed in 1623. There are hundreds of differences between these texts, some large, most of them fairly innocuous, though the pattern of changes suggests conscious revision. This time it's not the hero's dying words that preoccupy Rosenbaum so much as his final soliloquy in act 4, the one in which Hamlet complains, "How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge!" This remarkable soliloquy is cut in the 1623 text—though restored in virtually all conflated editions; who, after all, would want to omit such a memorable speech, even if Shakespeare himself had decided to cut it? Much of the debate has turned on the relationship of the three versions, and though scholars are in near consensus on the sequence in which they were written (1604, 1623, then 1603), they continue to disagree over which version is closer to what Shakespeare intended and whether Shakespeare himself was responsible for the cuts and additions.

Rosenbaum notes that as his book was going to press, a much-anticipated Arden 3 Hamlet, edited by Shakespeare scholars Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, finally appeared, supplanting Harold Jenkins's earlier and magisterial conflated Arden Hamlet. This latest edition opts for printing all three texts of Hamlet separately. Though refusing to take sides on key issues—which range from when each version was written, to whether Shakespeare himself revised the play, to the question of which version is superior—the editors' decision to publish only the 1604 text by itself and in paperback (the first quarto and the folio are bound together in an expensive cloth edition) was a silent vote for first intentions. The imminent appearance of the RSC Shakespeare—which opts for the second thoughts of the folio text—ensures that the critical battle is far from over.

Rosenbaum steers clear of the controversy now heating up over collaboration, the greatest challenge by far to what we think of as Shakespearean. In recent years, Shakespeare's solo authorship of the plays traditionally attributed to him has been aggressively challenged. It now looks like he may have worked with Thomas Nashe on Henry VI, Part One, with George Peele on Titus Andronicus, with Thomas Middleton on Timon of Athens and perhaps other plays as well, with George Wilkins on Pericles, and with John Fletcher on a string of late plays, including Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost Cardenio. Rosenbaum knows all this, yet he never confronts it, I suppose, because acknowledging the extent to which Shakespeare wrote collaboratively is at odds with his quest to discover what makes Shakespeare singular.

• • • • •

Kenneth Gross is no less interested in Shakespeare's singularity. Anyone interested in how one of the most talented Shakespeareans at work today confronts the question "What next?" will want to read his Shylock Is Shakespeare, as innovative and reckless a critical study to appear in a very long time. Like Shakespeare revamping old plots, Gross takes something unfashionable—Victorian character criticism—and turns it into something entirely new: a deeply considered, often-dazzling exploration of Shylock's "singularity" (that word again!). And he does so in a bold and idiosyncratic style—at one moment cutting up and reassembling Portia's and Shylock's lines from different scenes into a sort of duet, at others offering in extended italicized passages what Shakespeare himself thought and felt about his creation:

This character I've made, this Shylock, is myself. He, like me, is a creature of strange commerce, breeding money through what others think of as contaminated, unholy means. . . . The two of us are caught between worlds, between earth and air, matter and spirit. We both feed on shared and secret resources of desire, fear, sorrow, shame, and resentment, thrusting these into more volatile and abstract forms.

Here, and elsewhere, Gross chafes at the deadening constraints of traditional criticism. Argument and speculation can only get you so far in pursuit of a character's mystery. So he turns to imagining, and imagines himself at various points in the book walking with Shylock through Venice after the trial scene, imagines "what it would be like to hear the sad, self-wounding merchant Antonio recite sonnet 87 to Bassanio," imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald studying the play for "certain atmospheric effects," even imagines "Shylock's laughter after the trial"—assuming, of course, that laughter was his response. On this, as on much else, Shakespeare chose to remain silent.

Gross's Shakespeare is not just like Shylock. He is Shylock, and the message is repeatedly and rhapsodically driven home: "Shylock is Shakespeare. Shylock is Shakespeare and Shakespeare is Shylock." His Shakespeare finds "in Shylock a double, a means to articulate his doubt, desire, and rage, his troubled solitude as author, his wish to put his audience in its place" as well as "a mirror" for his "own ambivalences about his art." Gross also believes that the "very name Shylock will claim us more strongly if we hear in it a hidden, echoic double of the name Shakespeare."

I can only urge those put off by Gross's unusual style and approach to press on. He is wonderfully alert to Shylock's language, particularly his "biblical cadences" and sly use of repetition. He is especially sensitive to Shylock's woundedness and rage, his "impenetrability, his powers of improvisation, his willingness to 'offend himself being offended.'" From first to last, Gross's Shylock is very much in control: He takes his "generic role" and turns it "to his own purposes," making "himself into exactly the bloodthirsty, invidious, devilish, vengeful, doglike, and scripture-wrestling Jew that the Christians expect him to be." Gross knows the critical tradition cold, has wrestled with it for many years, and is attuned to how Shylock's plight has resonated in the work of modern artists, including Heinrich Heine, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Ingmar Bergman, and Philip Roth.

Shylock comes alive in these pages, but at considerable cost. It would have been a better book had Gross reflected on the price paid for insisting that this is Shylock's play—and only his. Shylock, after all, appears in only five scenes and is absent from the play's final act. The speech headings in the manuscript behind the early quarto of the play suggest that Shakespeare veered between imagining his character as a fully individuated Shylock and as a type, the "Jew" (which is why the editor of the forthcoming Arden 3 Merchant of Venice is on strong ground in identifying him in the dramatis personae as the Jew who is named Shylock). And Shakespeare, after all, chose to name the play after Antonio, not Shylock.

In making his case for Shylock, Gross ends up unfairly flattening other characters. Jessica is written off as "bored and amorous," while Portia is dismissed as "a more evolved, more stately double of Shylock's cross-dressed . . . daughter." As talented a reader as he is, Gross's interest in Shylock prevents him from seeing that Portia is also dazzling. Like her creator, she manages to resolve multiple plots in the trial scene, thwarting not just Shylock but also Antonio, who, she discovers at this inopportune moment, knows and loves the man she just married far better than she does.

Gross's reading is one in which the Jew has a monopoly on suffering, rage, hatred, and our sympathy. Yes, Shylock is wounded, but isn't this a play full of walking wounded? There's the dark-skinned prince of Morocco who leaves Belmont wounded by Portia's racism ("Let all of his complexion choose me so," she laughs behind his back). There's Jessica, wounded by a father and perhaps a tradition that makes her feel trapped and isolated from the world. And what of that unfortunate and unnamed black woman we hear about, impregnated by Lancelot and the subject of banter? It's not surprising that Gross chides my Shakespeare and the Jews (1996) for failing to register the play's "hints about the shapes and occasions of antisemitic rage and of Shylock's response to that rage." I confess that I remain reluctant to probe Shylock's wounds as deeply as he does, or privilege them, or assume that either Shakespeare or his Elizabethan audience understood Shylock's pain or rage in the way that Gross insists upon.

I'm not convinced, in the end, that Shylock is Shakespeare, any more than I have been by claims that others have made in the past that Hamlet or Prospero or Falstaff is Shakespeare. Recent biographers have played fast and loose with finding Shakespeare's life and hidden thoughts in his works, and to my mind what Gross does here is just as risky. Back in 1934, C. J. Sisson thought he had put an end to this kind of biographical speculation in his savage British Academy lecture, "The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare," which argued that the post-Romantic search to discover Shakespeare's life in his works had turned out to be arbitrary and self-deluding, and in the wrong hands (such as those of German nationalists eager to promote an Aryan bard) quite dangerous. Maybe nobody reads Sisson anymore, or maybe the fantasy that the key to the artist can be found in one or another of his remarkable characters is too powerful.

Gross shows us—grippingly and often profoundly—what Shylock has come to mean in our time; but what Shylock meant to Shakespeare's playgoers, and to Shakespeare himself, must remain a mystery.

James Shapiro teaches at Columbia University. His most recent book is A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (HarperCollins, 2005).

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