Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

When it comes to Shakespeare, everyone is entitled to an opinion. When it comes to Yale professor, MacArthur fellow, and self- confessed “Bardolater,” Harold Bloom, you’re entitled to his opinion, as well. And in the 700-plus pages of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, you definitely get the author’s opinion.

I’m going to quibble and nitpick in this review soon enough. But let me make clear that this is a very worthwhile book. Agree or disagree with Bloom, he knows Shakespeare inside and out, has given him a lot of thought, and rarely goes too far off the deep end. Anyone who reads and enjoys Shakespeare should get a deeper understanding and greater respect for the plays of the Bard of Avon after reading this, even when not agreeing with it.

A frequent complaint made about Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is that Bloom is conservative. In the academic sense, he is. He despises modernism and post-modernism, especially when Shakespeare is rewritten to suit the political and cultural perceptions of those movements. He is especially disdainful of modern interpretations of The Tempest that present Caliban as a heroic slave, rebelling against the colonizing tyrant, Prospero.

From a political standpoint, criticism of Bloom as a “conservative” reflects more on academia than the author. The few comments on modern politics are generally scathing or sarcastic remarks about Newt Gingrich and country club Republicans. More important from a literary standpoint, while he presents a more traditional and (in my opinion) more accurate reading of Shakespeare, Bloom pushes the envelope. In his deification of Shakespeare’s works and major characters (“Bardolotry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is.”), Bloom makes the playwright into a creator god of the modern psyche. Few things are more radical than the creation of a new religion.

The center of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is Shakespeare’s greatest characters, “those who take human nature to some of its limits without violating those limits.” To Bloom, those characters include Rosalind, Macbeth, Iago, Cleopatra, Edmund, and above all, Falstaff and Hamlet.

Hamlet, of course, is perhaps the greatest character in all literature. I’m not inclined to disagree with Bloom when he suggests that Hamlet is a transcendent character, equaled only by King David and Jesus in the Book of Mark as a great charismatic. He may go a little overboard in making Hamlet to be a secular Christ. However, it cannot be denied that the protean prince is so prominent in western consciousness as to be almost a real person unto himself.

Bloom’s treatment of Hamlet is grand and full, but there’s a certain feeling of dutiful homage, rather than celebration, to it. He greatly admires Hamlet, but it is Falstaff he loves and worships. To Bloom, Falstaff is the embodiment of freedom, wit, and life. He is a character above morality or amorality and those who would characterize him as an immoral lord of misrule are, in Bloom’s belief  “in love with time, death, the state, and the censor.”

Like I said, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My problem with Falstaff is not that he is too unruly, but that he covets power as much as Prince Hal. He fantasizes about what he would do in power and, indeed, when the prince becomes King Henry V, Falstaff reaches for his share of the state. Falstaff may condemn conventional honor and morality, but in the end, he covets the stately rewards of it.

In my schismatic Bardolotry, a far better representation of freedom, wit, and life is Rosalind. Indeed, if Falstaff is Bloom’s foremost Shakespearean deity, mine is the trinity of Rosalind, Jacques, and Touchstone in As You Like It. To the author’s credit, he fully (well, almost fully, in my opinion, but I’ll allow this Falstaffian heretic some slack) appreciates Rosalind, considering her a close third to Hamlet and Falstaff in greatness. Witty, sensual, completely in control, and a feminine force, even in boy’s clothes, Rosalind has dazzled many, and Bloom is not the first Shakespearean commentator to declare himself in love with Rosalind. “If Rosalind cannot please us, then no one in Shakespeare or elsewhere in literature ever will,” may be an exaggeration, but the mind who dislikes her must be a dark one, indeed. Even George Bernard Shaw, who maintained a jealous dislike of Shakespeare, liked Rosalind.

Bloom notes that Macbeth is one of his favorites, declaring the title thane to be a character who is endowed with a fully human and grandiose imagination, who is in the end overwhelmed by it. Personally, I think of Macbeth, as a tight, frightening, little horror story, but I do not share Bloom’s vast appreciation for it or its title character.

The bastard Faulconbridge in King John is often overlooked by critics of Shakespeare. Bloom is to be commended for not doing so, pointing out that Faulconbridge is a breakthrough in Shakespeare’s writing, the first truly human character in the canon. I’d go further, to suggest that Faulconbridge is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. He is as inquisitive as Hamlet, though eminently more practical. He is, at various times, heroic rogue, cynically on-target political commentator, detective, and English patriot. The reason Faulconbridge does not get his due is that he is in an otherwise indifferent play. When the bastard isn’t on stage, there’s little to hold an audience or reader’s interest. But when he’s on, he’s one of the greatest, most human, characters of Shakespeare or any other author. He deserves a far better play than the one he finds himself in.

Bloom does not confine himself to characterizations, but also provides a strong background as to the writing and history of the plays. Some of his ideas are unconventional (though not always original), but make sense. He theorizes that the over-the-top blood- bath, Titus Andronicus, was not so much Shakespeare’s attempt to write a revenge tragedy, but a satire of the form, and especially of Christopher Marlowe’s writing. (With a movie version of Titus Andronicus out now, it will be interesting to see how much the satirical element will be played up.)

Bloom’s belief with regard to the origin of Hamlet is very interesting. It is generally held that a precursor of Hamlet, called
Ur-Hamlet, was written by Thomas Kyd. Bloom prefers a theory of Peter Alexander’s that the Ur-Hamlet was one of Shakespeare’s first plays, a major failure, that he later revised into the masterpiece the world knows.

The basis of this assumption that Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet is an essay written by Thomas Nashe attacking the “School of Marlowe,”  which he considered to include Shakespeare and Kyd. In one paragraph, Nashe makes reference to Hamlet, as well as to Kyd. However, these references are separated by several sentences, and the paragraph refers to a “sort of shifting companions” indicating that it was a group of people being written about, not Kyd alone.

The most convincing piece of evidence is that when Shakespeare joined the troupe that would become The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, three plays were added: Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus, as well as Ur-Hamlet. Moreover, if this Ur-Hamlet was written by Kyd, it was the only play by him that the group performed.

This is hardly conclusive, and it’s unlikely it will ever be proven one way or another, but it seems a strong possibility. In this light, it seems likely that the First Quattro, something that Bloom never mentions, was not a version that was remembered in mangled form by one of the actors, as is generally held, but an intermediate draft between Ur-Hamlet and the final form. Or perhaps it is the actual Ur-Hamlet, itself.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is marred by several problems (beyond personal differences in taste and interpretation). For one thing, it needed more editing than it received. Bloom can come off with Polonius-like tediousness when he repeatedly recounts productions that he has seen in his time. Also annoying is his idiosyncratic use, perhaps misuse,of the word, “rancid.” He seems to be using it as a synonym for “bawdy,” though there is an implied sneer at sexuality in that usage.

Indeed, Bloom tends to have a distaste for sexuality. As strongly as he is disgusted by the ideological disfigurement of The Tempest, he is equally disturbed by what he sees as the “erotomania” of many recent productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Personally, I disagree with Bloom’s assessment, and find A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a very erotically charged play. Indeed, I’d go so far as say that a sexually explicit version could be made that would remain essentially faithful to the text. (I should note that this is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays about which I believe this.) Perhaps the author’s distaste towards sex is best expressed in his contention that the most solid marriage in Shakespeare’s canon is that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

However, the major flaw of this book is that Bloom never does much to demonstrate his thesis: That Shakespeare’s plays created the inward-looking point of view that is considered synonymous with humanity. He never really makes it clear whether he means Shakespeare was merely the first to create characters with this inwardness, or whether he actually is stating that humankind did not have that self-analyzing ability until Shakespeare’s plays had disseminated throughout the world of humanity.

However, these flaws really don’t matter that much in the face of a great scholar expressing his opinions of his great love. Even when disagreeing, sometimes seriously, with him, his open admiration for the subject should be appreciated. Those who truly love Shakespeare, as opposed to those who mine him for ideological plunder, should find reading Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human an exhilarating experience that will get them re-reading and, perhaps, joining in the secular deification of Shakespeare.


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