Did the Bard really invent us all? HAROLD BLOOM ON SHAKESPEARE

November 08, 1998|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Professor Harold Bloom has published his notes on Shakespeare. "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" has just been nominated for the National Book Award. There are more than enough insights here for two or three good books, and enough self-indulgent drivel for several bad ones.

Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, and the author of a score of brilliant critical studies, recently "The Book of J" and "The Western Canon," has apparently felt enough public approbation to dispense with even a modicum of editing. Notes he has written, and notes he has given us.

Bloom runs through all 39 of Shakespeare's plays, and makes little attempt within the plays to organize his thoughts. Aphorisms, sometimes stunningly bright, sometimes bafflingly unclear, are thrown in along with swipes at deconstructionist or feminist critics and trenchant citations from Shakespearean critics over several centuries.

Sometimes great blocks of quotations are given from the plays, sometimes hardly a line. Hyperbolic gushing mixes with solid scholarship and keen observations. The book swamps with Bloom's erudition, but rarely sustains an argument more than a page. His enthusiasm for his subject is catching and inexhaustible.

Despite its length, the book deals almost exclusively with character, with virtually no attention paid to plot. Its thesis is that Shakespeare has invented human character. Bloom writes: "The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us, which is the central argument of this book."

It is an exciting, indeed, outrageous argument, and Bloom's vivid evocation of Shakespeare's characters makes one remember just how alive they are. I do not doubt that Shakespeare was the best playwright who ever lived, but it is hard going to read it a hundred times in every conceivable variation. Bloom is absolutely right that Shakespeare's characters are vibrantly alive on stage, or, in the case of essentially unplayable dramas like "King Lear," in print.

But it is odd that Bloom virtually never evokes classical literature. Antigone is certainly a fully realized character, as are Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra or, as are the biblical Jacob, Joseph, or King David, whom Bloom does briefly mention.

And Latin literature is replete with realized characters, as diverse as Ovid and Catullus or Caesar and Cicero. The patents on all these inventions were taken out some years before Shakespeare.

I also think Bloom sometimes fails to see a distinction between the theatrical and the real. His most fulsome chapter is on Falstaff, whose only rival, according to Bloom, is Hamlet. Words like "great," "immortal" and "incomparable" abound here. Falstaff is the "image of freedom's wit, and the language of wit's freedom."

He is Bloom's prime exemplar of the "invention of the human," "the moral god of my imaginings." Falstaff has a "genius for language," "he is a veritable monarch of language," he is "sublime," he is the "truest glory," etc. And yet, Falstaff remains for me a theatrical character, winning to be sure, brilliant, but off-stage, not fully dimensional. There is some way in which Bloom fails to see how such a superb theatrical character might be less than fully human.

Bloom's other great love is Hamlet, about whom he supplies a wealth of scholarly detail, including a running, highly speculative argument that Shakespeare himself was the author of the "Ur-Hamlet" of 1589. The chapter is full of dazzling insight, but no passage is more telling about the theatricality of Hamlet than this one: "There is no 'real' Hamlet as there is no 'real' Shakespeare: the character, like the writer, is a reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we need must see ourselves. Permit this dramatist a concourse of contraries, and he will show us everybody and nobody, all at once. We have no choice but to permit Shakespeare, and his Hamlet, everything, because neither has a rival." This is an argument, and a brilliant one, of why Hamlet is a great theatrical figure, but it is also why he is not entirely real. A vehicle is not a person; if there is a vast area left undefined in the theatrical character, there is such an area in the person.

Nor does Bloom deal in any adequate way with the difference between Shakespeare's depiction of character in theater and its portrayal in modern fiction. What about Stendhal's Julien Sorel, Dostoevski's Raskolnikov, James' Isabel Archer or Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay?

There is certainly a difference here from Shakespeare's characters, a continuum of development which is not retrogression. Yes, Shakespeare created fully self-conscious characters for the first time in European literature. But does it make any sense to say he invented "the human?" Is not "the human" continually being invented or reinvented?

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