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Newsday, 24 September 2006

THE SHAKESPEARE WARS: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascos, Palace Coups, by Ron Rosenbaum. Random House, 601 pp.
In the late 1960s -- as a whole generation was discovering the mingled pleasures of exploring its identity and blowing its mind, occasionally reducing both to mush in the process -- a few philosophically minded critics began writing about "the death of the author." Perhaps it was something in the air.

The idea was revolutionary, at least in intent. Under the old cultural regime -- so the argument went -- the author stood in relation to the literary work as a capitalist did to his property ... or as a father did to his progeny ... or as God did to the world. But no more! Nietzsche had announced that God was dead, and the crypto-theological notion of the inspired author would soon be buried, as well.

For those who did rush to embrace the strange new ideas coming (for the most part) from Paris, the whole thing sounded not just preposterous, but nihilistic. If great literature is an essential part of civilization -- and if developing a capacity to appreciate greatness is one of the soul-enlarging missions of education -- then "the death of the author" was an assault on culture, on meaning itself.

I think that is debatable. Like everything else in the culture of the 1960s, it was half-destructive, half-creative: an effort to go beyond (in some cases, to blow up) old structures, and to improvise new ones. And it had some curious side-effects, including a revitalized and passionate rediscovery of William Shakespeare.

With his new book The Shakespeare Wars, Ron Rosenbaum seems to defy all those academics who took up the various forms of what they call Theory (with a capital T), such as deconstruction. Once upon a time, Rosenbaum was a graduate student in English at Yale. But he left that behind to become the most sui generis of investigative reporters.

The English department's loss was literature's gain. At its best, Rosenbaum's work blurs the distinction between journalism and the essay. He wrote definitive stories on the "phone phreaks" (the original hacker subculture of the early 1970s), the Skull and Bones fraternity, and the world of scholars who try to understand how Adolf Hitler became Adolf Hitler.

At the same time, Rosenbaum has never stopped reading and rereading Shakespeare. This preoccupation has not been a sideline to his journalism, but rather has colored his work, as obsessions tend to do. Publishing a collection of his magazine pieces a few years ago, Rosenbaum called it The Secret Parts of Fortune -- a line from Hamlet, one of the prince's obscene jokes delivered while bantering with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Given his interest in marginal subcultures and hidden patterns, one might suspect that Rosenbaum would have a keen interest in people fixated on the "secret parts" of the Bard's identity -- those arguing that the real author of the plays was the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, for example. Or that Shakespeare was actually part of the Roman Catholic underground of Queen Elizabeth's day, as Stephan Greenblatt speculated in his 2004 book, Will in the World.

But Rosenbaum ignores such would-be sleuths almost entirely -- focusing instead, not on the mysteries behind Shakespeare's work, but rather on the enigmas within it. He is interested, he writes, in "what makes Shakespeare 'Shakespearean.'"

Arguably the best way to start reading the book is with the fifth chapter, "The Great Shakespeare 'Funeral Elegy' Fiasco," concerning the debate over whether or not Shakespeare wrote a long poem from 1612 signed "W.S." A professor named Don Foster insisted that yes, he had -- and he claimed that computerized stylistic analysis proved it. In the 1990s, publishers of new editions of Shakespeare's complete writings were keen to include the "Funeral Elegy" (even though, as a poem, it stinks on ice).

Rosenbaum, writing about the matter in The New York Observer, wound up in a protracted controversy with Foster. And he gloats -- not really bothering to hide the fact -- at the news that Foster had to retract his claims in the face of subsequent evidence that the poem was actually written by John Ford.

What fueled the debate, for Rosenbaum anyway, was the affront involved in argument-from-computerization. "Now all that wooly literary judgment stuff could be junked," he writes sardonically. "Number-crunching had arrived at a state of Fosterian sophistication. Literary value was to be defined by digitized statistics." All of which is just a high-tech version of the same evasive maneuvers practiced by the death-of-the-author deconstructionists who think, says Rosenbaum, "that works of literature, like all works of speech and writing, are ultimately incoherent."

That does not make The Shakespeare Wars a book without heroes, unlikely heroes though they are. Most of the action involves quarreling bands of textual scholars - the men and women who prepare editions of the works, based on the two volumes published during Shakespeare's lifetime (known as the "Good" and "Bad" quartos) and the posthumous Folio of his collected plays.

There are differences among the versions, great and small. In the case of "King Lear," the final words given to the dying king vary so much -- one being hopeful, the other bleaker than Samuel Beckett -- that they imply profoundly different meanings for the entire play.

How, then, to prepare an edition of Shakespeare? Is one version better than another? Should all variants be presented, so that the reader can decide? Some of the lines in the "Bad Quarto" version are, well, just plain bad ("To be or no to be; ay, there's the point ..."). Was it the result of some half-drunk actor scribbling down what he could remember of the play -- in effect, creating a bootleg version -- or was it actually Shakespeare's crappy first draft?

These questions have been debated for centuries now. The passions the evince may prove difficult for the nonspecialist to comprehend. (Researchers have devoted whole careers to determining how many typesetters were involved in publishing the Folio, and which pages each one set. The arguments go from scholarly to personal very quickly.)

The intensity of those debates reflect Shakespeare's enduring authority. Such, I take it, is one of Rosenbaum's points. But at times, he seems to concede something to the cultural radicals of yesteryear.

"Of course," he writes, "actors and directors have always taken the liberty of cutting, of deciding what had to be left in and out for reasons of time and pacing. But now readers must decide what they want, what alternatives, which branch in the garden of forking paths to take." The author did not have complete control of his work during his lifetime. And now, almost four centuries later, much of what we make of Shakespeare is in our own hands.