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Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
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Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

A-The Shakespeare WarsAcademics, the old saw goes, fight so doggedly over their square of turf because they have so little to gain. Ron Rosenbaum—a journalist, not an academic—cultivated his passion for Shakespeare after seeing Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970 at Stratford-on-Avon. Drawing on voluminous research and inside information on many key Shakespeare critics, scholars, and stage directors, Rosenbaum offers up a treatise on Shakespeare’s body of work and its handling four centuries after the Bard’s death. He includes in this hefty tome tales of messy and unsavory academic feuds over provenance—and, yes, even punctuation and spelling—as well as discussions on King Lear’s final words, the origins of Shakespeare’s characters, and the relative merits of film versus stage productions.
Random House. 624 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375503390

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, [Rosenbaum’s] prose grows too effusive and extravagant, most notably about the impact on himself of Brook’s 1970 production. … Despite these shortcomings, Rosenbaum’s rewarding book bears witness to Shakespeare’s unrivaled appeal and fascination, and general readers will find that it leads them even more deeply into the amazing complexities of his art." William E. Cain

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Shakespeare Wars suffers from some excess. … What is lovely about this book, however, is its exaltation of the vastness of Shakespearean riches—a vastness proven by the endless intensity of the very debates that Rosenbaum writes about." Marjorie Kehe

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Instead of focusing on biography that must spill over into speculation, Rosenbaum explores the question of what, precisely, makes Shakespeare timeless? … One of [his] strengths is his ability to turn the esoteric into the fascinating." Steve Weinberg

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Rosenbaum] has written not biography nor conventional criticism, but memoir masking as literary journalism—one man’s life chronicled through his obsessive love of Shakespeare. … Rosenbaum’s happiest accomplishment, after the occasional near-eclipse, is his reminder of the bottomless joy we experience in reading the plays, or seeing them on stage or screen, and reveling again in Hamlet’s ‘rhapsody of words.’" Patrick Kurp

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Given that Rosenbaum’s book might be more aptly subtitled Shakespeare and Me, it is nonetheless a genuinely passionate, insight-filled survey of the serious work being done by many scholars, directors, and actors. … If the editors at Random House had exercised just a little comparable ruthlessness, they might have saved Ron Rosenbaum from himself and given the world a book that was much less individual but a far better testimonial to the intelligence and hard work of its author." Michael Dirda

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s only so much even a writer as good as Rosenbaum can do to make this subject of interest to a general reader. … An intermittently fascinating read, though not for every taste." Duane Davis

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"A question about the final words spoken by King Lear takes Rosenbaum into a dense and drawn-out analysis of the play itself, while a recent production of Peter Hall’s As You Like It leads to a protracted discourse on love in Shakespeare, including some silly comments on sexual love in Romeo and Juliet. … For ‘the general educated reader’ to whom Rosenbaum’s book appears to be addressed, most of these Shakespeare ‘wars’ will come across as much ado about nothing." Earl L. Dachslager

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Though there are moments when he communicates his passion for Shakespeare, they are scattered, forlornly, amid pages and pages of arcane discussions about textual scholarship and ‘iambic fundamentalism,’ windy and inconclusive debates about what is truly Shakespearean, and blow-by-blow accounts of feuds between rival scholars that cannot possibly be of any interest (at least as rendered by Mr. Rosenbaum) to the lay reader." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Ron Rosenbaum, whose analysis in Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of Evil (1998) was well received, is a journalist by trade and a Shakespeare enthusiast by calling. In The Shakespeare Wars, the author articulates to a well-read lay audience his passion for the work and describes the internecine squabbling that often characterizes Shakespeare studies. In so doing, Rosenbaum comes up against a few obstacles, not the least his lengthy meditations on issues that may strike the reader as unworthy of the space devoted to them. Even the critics who admire the author’s passion and his knowledge of the subject agree that the book is longer than it needs to be. If you are as captivated by Shakespeare as the author, however, join a kindred spirit in celebrating the Bard.