Shakespeare Wars

I just read this amazing, great book, about a subject you wouldn’t think would be exciting and addicting, but which is.  The book is Ron Rosenbaum, The Shakespeare Wars.  Published in 2006; Random House.  I bought it at the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City because I needed something to read between shows and because it was on sale.  Ended up nearly missing a show because I got so caught up in it.

I bought The Shakespeare Wars because it sort of sounds like a book about, maybe, the anti-Stratfordians.  I thought it might be about the battles over who wrote the plays: William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, or someone else (Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or theory du jour, the Earl of Oxford).  Since the plays actually were written by Shakespeare, this would seem to be a tedious controversy, like arguing with people who think President Obama was born in Kenya.  (Note: he wasn’t.)  But, hey, I thought, maybe Rosenbaum has a new take on it. 

It’s not about that at all. Not at all.  It’s about the various controversies and battles within the academy over what might strike some people as textual minutiae, but which in Rosenbaum’s able hands, become fraught with tension and interest.  It’s not about who wrote the plays (Shakespeare wrote the plays), or about biography or anything like that. It’s about Shakespeare as a writer–what choices did he make, how much did he revise, what issues obsessed him, as revealed in the language.  It’s about arguments and controversies between scholars who have given their lives to understand these plays, and who just don’t agree. 

In Renaissance England, publishers published two kinds of books: quartos and folios.  Quartos were smaller, cheaper, and more plentiful–like paperback books today.  Folios were larger, more expensive, nicer, and rarer.  In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, 36 of his plays were published by his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell in a folio edition which we know as the First Folio.  All of his plays are in it, except Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen. (Both of which Shakespeare co-wrote with other guys).  Eighteen plays were published in quarto editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Here’s what gets interesting: what do we do about plays published in both quarto and folio editions when they disagree?  Take Hamlet: it was published in two quartos and in the First Folio.  The first quarto (Q1) is generally considered a bad quarto–it’s much shorter than the other two versions, and lines are garbled–‘to be or not to be’ reads like a parody.  A lot of scholars think it was a memorial reconstruction–the actor who played Marcellus wrote down what he could remember of the play and that then was published.  But other scholars disagree, including a passionate minority who think Q1 was Shakespeare’s first draft. Q2 is called ‘a good quarto’; it’s longer than the Folio version (F1) by some 240 lines.  F1 also has some 80 lines that aren’t in Q2. 

Until very recently, then, if you read “Hamlet,” what you were reading was a scholarly reconstruction of the play, in which textual experts mixed and matched Q2 and F1 to create a composite play that was almost certainly never performed in Shakespeare’s day.  (More recently, the tendency has been to publish Q2 and F1 and let students compare ’em).  What version did his company perform? No one knows.  Maybe, in performance, they did something like Q1–something short and garbled.  Maybe they did Q2, which Heminges and Condell (or Shakespeare or someone) rewrote for later publication in the Folio. Or maybe F1 was their performance text, and represents their cuts for performance.  Or maybe the Q2 publisher messed up.  Or maybe Shakespeare just kept working on it.

To give some idea of what this book has done for me, then. One tiny example. One fascinating issue is this: the soliloquy “how all occasions do inform against me” in the fourth act, and the last one in the play.  It’s in Q2, but not in F1.  And, you know, this is Hamlet; his soliloquys are at the heart of the play. So does it belong in the play or not?  Scholars can argue–directors have to choose. 

Rosenbaum’s intention is to invite us to really genuinely engage with these texts.  He points out, for example, that one difference between the quarto and folio versions of King Lear are Lear’s dying words.  That’s important stuff–Lear is such a tremendous character, and how we feel about him changes depending on those last few lines.  It’s heartbreaking stuff either way, but are those dying words redemptive?  Nihilistic?  Hopeful?  Depends in part on which published version you prefer. 

Back to Hamlet then.  One might argue that “how all occasions do inform against me” isn’t a particularly important soliloquy, and the play isn’t impoverished by its omission.  In fact, it kind of slows the action down near the end of a very long play.  But I love that speech, and can’t imagine cutting it.  And here’s why. (And this is what Rosenbaum does: gets you thinking about these plays; got me thinking about Hamlet, a play I would give my left arm to direct some day.) 

I have seen many Hamlets: suffering Hamlets, mad Hamlets, mom-besotted Hamlets.  Very few address what seems to me a very important dimension of the play–the politics of it.  When a king dies, his son becomes king, not his brother.  When Hamlet’s father dies, Hamlet’s his heir–not Claudius.  The excuse Claudius seems to use for taking over is that Denmark is in peril, due to Fortinbras’ invasion.  It’s a national emergency.  But properly speaking, what Claudius should do is declare a regency, a temporary assumption of power until the proper king, Hamlet, can get back from college in Germany. 

That’s why Act 1 scene 2 is so important.  That’s the scene where Claudius solidifies his usurpation of power by acting as king–giving orders, sending ambassadors off.  Then he magnanimously declares that Hamlet will be his heir. Awfully big of you, there, pal.  That scene is where Claudius pulls it off–Hamlet doesn’t say a word.  Imagine the court, everyone nervous, staring at Hamlet: what’s he going to do?  Claudius leaves, and what’s Hamlet’s first soliloquy?  The self-loathing “oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.” 

So, Fortinbras.  Fortinbras is a small part, and he’s often cut.  Personally, I’d cut Horatio before I’d cut Fortinbras.  The single most important responsibility for a king was to provide for the succession–Hamlet is king for ten seconds, but he does that one thing–turns the kingdom over to Fortinbras.  Which suggests in turn how important Fortinbras is–he’s the future.  He’s the next guy.  Which takes us back to “how all occasions do inform against me.”  That soliloquy is prompted by Hamlet watching Fortinbras’ army heading off to battle against Poland.  He thinks about all those soldiers about to die, and for what?  For some foolish momentary political advantage.  Fortinbras is a man of action, he’s decisive, but he’s also indifferent to human suffering. And that’s going to be the next king–the realpolitik conqueror.  It’s a tough future Hamlet picks for his people, ruled by that guy.  Also inevitable, maybe? 

I also prefer the bleaker King Lear.  I like the quarto death scene.

But that’s what I love about Rosenbaum’s book.  You read, and you think about what you’ve read, one thought sparking more thoughts.  I was up all night thinking about Hamlet.  And Hamlet.   Can’t ask more of a book than that. 

One thought on “Shakespeare Wars

  1. Mark Fossen

    I really loved this book – one of the most exciting (fiction or non-) that I’ve read in the past few years. Wish I could find a way to read it again for the first time. 🙂

    I just picked up his EXPLAINING HITLER – I’m not all that interested in the topic, but I imagine he will engage me. And I really hope Rosenbaum writes on Shakespeare again sometime soon.

    I think James Shapiro is doing some great work in Shakespeare writing, but Rosenbaum really nailed so much of the field in SHAKESPEARE WARS.

    Reply

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