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Hot in pursuit of Shakespeare

How little we know of what the Bard truly intended.

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Some years ago, while I was working as an education reporter, I visited a tiny storefront school on a nasty street in one of the toughest cities in America. There, I met a bunch of seventh-graders head over heels in love with Shakespeare. When I asked them if they preferred "Hamlet" or "Othello" they bounced on the edge of their seats as if given a choice between pizza and popcorn. "Both, both!" they shouted.

Later in the discussion, one young scholar stretched across his desk and sighed. "If only Shakespeare was still alive," he lamented.. "We have so many questions we could ask him."

And so Shakespeare lives on to greet a new generation. That classroom was many leagues removed from the kind of hallowed halls that Ron Rosenbaum visits in The Shakespeare Wars and yetit is the kind of passion found there that animates his book.

Ron Rosenbaum is not a Shakespearean scholar. He's a writer and journalist who long ago saw a Peter Brooks production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that rocked his world.

But the love of Shakespeare, Rosenbaum discovered as he probed more deeply, is not an entirely straightforward matter. It's complicated by exactly the thing that caused my seventh-grader to sigh: Shakespeare is no longer with us and there are so many things we cannot ask him. That's why scholars spend so much time fighting.

And that's why Rosenbaum wrote his book – to illuminate some of the things these scholars fight about and to tell us why we should care. (Rosenbaum's interest, I should say at the outset, is confined to Shakespeare's words and work. He's not a biographer, so don't look here for debates about the Bard's true identity.)

Shakespeare criticism may seem an odd topic for a pleasure book (i.e., something no teacher is making you read) but between deep love for his subject and breezy, journalistic prose, Rosenbaum pulls it off rather neatly.

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