lmost twenty years ago, the literary critic Harold Bloom proclaimed in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human that the Bard had invented not only the modern English language, but modern consciousness itself.
In that bestselling book, Bloom uses the word “personality” to capture Shakespeare’s innovation rather than the word “character,” because he feels that Shakespeare’s creations—particularly Hamlet and Falstaff—have the depth and complexity of living beings and thinks “character” implies these are mere fictional roles to be played by an actor. In Bloom’s view, Shakespeare’s influence is so vast that all of us are, in a way, reflections of the personalities he created. All of us are either Falstaffs or Hamlets. We are either lovers of life or lovers of death.
That seems unduly positive about most people; although we are all supremely interesting to ourselves, it’s unlikely we deserve or could sustain the same level of analysis these two have for four centuries. Still, this flattering assertion is central to Bloom’s critical bombast, the very quality that has made him America’s most prominent academic critic. His latest book, Falstaff: Give Me Life, is the first in a series of treatises on “Shakespeare’s Personalities” he is writing for Simon and Schuster. Its subject, Falstaff, is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation and perhaps the greatest comic “personality” in all of literature. This 176-page essay exposes the deep flaws, inconsistencies, and ultimate hollowness of Bloom’s intellectual project.
Falstaff is the friend and teacher of the wayward Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays. Hal has fled his father’s royal court to wallow in the Eastcheap taverns with thieves and whores. Falstaff is the leader of this wretched band. Bloom celebrates Falstaff as a kind of demi-deity, a celebration of goodness standing in opposition to all that is wicked in society. He praises Falstaff’s wit and intellect and excuses his vices as a display of his “freedom from society.”
In Bloom’s eyes, Falstaff’s greatest triumph is his “resurrection”—when he denounces dying for honor (“Give me life!”) and fakes his death at the Battle of Shrewsbury, rising up from the ground and crying, “to counterfeit dying . . . is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.”
Bloom believes that Falstaff’s lies—his “counterfeits”—reveal deeper truths about the empty nature of honor, morality, and the state. Falstaff is “authentic,” and beautifully “real.” But when Bloom must actually reckon with the sorts of things Falstaff does that would seem monstrous in real life, the Yale professor simply asserts that the knight is just a metaphor. Falstaff tricks more than a hundred peasant-soldiers into battling to their deaths so that he can keep their wages. Bloom’s defense is a shrug. If we are to condemn him for this, he writes, “by that test we should more than blame King Henry IV and Prince Hal for authentic brutality, sending so many to war.”
“Do not moralize,” Bloom says. But moralize Bloom does, when it suits him. Henry IV is a butcher, Prince Hal is an “amiable monster,” and anyone who calls Falstaff a coward is a coward himself. Bloom never seems to ask himself just what it is that Falstaff loves so much in the amiable monster or consider the myriad ways in which the student and teacher are alike. Bloom notes that Hal and Falstaff have one of the most intriguing friendships in all of literature. Falstaff teaches Hal to mock honor, revere little, lie well, and get away with anything—and these new perspectives on his royal responsibilities, combined with his own innate abilities, make Hal the new kind of king we see in Henry V.
In his most famous speech, Falstaff disdains honor: “What is honor? A word . . . What is that honor? Air . . . I’ll none of it.” Bloom deems this declaration the epitome of Falstaffian philosophy, which he calls “vitalism.” And yet, if honor is such a waste, why does Falstaff spend so much of his time pursuing advancement? What of his dreams of “growing great?” Falstaff’s philosophy is, like the philosophies of many of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, rife with tensions. To ignore this is to do a disservice to Shakespeare.
Bloom pushes us to love a knight who disdains morality, but he will not brook any suggestion that Falstaff has blemishes—including any such suggestions from Shakespeare himself. We see this in Bloom’s declaration that Shakespeare must have been forced, perhaps on pain of death, to write The Merry Wives of Windsor, the wild farce written between the Henry IV plays that features Falstaff trying and failing to seduce a pair of married women. He fails, over and over, and is humiliated. Bloom seems ashamed of the Falstaff in this play, but rather than consider the commonalities between this Falstaff and Hal’s Falstaff, he will discuss it no further than asserting Shakespeare never meant for the play to be read by his posterity.
Bloom’s chief flaw is that he is exasperatingly prissy with Falstaff, meeting any questioning of the character with the joyless finger-wagging of a schoolmarm. If we want to understand Shakespeare’s characters—especially Falstaff, who is at his best when he is being grilled by a hostile audience—we must ask hard questions of them. Bloom does not do this. The problem with being a “worshipper of Shakespeare,” as Bloom calls himself, is that one can become too dazzled to see him clearly.