Ron Rosenbaum would have us believe that Shakespeare is a war zone - the Lebanon of literature. Are you, as Andy McNab would say, “tooled up” for combat? Try the following quiz from The Shakespeare Wars:

1. Are they “plays” or “dramatic poems”?

2. Did Shakespeare really “never blot a line”?

3. Who was “Shakeshafte” and what were the “lost years”?

5. Why do “new historicists” hang out on the South Bank?

6. Did Shakespeare “invent human nature”?

7. What is “Hand D”?

8. What did he look like?

Couldn’t answer them? Read on. Some critical industries are harmonious. Dickensians rub along happily. Shakespearians, famously, don’t. They launch books, articles and editions at each other like Katyushas. Rosenbaum’s title The Shakespeare Wars - tasteless as it may sound when real people are dying in real wars - is spot on. Rosenbaum himself, he is quick to remind us, is no warrior, but a distinguished reporter. One commentator has gone so far as to call him “one of the most original journalists of our time”. Metaphorically flak-jacketed, he is the Rageh Omaar or Christiane Amanpour of Shakespeare studies, and has resolved to visit the front lines of the 400-year war and interview the combatants.

He will not take sides. But so confused is the Shakespearian conflict at the moment that his book is timely, not least for the economy and clarity with which he outlines the casus belli.

The battles boil down to ownership. The 1710 “Queen Anne” copyright act - the most significant piece of literary legislation ever devised - was lobbied for by booksellers who wanted their investments in Shakespeare protected. Subsequently it was less copyright than who had the right “take” on the world’s greatest writer. Was it the director-actors - from Burbage to Branagh - who did him on stage and screen? Or was it the closeted editors who did him on the page? There are rich pickings. Get the film of Henry V right, and you scoop the 1996 Oscars. Establish the “authoritative” text, and all those education dollars are yours. The highest advance ever paid for a work of literary criticism (a reputed cool million) went to Stephen Greenblatt - the critic who is to current Shakespeare studies what Hal was to Agincourt - for his biography Will in the World (2004). Not far behind, in jackpot terms, was the Falstaffian Harold Bloom with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Before the Bard, Bloom argues, we were only semi-human. We didn’t know how to express those feelings that separate us from the brutes (so much for Dante and Chaucer). Bloom and Greenblatt rode high in The New York Times bestseller list. They “owned” Shakespeare, and very remunerative that ownership was.

Rosenbaum was once himself destined for the ivory tower. At Yale he was a contemporary of young Dr Greenblatt and listened reverently to Professor Bloom. But he lost the faith and went out into the real world. He was drawn back to the Bard by an epiphanic experience of Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Stratford in midsummer 1970. He has devoted many summers to his current assignment.

Rosenbaum covers all the currently raging theatres of Shakespearian war. He’s adept at picking out where the war is hottest. Which “theories”, that is, are getting the scholars most worked up. For most of the 20th century, the big battle was between dons and luvvies, and that is where Rosenbaum concentrates his attention for much of his book. The quarrel goes a long way back. A.C. Bradley confessed in his influential Shakespearian Tragedy (1904) that, much as he revered the works, he took no pleasure in seeing them performed. He preferred to read them as novels. L.C. Knights shared Bradley’s preference for page over stage but insisted that to read the plays as novels was to forfeit their intrinsic poetry.

Rosenbaum is ecumenical. He can happily examine Steven Berkoff’s incestuous (and wholly invented) bonk between Hamlet and Gertrude in the bedroom scene and, as sympathetically, scrutinise the editorial arguments for basing the text of that scene on the “good quarto”. The reporter reports; he does not take sides.

Rosenbaum’s reportage is enlightening on the two conflicts that have most embattled recent Shakespearians: the “reviser” and “Catholic” theses. The former goes to the heart of what the “Shakespearian” is. It involves much hypothesis since there is no manuscript version of the drama extant - except, possibly, a fragment (”Hand D” - i.e. one of a number of identifiable handwritings) interpolated into the text of an unpublished play, Sir Thomas More. Deductions have been drawn from this scrap. Rosenbaum himself drops his reporter’s non-partisanship to venture his “intuition” that “Hand D” is “uniquely Shakespearian. A sizeable army of critics would go to war to prove it’s as Shakespearian as Green Cheese.”

The grand master of modern textual theory, W.W. Greg, laid down the principle that the editor must create a unified “best text” which, once “established”, becomes the “authorised version”. From this it is an easy step to Bardolatry - and such grand formulations as Bloom’s “Shakespeare is the inventor of the human”.

The problem is that any best text has to be cobbled together from less-than-best materials printed, sloppily, years after Shakespeare’s death. These may have been based on original Shakespearian writ, prompt copies, actors’ memories or some other source. No one knows. Textual authority is further complicated by the fact that different compositors’ handiwork can be detected in different copies of the “same” 1623 folio edition.

The reviser-theorists took textual chaos and made a virtue of it. If you looked carefully enough, they argued, you could find Shakespeare’s hand in the variations. Theory became practice in the New Oxford Edition, brought to completion in 1986, which offered two equally authoritative texts of King Lear - Shakespeare in two minds.

It was in the rival Arden series that the repercussions of the reviser thesis had their most damaging impact. For 30 years, Harold Jenkins (one of the general editors) worked on his “Arden II” Hamlet. Jenkins was not lazy. If anything, he was too industrious (”Hamlet edited by Polonius” was Muriel Bradbrook’s sour comment). He was wedded to the single “best text” theory. No sooner had he published Arden II than Arden III went into production. Rosenbaum handles the mind-dizzying complexities of Q1, Q2 and F1 (quartos and folios, that is) so clearly that one almost understands them. But it’s hard, at times, not to recall Wilde’s jest: “Is Hamlet mad? Or are the critics of Hamlet?”

The new Arden general editor, Ann Thompson, commissioned herself to do Hamlet and is the first woman to take the play on. Her edition has just appeared and is making the expected waves. Thompson’s thinking about her editorial brief (wrong word, the edition is some 1,200 pages) was infused by gender criticism. This was, for Jenkins, the new barbarism.

Suddenly it was significant that, for example, Ophelia and Gertrude would have been played by under-age boys. (How would Berkoff handle that?) As a feminist critic, Thompson found Jenkins’ interpretations “peculiarly male” (and, she might have added, peculiarly heterosexual). Her edition (with co-editor Neil Taylor) does not have the traditional image of the prince holding Yorick’s skull but Ophelia, “virgin crants” in hand, grabbing (as far as one can see) her private parts. Take that Harold (Jenkins).

Thompson and Taylor’s edition is to Jenkins’ what the wrecking ball is to the condemned building. Instead of a single “best text”, Arden III offers (appropriately enough) three separate texts, based on the two quartos and the folio, and representing - we are to understand - Shakespeare in three minds. Rosenbaum interviewed the 90-year-old Jenkins, who despairingly wished that he might die before Thompson’s edition(s) appeared. He did.

Stanley Wells is the acknowledged dean of the reviser school. If Thompson’s wrecking ball has “Harold Jenkins” inscribed on it, Wells’ has “Harold Bloom”. Shakespeare and Co insists that Shakespeare was not an “isolated genius” possessed of the divine power of “inventing” human nature. He was a “working man of the theatre” - arguably (but not in every respect) superior to Dekker, Middleton, Jonson et al, and no different in kind. He lived in a real world. To rub reality in, Wells begins with the image of boys running round London, fly-sticking posters for Hamlet “on the doors of taverns and houses, and on the pissing posts provided for the convenience of those who walked the streets”. Take that, Harold (Bloom).

If you brought Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare to the present in H.G. Wells’ time machine and asked him “what are you doing, Will?” he would never have said “inventing the human, dear fellow”. He would have said: “turning an honest penny. And, by the way, can I interest you in buying a few tons of malt which I’ve just bought on spec?” Pedestals, Wells asserts, do not help us make sense of Shakespeare. They merely put him beyond our reach.

The Catholic thesis, which takes up a hundred or so of Rosenbaum’s pages, has stirred up, if anything, even more argy-bargy than the reviser thesis. Essentially it depends on a few scraps of external evidence, a crucially missing piece in the Shakespeare jigsaw puzzle, and some highly ambiguous references in the plays.

The main external evidence is “John Shakespeare’s testament” - a document (the original lost) that establishes that William’s father was secretly Catholic. Shakespearian biography is largely concerned with filling gaps in the documentary record and there is no more yawning gap than between what young Shakespeare was doing between 1579 (when he left school) and 1593 (when he burst on the literary scene with “Venus and Adonis”). These are the “lost years”. He might, some biographers have surmised, have joined a troupe of travelling actors. On the enigmatic evidence of a reference in a will to a “William Shakeshafte” it has been elsewhere surmised that he was resident in a Catholic household in Lancashire, imbibing dangerous doctrines which, as Rosenbaum puts it, “he subsequently wove into his plays, Da Vinci Code style”.

The Catholic thesis has recruited persuasive advocates. Greenblatt makes great play with it in Will in the World. The references by the Ghost of Hamlet’s father to his being “confined to fast” in the fires of purgatory is strong evidence, for Greenblatt, of Will’s complex Oedipal and doctrinal feelings about his wholly Catholic father.

Greenblatt’s biography got the money prize. The esteem prize went to James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - winner of the 2006 Samuel Johnson award. Shapiro prudently steers clear of the Catholic and reviser battlefields. His approach, however, draws heavily on the new-historicist school of criticism which Greenblatt earlier pioneered. The “new historicists” get very excited about such things as the theatres of Shakespeare’s day being topographically “liminal” - on the South Bank margin of the city, along with the brothels, and equally “subversive”.

Shapiro accepts that the documentary evidence is limited, verging on non-existent. But, with new historical tools, much can be learned from looking at the world around Shakespeare. The approach Shapiro takes is brilliant. But, ultimately, it is the virtuoso manufacture of Shakespearian bricks with very few strands of Shakespearian straw.

There are even fewer in Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s The True Face of William Shakespeare. There are question marks over every (mostly unsmiling) image of Shakespeare familiar to us: the “Chandos” (think earring), the “Flower” (think pencil moustache), the “Droeshout” (think bald head), and that red-haired fellow whose portrait turned up in an attic last year. Hammerschmidt-Hummel has used forensic technology to reconstruct the Shakespearian physiognomy from the Darmstadt Shakespeare (so-called) death mask. Whether the resulting portrait is true or false, I cannot say. What I can say is that it is very unsmiling.

The war rages on. Not even a unanimous vote at the security council could bring peace to Shakespearian criticism. But at least with Rosenbaum’s dispatches, we now have a better sense of what the fuss is about.

THE SHAKESPEARE WARS: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
by Ron Rosenbaum
Random House ₤19, 624 pages

Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623
edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor
Arden Shakespeare Third Series volume I ₤8.99, 613 pages, volume II ₤55, 368 pages

Shakespeare and Co
by Stanley Wells
Allen Lane ₤25, 288 pages

The True Face of William Shakespeare
by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
Chaucer Press ₤25, 208 pages

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