The Book Club

Does It Matter Who the Bard Really Was?


I’m a longtime admirer of your work and am thrilled that you have written a book about Shakespeare. Why don’t we dive right in?

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups is a conversion narrative. Once you were a young literary intellectual whose preference was for the poetry of John Donne. Then, you saw Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and your life, as you report it, changed. That night in 1970, you write that you “felt as if [you] were imbibing the pure distilled essence of exhilaration.” You soon add, “And I did fall in love that night” and still later: “One night in Stratford, England, something strange happened to me watching Peter Brook’s Dream. Something I haven’t recovered from.” Your book, however, is not one long, ecstatic valentine to Shakespeare. Your conversion led you to believe in Shakespeare’s “bottomlessness,” as you put it, his unique ability to repay infinite rereadings; but it also led you, of all things, to scholarship—to the arcane textual controversies that have animated Shakespeare studies for hundreds of years. On the one hand, then, your book is a joyous appreciation; but on the other, it is a fine piece of reportage on the scholarly infighting behind the scenes in Shakespeare studies.

If I’ve read your book right, the point of connection between your evangelical zeal and your Talmudic patience with minutiae is the question of what makes something—a line, a soliloquy, a play—characteristically Shakespearean. We have little to no biographical information about the man behind these plays, and so scholars are forced to work internally, textually, by synecdoche, so to speak, inferring the character of the whole from its parts, and back again. You begin the book by diving into a set of textual controversies of which even the average well-educated reader of Shakespeare is probably unaware: that there are three competing versions of Hamlet and two competing versions of King Lear. Do these versions represent competing claims to a “Lost Archetype,” a master draft that could serve as the definitive manuscript? Or do they represent a series of revisions of the play? You take us through Good Quartos and Bad Quartos, and the various compromises that editors have been forced to make, and the outcries and denunciations that have inevitably followed. (When Oxford decided to publish two versions of King Lear, you quote Harold Bloom as exclaiming, “the Oxford editors should be hanged!”)

You proceed, not play by play, but controversy by controversy, demonstrating how each emendation, no matter how small, can, by repercussions, turn a play into a different play. In the so-called Good Quarto version of Hamlet, his dying words to Horatio end with, “The rest is silence.” In the so-called Folio, he says, “The rest is silence,” and then he adds some now-infamous groans: “O, o, o, o.” Can these hammy ejaculations, the “O groans,” as they’ve come to be known, really be from the hand of Shakespeare? To my mind, the most compelling textual question you address is the one regarding King Lear. These come in the “most terrifying five minutes of literature,” as Stephen Booth has called the ending of Lear. In one version, Lear cries out for his heart to break, having realized the extent of his own tragedy, and he dies. In the competing version, Lear persists in his delusion and dies believing that Cordelia still breathes. “Look on her! Look her lips,/Look there, look there.” As you point out, these are not at all purely academic debates:

This is more than a subject for leisurely open-ended reflection for some. It’s an urgent matter for directors … because directors have to make choices between two versions, whether one can (as almost all do) include variants from both. But in each case it’s a choice that requires an esthetic strategy or theory about why one includes or omits what one does. To use a metaphor from physics, readers and scholars can forever entertain the potential for each version; directors must end the indeterminacy, “collapse the wave,” choose one variant to be uttered on stage.

Consequential as the arcana can be, the impulse to write this book, if I have it right, came from some place much larger. I have the impression that the impulse to write a Shakespeare book was surprisingly similar to your impulse to write a Hitler book. The same question haunts both men: Are they on a continuum with other men, or are Hitler, for his capacity for evil, and Shakespeare, for his genius, sui generis? You quote Peter Brook as saying,

I think [Shakespeare] is a unique case and I think his uniqueness inheres in his generosity. I think there’s no one else who manages to insert himself so totally in such a wide range of human beings. To be such a highly developed, highly acute servant of other people’s truths is unique.

Do you in the end have a definitive feeling as to Shakespeare’s status as an exceptional genius, one who cannot be put on a continuum with even Goethe and Tolstoy?

And a more global question. My very amateur impression has always been that Shakespeare is so great that the small details don’t deserve to be sweated, at least not overly much; that yes, because we lack definitive evidence of authorial intention, we make do with pastiche editions. But ultimately, thanks to the sheer scale of Shakespeare’s genius, because the whole achievement is so huge, no individual part really can work up that much influence back to the whole. If I read your wonderful book right, I must be wrong, no?