The mugger had no way of knowing, of course, that he was about to rob S. Schoenbaum, noted Shakespeare scholar. Schoenbaum had disembarked from a bus on Sixth Street NE, and he thought, "This is a classic scene -- a rainy night, a hand coming out of the darkness, a struggle..." Then, face-down on the pavement, one arm twisted behind him, the buttons flying from his tweed jacket and his wallet levitating, Schoenbaum asked himself: "Goddamn it, why do you always have to make literary associations?"
Schoenbaum usually makes them while standing in a classroom at College Park, where he is a professor and director of the University of Maryland's Center for Baroque and Renaissance Studies, or while writing on a portable Olivetti in a study on Capitol Hill that was once a garage. He is an expert -- perhaps the expert -- on Shakespeare. His opus, including a collection of the complete works of Shakespeare now in preparation, is a minor industry within Oxford University Press.
One of his five books on Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Lives, is an 838-page "model for literary scholarship... in addition to being learned and sparsely annotated it is frank, unpretentious, skeptical, ironic and vastly amusing," wrote critic Paul Fussell.
The portrait of Shakespeare on the cover of Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: Records and Images bears a resemblance to the author. Both bard and scholar have high foreheads and tailored beards. Schoenbaum signs his first name "S" ("Why should people I have never met, who read me in bed and in the bathtub, think of me as 'Sam'?"), just as that other person signed his first name "W."
Schoenbaum eloped when he was 18, a bright, bookish Romeo from the Bronx. His Juliet -- her name is Marilyn -- keeps a sprig of rosemary, "for remembrance," in their guestbook, beneath a chalk bust of W. himself.
The morning after the mugging, Schoenbaum got up and wrote a review for London's The Times Literary Supplement. He was not reviewing yet another paper brick by yet another scholar, but "E.T.," the Extra-Terrestrial.
"With Shakespeare studies," Schoenbaum says, "there are no incompatibles. The Elizabethans didn't have films, but the range of interest in the things of life -- professions, nature, almost everything -- is so comprehensive in Shakespeare that I don't see any exclusions... That amplitude is a very important part of staying alive, what's going on in present-day culture as well as what happened three and four hundred years ago."
Schoenbaum had lost $76 and a handful of plastic to the unseen thug, as well as his wallet. He went downtown to buy a new one, and was lured into a video arcade on K Street by a reporter interested in the scholar's perception of contemporary culture. Standing in the cacophonous gloom of the Golden Dome, a heavy briefcase between his feet, wearing a blue beret to which bits of leaves still clung, Schoenbaum had no trouble relating Shakespearean amplitude to the rapt figures all around him, hauling on the plastic controls.
"Shakespeare's age had its own technological advances and extraordinary new horizons. The discoveries, for example. The whole impact of the New World became an important imaginative stimulus for one of Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest ... Western man confronted with these strange beings shows a humanistic response to the excitement of the discoveries which changed people's conception of the universe in which they lived."
Galileo was born the same year as Shakespeare. Astronomer Johann Kepler was a contemporary, and William Harvey announced his discovery of the circulation of the blood the year Shakespeare died, 1616.
"There truly was technological advance in science and mathematics... The alphabet of advance is different these days, but the confrontation presents analogous problems, and stimuli. We're talking about software now, and computers, but in both ages these things are fraught with challenges, and perhaps perils."
Schoenbaum asked a young man locked in a technological embrace with Tron, "What do you get out of this?"
"It's challenge, man."
The videophile took stock of the scholar."It's hard! If you don't make it, you get killed!"
Schoenbaum examined the screen and the controls. "How do you do it?"
"You hang in there. It starts off easy and gets harder. You see them grid bugs? You got to shoot 'em down, try to get inside that circle..."
Schoenbaum drifted past the battery of Pac-men. "This is the world of 'Star Wars.' I tried to account in my review for the enormous hold that 'E.T.' had on people. The film is quasi-allegorical. E.T. comes from a celestial home and is found in a tool shed, the suburban equivalent of a manger. He performs miracles; his message is love... I predict that there will be a Second Coming, and that his youthful followers will gather in the tabernacle" -- movie theaters -- "to watch it. People don't realize what they're seeing. It satisfies an innate religious hunger."
Schoenbaum climbed into a cab bound for Georgetown. News of the investigation of the Tylenol case came from the radio, prompting a discussion, naturally, of Shakespeare's house in Stratford.
"It belonged to a man named Bott, who poisoned his own daughter. In that very house, some years later, a son poisoned his father. This was the house that Shakespeare bought as a man of rising prosperity. I mentioned some subliminal things in 'E.T.' Subliminally, the context in which Shakespeare was living affected him when he was thinking of writing Hamlet, which deals with the poisoning of kin for the estate, in very grand terms. The background of the house seemed to be percolating in his brain, along with a lot of other stuff.
"Poison used to appeal to the virtuosos of murder. It was hard to track down the culprit. The Borgias used plenty of poison, all sorts of refinerments were made. You poisoned the cover of a Bible, for instance, and had your victim take an oath on it. Today, in the Tylenol case, it may have been one murder involving a family matter, and six other murders were added to make it look like a maniac was operating."
He climbed out and entered the sedate opulence of Georgetown Park. A sales-woman showed the scholar a wallet of exquisite reptilian thinness, costing $30, and Schoenbaum asked, "Where do you put the bills?"
She ignored the question of tacky utility. "It's special order. All handmade."
He emerged from the shop walletless and looked around at the mall. "The Bourse was the model for the Royal Exchange in London, a big indoor market with all kinds of shops and gatherings of tradesmen. I hesitate to supply instant evolution to this concept. The Industrial Revolution had a role here. They need a couple of minstrels around, and panhandlers. The fair in London had Ursula the Pig-Woman selling pork, and all kinds of gadgets and gizmos. It was a great popular draw. There were pickpockets and puppet shows. This could use a little of that, instead of canned music. There's a certain dreariness about it all."
Almost 40 years ago Schoenbaum enrolled in a high school Shakespeare class because they were to read both Macbeth and Hamlet; an early fascination with psychoanalysis paled before the onslaught of the Elizabethans. Then he took his wife, Marilyn, to see the Margaret Webster production of Othello, with Paul Robeson in the lead, which he still remembers in "excruciating detail."
He and his wife eventually traveled to London on a Guggenheim fellowship, and spent a lot of time in pubs, keeping warm. There is a whimsical quality about the Schoenbaums' life, a long and lovely journey that has brought them to rest in a Victorian double a few blocks from the Folger, the Library of Congress and the Capitol.
The world with which I have been concerned -- labyrinthine, remorselessly unsentimental, dangerous, and ego-centered -- lurks everywhere... The power-seekers shrewdly ferret out the hidden points of vulnerability in their rivals... They dissimulate. They develop sudden political cravings... They stage elaborate little theatricals in which, appropriately costumed, they themselves perform in a bid to manipulate opinion ...
That is Schoenbaum writing not about the 1982 midterm elections, but about Richard II.
The favorite play of Schoenbaum's students during the Vietnam War was Troilus and Cressida. "Here they are, in the play, with this war that's been going on for years, a hopeless stalemate. They don't know why the hell they're there. They have the big council scene where they're discussing what they're going to do with Helen, and Hector says, 'Give her back, she's no use to us.' And the answer that Troilus gives is, 'Our honor depends upon it.' The kids were tremendously moved by it; they read our own situation into it."
Richard II appealed to students during Watergate. "What really got them was, when Richard is being deposed, he's asked to sign a list of his delinquencies. This he's very reluctant to do because, in effect, it justifies the deposition. Finally he's let off the hook, and not forced to make a statement of his failures. Well, Nixon was expected to do this, before being pardoned. That was a wow-zer."
During the Iranian revolution, Schoenbaum saw a BBC television production of Julius Caesar. "There's a scene where the mob kills the poet, Cinna. I thought the production had a remarkable inadvertent pertinence that night. Cronkite on the news had showed the howling mobs in Tehran, then we got the play. I though one illuminated the other. The next day, there was an interview of the shah in The Post, saying he saw himself as the subject of a Shakespearean tragedy. That was part of his problem, being too Western. The ayatollah's not interested in Shakespeare."
"A person," says Schoenbaum, "who is involved with a subject for many years has an identification with that subject. It's best not to analyze it too much. It operates in a subconscious fashion, a way of looking at things. I look at flowers and I immediately have associations with the flowers as they appear in the plays. It's hard to drink sherry without thinking of Falstaff."
He is drinking Campari and soda, and seated in The Palm. The restaurant, full of media specialists and the politically astute, has given the scholar a lusterless table next to the waiters' station. That's appropriate, because Schoenbaum is more interested in the pickles than in Robert Strauss.
"Politics isn't more subtle now than in Shakespeare's time. In some ways, it's dumber. Look at the atrocious reductive thinking in the television advertisements. Politicians are always trying to verb things with a noun, using words like prioritize, and impact." Shakespeare, of course, was guilty of the same thing. "He was the first person to use 'control' as a noun. He does it twice in King John. "
Schoenbaum transfers his scrutiny to the gravlax salmon on the plate before him. "Bear in mind that politics in the Elizabethan age did not involve only royalty. There was local government. Shakespeare himself became bailiff of Stratford, the equivalent of mayor. Communities had to be run as they are run today; there must have been political infighting."
There is no portrait of Shakespeare among the caricatures on the walls of The Palm. "Shakespeare was a politic realist, a person who could appraise phenomena as part of a larger whole. It's not a politics of personality. He recognized political forces, just as Tolstoy did."
Asked to name a contemporary political realist, he says, "Francis Bacon... Oh, you mean now. Kissinger's a politic realist. I think intellectual capacities are required, the sense that words have meaning other than their ostensible meaning. I think of Richard II in the opening scene of the play. There's a power play going on that is very subtly handled. People think of Richard as the weak, poeticizing king. But he's playing a desperate power game, and he's winning. Until he makes a big mistake..."
A cab takes Schoenbaum out Rhode Island Avenue toward College Park, past the grand old places that once housed the city's burghers. "As a capital city, Washington is not too unlike the scale of old London. It's a place with its own familiar topography. The nerve centers are close to one another, the scale human. That encourages a certain peace of mind."
Schoenbaum has turned down offers from Princeton and UCLA to teach in the suburbs.
"On the maps and in the old paintings of Elizabethan London," he says, "you can see windmills almost on the city line. London had a population of about 160,000 -- nothing by contemporary standards. London was walled, but it spilled over into the suburbs. The Globe wasn't constructed within the city limits because the players had to be free of the puritanical overseeing of the city authorities. There were also bear-baiting arenas, lots of bordellos. Now it's all part of London proper, but then it represented freedom."
In the introduction to Shakespeare's Lives, the scholar wrote that "trying to work out Shakespeare's personality [is] like looking at a very dark glazed picture in the National Portrait Gallery: at first you see nothing, then you begin to recognize features, and then you realize that they are your own."