Confront the cultimulturalists with Shakespearean adventure

On Books

March 23, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I know of people who regard Shakespeare as overrated and inconsequential. Alas, I know there are many more --they control much of the U.S. educational establishment -- who believe, wrongly, that a familiarity with Shakespeare's major works is not an obligatory predicate to literacy. The politically correct culture-theory legions -- who I think of as the cultimulturalists and whose views I find loathsome -- dismiss him as the consummate Dead White Male.

So I come to the subject of Harold Bloom with a favoring bias. I have a good deal to say on that subject in the cover story of this section of The Sun. I hope you will read that piece. Meanwhile, the latest of Bloom's 29 books is on its way to the shops. I have just read it -- after spending a day with the author -- and that, the book, has driven me to offer you an earnest proposal.

More about that later. Let's get to Bloom. At 72, he is an illustrious ornament to the faculties of Yale and New York universities. He is a seriously controversial personage, but I believe him to be the best and most important literary critic writing in the English language today, and one of the top half-dozen in the last century. He is the high magistrate of the Grand Tradition, the Keeper of the Canon.

As such, he is the Great Satan of the cultimulturalists -- people he calls "the so-called feminists, so-called New Historicists, so-called Marxists, the Resentniks." Taken together, Bloom refers to them as "the rabblement of lemmings."

Famously, he regards William Shakespeare as "my mortal god." He openly confesses to "Bardolotry." It would not be misleading, I think, to say he believes Shakespeare was the greatest mind ever produced by the human race. The insights expressed and explored in his 38 plays, according to Bloom's apt metaphor, constitute the essence of what it is to be human -- and that nothing written or said in the ensuing 400 years has superceded that.

Leaping from one superlative to another, it is Bloom's position that Shakespeare's consummate accomplishment is the drama Hamlet. On page 3 of his new book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (Riverhead, 176 pages, $19.95) he says that "As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures." And, soon after, that "After four centuries, Hamlet remains our world's most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Becket."

Bloom shrinks not from standing firm.

Bloom's brief new book has 25 tiny chapters, each very tightly focused on a title topic. Some are devoted to the characters, others to abstract ideas, or to the dramatic process. All of it is written as crisply as it is organized, though some of Bloom's ideas invite unhurried contemplation -- even debate or internal dispute. The writing moves along swiftly.

Bloom's critics accuse him of obscurity and bombast. I don't understand that at all. Though I have read far from all his writings, in the books I have read I have found the same wonderful concision, excitement, clarity and provocation that distinguish this one. When I was done, I felt that to read this book was to hear a powerful call to fall in love again with a neglected Shakespeare and his plays.

It is folly to offer passages of Hamlet -- Shakespeare's or Bloom's -- as tellingly representative. But I found particular power in the discussion of Act III and especially of the Player King's soliloquy in Scene 2. Bloom offers an enormously rich examination of matters that go to the core of the meaning and purpose -- if there is one -- of life. At the heart of it is this:

"If character is fate, so that there are no accidents, then our desires do not matter. Freud thought it was all over before our first birthday; Hamlet seems to give us even less freedom from overdetermination. If everything that ever will happen to you is only a matter of your own character, then holding the mirror up to nature becomes rather a dark activity: all of us are the fools of time, victims of an unfolding we cannot affect."

A grim view, but one that Hamlet expresses -- not gainsaying the enormous, brilliant ambiguities of the character.

Which brings me to my proposal.

First, go rent or buy a videotape or DVD of Hamlet. On the Internet, I find seven DVDs of Hamlet performances and 21 VHS recordings. Bloom doesn't favor any of them, but Kenneth Branagh's has the virtue of playing the full text, while others -- including those by Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Mel Gibson -- all have substantial cuts.

If you know nothing at all of the play, you might do well to go to one of the many short descriptions, in a simple textbook or an exam cram. Get familiar with the shape and the contents of the five acts. (Fear not that this will spoil it for you. The drama of a performance of Hamlet does not rely on the suspense of the ending. It's widely rumored these days that just about everybody dies.)

List the names and brief identities of the characters until you can spout them off. Then play the video, paying attention but not straining. Next, go to the text of the play, and spend a couple of hours, a quiet evening, reading at it without huge analytic attention. And then, thus informed, on another evening play the video again. And then read this book of Bloom's, leaving time to go back both to text and to the performance. Don't make or let the process become heavy lifting.

It would please Harold Bloom to know you were doing it, I think. At the very worst, it will be a substitute for five or six evenings of tediously predictable television.

More likely, I believe, this adventure will significantly expand your awareness, your capacity for delight in virtually all things.

I can think of no more engaging and nourishing pairing of literary works: a drama of towering, perhaps unmatched, genius joining an exquisite work of analytic criticism by a scholar of genuine greatness.

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