Commentary Magazine


Shakespeare by Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
by Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books. 745 pp. $35.00

Harold Bloom is one of the characters of modern literary criticism. Now full of titles—he is, among other things, Sterling professor of humanities at Yale and Berg professor of English at New York University—he has written more than twenty books and has superintended and introduced anthologies of criticism about hundreds of world authors. His amazing productivity has behind it a frenzied ambition to have his say, to insist on the correct apprehension of every known scrap of writing in the world.

In 1994, Bloom published The Western Canon, a 578-page tome covering 26 authors from Shakespeare to Beckett. It was a book that compulsively repeated some of his idées fixes—the notion, for instance, that great writers, in order to reach selfhood, are engaged in “anxious” and parricidal struggles with one or another dominating predecessor. It was also a book that saw Bloom fighting his first real skirmish in the culture wars. It seems he had discovered what he dubbed “the School of Resentment” and “the commissars of gender and power.” Deconstructionists and feminists, he belatedly noticed, were using literature not for aesthetic purposes but to further political agendas. Suitably alarmed, he now sallied forth in defense of the intrinsic value of literature.

To The Western Canon Bloom appended a 36-page list of canonical texts. It began with the epic of Gilgamesh and ended with Tony Kushner’s (wholly worthless) Angels in America. It also declared the preeminence of Shakespeare—“the rock upon which the School of Resentment must founder.” And now, in substantiation of that claim, comes this huge rock of a book. From it, we learn that the plays and poems of Shakespeare are not just “the center of the Western canon”; they are nothing less than “secular Scripture.” Moreover, the Bard himself—not the man, of whom we know little, but the maker of the words—is “a mortal god.” He is

here, there, and everywhere at once. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries (and playhouses) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or “spell of light” almost too vast to apprehend.

All this rapt prostration before an idol tells us much about Bloom. The more urgent question, though, is whether the book that is so full of this note is at all useful to those who want to understand the plays.

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Bloom’s book proceeds through genre groupings in rough chronological order. There are 35 chapters, beginning with The Comedy of Errors, dated to 1594, and ending with The Two Noble Kinsmen of 1613. A typical chapter begins by clearing away what Bloom regards as some misconception about the play at hand. Then perhaps some influence upon Shakespeare will be adduced, Bloom being after all the theorist of the “anxiety of influence.” Thus, Iago in Othello is “Shakespeare’s triumph over Christopher Marlowe, whose Barabas, Jew of Malta, had influenced the young Shakespeare so fiercely”; Edmund in Lear is Marlowe himself; Malvolio in Twelfth Night is the poet Ben Jonson; and so forth. Plenty of influence by Shakespeare is discussed, too: Iago is the “paradigm” for Milton’s Satan; Hamlet is “Freud’s mentor”; and so on.

Bloom, who cheerfully calls himself a “wicked old aesthete,” is a brilliant man who has spent a lifetime looking for wisdom and joy in books. As he goes along in this way chapter by chapter, he makes many a striking observation and asks many a beautifully phrased question. But the nuggets are buried in heaps of slag. It is impossible to convey by quotation the verbosity and repetitiveness of these pages, which read almost like lecture notes given to assistants to type up. And the center of the whole is very tenuous indeed.

In brief, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human turns out to be another occasion for articulating, in extreme form, things that have been on Bloom’s mind for quite a long time. He rose to literary fame in the 1960’s and 1970’s as an explicator of Romantic poetry, publishing books on Shelley, Blake, Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. And he was not just an explicator of those poets but a defiant defender and a passionate partisan.

Angered by what he saw as T. S. Eliot’s “neo-Christian” denigration of the Romantics in favor of the wit and piety of the 17th-century Meta-physicals, Bloom found in the Romantic tradition both a poetic alternative and a comprehensive and urgent philosophy of life. He came to call this gnosticism. In Bloom’s mental universe, this occult and slippery idea amounts to a kind of codified Emersonianism, according to which each successful soul must drag itself into the light, must wholly create itself, from a circumambient dark emptiness.

This antinomian scheme has been imported wholesale into Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. That explains why, in dismissing alleged misconceptions of the plays, Bloom usually fixates on critics of the Eliotic or Christian tradition. It also explains why he is notably and revealingly cool to the late romances (like The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale), so full of spiritual healing and reconciliation. And finally it explains his obsession with two Shakespearean characters above all: Falstaff and Hamlet, who together, Bloom says, make up “the fullest representations of human possibility in Shakespeare.”

Falstaff provokes Bloom to ecstasies of appreciation, of appropriation, indeed almost of identification. He has many things to say about the fat knight, whose ribald presence lights up Henry IV, and some of his observations are both familiar and true: “Wit is Falstaff’s God”; “Falstaff instructs us in freedom”; and so forth. But he also repudiates as “irrelevant nonsense” the notion that Shakespeare himself might have in any way endorsed the later rejection of Falstaff by Prince Hal in the name of society or “order.” Rather, he urges us to focus on the “Resurrection” of Falstaff in the play’s final act, and proposes that “Shakespearean secularists should manifest their Bardolatry by celebrating” this event in “a day for loathing political ambition, religious hypocrisy, and false friendship.” (It is always droll when tenured scholars urge abandon upon others.)

Still, in the end it is not Falstaff but Hamlet who for Bloom provides the real key to Shakespeare. First, he spills much ink asserting, without a shred of proof, that the first (lost) version of Hamlet, c. 1588-89, was written not by Thomas Kyd, as is commonly thought, but by Shakespeare himself. He does so in order to construct a Shakespeare who was, as he puts it, “his own precursor,” his own influencer, his own reviser, his own gnostic self-creator. Next, we are instructed that if Falstaff stands for “play,” Hamlet is himself a playwright—and not just any playwright, but the playwright. In the play-within-a-play scenes of Hamlet, Shakespeare, asserts Bloom, “allowed something very close to a fusion between Hamlet and himself,” and in a bit of fanciful conjuring he adds that had the character Hamlet lived, “on or off a throne,” he “would have written a Hamlet” and the rest of the late plays as well.

But stay—Hamlet is not just Shakespeare. In his melancholy, and even more in his “escape” from melancholy “into a high place in Act V, and [into] something like a radically new mode of secular transcendence,” he is all of us. “We can hardly think about ourselves,” writes Bloom, “without thinking about Hamlet.” As “a universal instance of our will to identity,” Hamlet must become, in a sense, our god.

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As has often been remarked, the result of banishing God is not a void called atheism but the erection of false gods. Marxism was one long illustration of this truth. Bloom’s strategies in this book on Shakespeare are yet another. He insists again and again on the absence of religious belief—of Christian context—behind the plays. Then, having taken God out of Shakespeare, he proceeds to erect the playwright and his work into curious objects of worship.

Most unblinkered readers would demur on both counts, and rightly so. They sense that belief—both in religious order and in a derived political order—is somewhere in the background of Shakespeare’s works. It is a belief often veiled by what Eliot called Senecan stoicism, and often put to severe tests, as in King Lear. But it is there. And it renders grotesque Bloom’s habit of converting Shakespeare himself, and his characters, into divinities.

“We worship, in a secular way, this all-but-infinite consciousness,” writes Bloom in a dithyramb to the Danish prince who exists only in Shakespeare’s lines. Do not be fooled by that phrase, “in a secular way.” All too often, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human reads less like literary criticism than like the founding document of a South Pacific cargo cult—the kind that worships Agatha Christie, or Prince Philip. The great pity is that, as a result, the life-giving work of Shakespeare is not clarified or magnified but obscured and curiously diminished.

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