Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Review: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) by Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Riverhead Books, Paperback, [1998].
8vo. xx+745 pp.


To the Reader
Shakespeare’s Universalism

I. The Early Comedies
1. The Comedy of Errors
2. The Taming of the Shrew
3. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

II. The First Histories
4. Henry VI
5. King John
6. Richard III

III. The Apprentice Tragedies
7. Titus Andronicus
8. Romeo and Juliet
9. Julius Caesar

IV. The High Comedies
10. Love’s Labour’s Lost
11. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
12. The Merchant of Venice
13. Much Ado About Nothing
14. As You Like It
15. Twelfth Night

V. The Major Histories
16. Richard II
17. Henry IV
18. The Merry Wives of Windsor
19. Henry V

VI. The “Problem Plays”
20. Troilus and Cressida
21. All’s Well That Ends Well
22. Measure for Measure

VII. The Great Tragedies
23. Hamlet
24. Othello
25. King Lear
26. Macbeth
27. Antony and Cleopatra

VIII. Tragic Epilogue
28. Coriolanus
29. Timon of Athens

IX. The Late Romances
30. Pericles
31. Cymbeline
32. The Winter’s Tale
33. The Tempest
34. Henry VIII
35. The Two Noble Kinsmen

Coda: The Shakespearean Difference
A Word at the End: Foregrounding


This book leaves me in the same state as Iago’s intrigues leave Othello: perplexed in the extreme. Here and there, it does contain nuggets of insightful and illuminating criticism, many of which are likely to change my next reading of certain plays and even, perhaps, improve my appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius. But such flashes of brilliance are not easy to notice. They are drowned in Mr Bloom’s overweening attitude, overblown Bardolatry, repetitious writing, sweeping comparisons and confused argumentation.

First of all, let me admit that I have not read the whole book. Since I have never understood the unfortunately widespread practice of reading criticism before the works that inspired it, I have perused only about a half of Mr Bloom’s volume. I understand this is enough to dismiss the following paragraphs as irrelevant, but for what it’s worth, here is a bunch of random reflections. It is not accidental that I deal first and mostly with the book’s defects. They first leap to mind. They are more numerous than its merits.

The author professes himself to follow in the footsteps of the great Shakespearean critics from the past, from Dr Johnson and Hazlitt a couple of centuries ago to A. C. Bradley and Harold Goddard in the first half of the last century. Mr Bloom shares with Goddard an aggravated form of Bardolatry, as serious a disease as any form of idolatry, but that’s just about all they share. The significant difference is that Goddard’s deification of the Bard is a great deal more subtle and better argued. From what I’ve read of Johnson’s famous Preface to Shakespeare (1765) and Hazlitt’s Characters in Shakespear’s Plays (1817), Mr Bloom is not in their league either. Indeed, the tone and the content of The Invention of the Human, both every bit as preposterously adulatory as its title, are a far cry from the sane, wholesome and judicious criticism of Dr Johnson and William Hazlitt. Those critical voices from the past are far from perfect; but they are classics. It remains to be seen whether the hype around Mr Bloom’s magnum opus will in time develop into classical status. 

(In the beginning of his chapter on Othello, Mr Bloom quotes a long excerpt from Hazlitt’s analysis of Iago’s character. It is embarrassingly superior to the messy medley of confused thoughts and bizarre parallels that follows. Hazlitt, much like Goddard a century later but in a very different way, wrote marvellous prose: lucid, direct, personal, engaging, provocative, witty. It is a joy to read and a pleasure to disagree.)

To begin with, Mr Bloom’s central argument is, for me, confusing. Though he does discuss it at length in his muddled introductory and concluding chapters, “Shakespeare’s Universalism” and “Coda: The Shakespearean Difference” respectively, and mentions it numerous times throughout the book, I am still at sea what exactly he means by “the invention of the human”. If he wants to say that Shakespeare affected profoundly the depiction of character in all post-Shakespearean literature, his thesis is a sweeping but rather ordinary generalization, dubiously supported by the Bard’s mind-numbing popularity. But if he means that Shakespeare laid the Renaissance foundations of human nature on which the Western consciousness has been modelled ever since, he is going way too far in asserting something that receives no support whatsoever from history. He implies both at different places, but the latter seems to predominate. Time and again does Mr Bloom repeat that Shakespeare is the centre of the Western canon, namely that everything before him, from the drama of ancient Greece and the Bible to Chaucer and Marlowe, was merely a prelude to the Bard’s all-encompassing and all-transforming genius – and everything after him, from Milton, Dickens, Melville and Dostoyevsky to Nietzsche, Freud, Proust, Joyce and Cormac McCarthy, was one huge letdown, an endless list of mediocrities who pathetically tried to say what Will had said with unsurpassed perfection. To my mind, all this is just silly.

Mr Bloom’s Bardolatry is truly exhausting. It is his constant harping on Shakespeare’s divinity, more than anything else, that makes the book hard to digest in quantity. I reckon he must have a giant statue of Will at home. He probably prays to it at least five times a day and offers human sacrifices at least once a week. He frankly informs us that he cannot imagine any state of mind when approaching the Bard but awe. I cannot imagine a worse one. When I approach a great author, I certainly do so with respect. But I want to be in full possession of my faculties. Reverence is quite out of place. Even the greatest writers have written some rubbish in their (usually) long and prolific careers. Even the greatest writers were humans, after all; and human beings are fallible, imperfect creatures. But Shakespeare, of course, was no human. He was divine and, if not infallible, certainly the least fallible of all artists who ever inhabited the Western civilisation. So Mr Bloom thinks. I wonder why he didn’t give his book the much more appropriate title “The Creation of the Human”.

Much praise has been lavished on the clarity and accessibility of Mr Bloom’s style, especially on his refusal to use the ponderous and pretentious cadences usually adored by the critics. Well, I am not impressed. Mr Bloom’s vocabulary is not without some curious favourites. He is quite fond, for example, of vague adjectives like “rancid” and its derivative noun “rancidity” or scientific terms like “ontological” and “cognitive”. And what is the meaning of the verb “perspectivize”? Presumably, it means “to put into perspective”. Fancy words like these are apt to give Mr Bloom’s style a slightly pompous air. Worst of all, they often obscure his meaning. That he uses them rather promiscuously – “Shakespeare’s generous rancidity”, “Elsinore’s rancid court”, “the splendidly rancid triad [of characters in certain plays]”; “ontological shock”, “ontological splendor”, “ontological dignity”, “ontological devastation”, “ontological instinct”, “ontological identity”, “ontological reality”; “cognitive power”, “cognitive urgency”, “cognitive zest”, etc. – doesn’t help the matter.

Neither are many of Mr Bloom’s bold conclusions terribly stimulating. He seldom argues them, and then not very convincingly. He usually states them and we are supposed to accept them on his authority. This won’t do. The situation is particularly dismal in the general chapters when the author reflects on human nature and how Shakespeare molded it. What is one to make of passages like these?

Our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others owes much to Falstaff, the cause of wit in others as well as being witty in himself. To cause wit in others, you must learn how to be laughed at, how to absorb it, and finally how to triumph over it, in high good humor.

Before Hamlet taught us how not to have faith either in language or in ourselves, being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection.

I don’t mind that Mr Bloom is strenuously opinionated and magnificently arrogant. But I do mind his flimsy argumentation in cases like these. First of all, the “ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others” is extremely rare; if it were not, the world would be a better place. I am not sure if Hamlet’s almost pathologically intellectual make-up would be beneficial if widespread enough, but that hardly changes the fact that it is not. Our species is still ruled by passions and seldom appreciates jokes at its own expense. If Shakespeare is supposed to have changed that, he evidently failed. Either way, I really don’t see how we can hold him responsible.

Passages like the above are the definition of the disapproving phrase “sweeping generalization”. These abound even in the separate chapters about the plays which, on the whole, are greatly superior to Mr Bloom’s rambling, repetitious and superficial general reflections. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that Shylock and Richard III are parodies of Marlowe’s Barabas or that so-and-so character or play is the “most remarkable,” “most persuasive”, “unique”, etc. in the Western canon. It really is tedious. As for Mr Bloom’s absurd fixation with the characters of Hamlet (who “vies with King David and the Jesus of Mark as a charismatic-of charismatics”) and Falstaff (“the charismatic genius”), it is already legendary. (And obviously derivatives of “charisma” are another fetish much loved by the author.) In nearly every chapter, if not indeed on nearly every page, he indulges in worthless panegyrics and futile speculations, entirely lost in hero worship of epic proportions. It’s an amusing spectacle. But it won’t bear a re-reading.

Provocative statements about certain plays or characters that baffle rather than stimulate the imagination are legion. It is striking how breezily misguided, not to say downright inane, Mr Bloom can sometimes be. Just two examples that impressed me in this respect:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work. Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation. Nor do they accept my statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos.


Auden, in one of his most puzzling critical essays, found in Iago the apotheosis of the practical joker, which I find explicable only by realizing that Auden's Iago was Verdi's (that is, Boito's), just as Auden's Falstaff was operatic, rather than dramatic. One should not try to restrict Iago's genius; he is a great artist, and no joker.

It’s a little high-handed to claim that “Auden’s Iago was Verdi’s”. All Auden actually said in “The Joker in the Pack” is that Iago’s “I am not what I am” is given its “proper explanation” in Boito’s “Credo” in Act 2 of Verdi’s music drama. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he considered the character in operatic terms (as he did Falstaff and said so). I think Mr Bloom completely misunderstood the whole essay. Auden took a good deal of space to explain carefully the rather complex nature of the practical joker, and I am pretty certain he would have denied Iago neither his genius nor his great artistry. Least of all did Auden try to restrict him.

The case of The Merchant is a great deal more complex. I quite agree with the logically impeccable conclusion that if Shylock is “a figure of overwhelming pathos” then Portia loses much of her appeal: that’s precisely my chief problem with the play. But I do not, on the whole, consider the work anti-Semitic – or if it is, it is at least as much anti-Christian, which makes strict labels hard to attach. Mr Bloom appears to be quite confused himself. He insists that this is comedy, but he keeps using the apt adjective “equivocal”; that it is Portia’s play, not Shylock’s, but in his reflections he is much more occupied with the Jew than with the mistress of Belmont; that the play is made incoherent by portraying Shylock as too sympathetic a victim, and yet he is fully aware that there is an “extraordinary energy” in his poetry and prose that “palpably is in excess of the play’s comic requirements”. In the end, ironically, Mr Bloom undermines his own case by lavishing nearly all of his attention on Shylock. I also wonder if his anti-Semitic offense doesn’t have something to do with his Jewish background and upbringing.   

Last and least, on factual level a number of Mr Bloom’s claims are outrageously unsupported; sometimes he admits that, but more often he doesn’t. One should be very careful. For example, he states that the Ur-Hamlet was written by Shakespeare himself and that Marlowe was murdered “by the government” with such confidence as if we had massive historical evidence about both. But do we? He at least has the decency to add that the Ur-Hamlet idea was originally Peter Alexander’s and that the scholars in general disagree with it. Except in such rare cases, one should take Mr Bloom’s historical facts with a solid pinch of salt. He is not very fond of footnotes either and he sometimes refers to other opinions in a rather cryptic way.

The chief merit of Mr Bloom’s Big Book, as I see it, is his iconoclastic approach to modern Shakespearean criticism and staging. Remarks like “Hamlet has survived everything, even Peter Brook“ and the modern “School of Resentment criticism of Shakespeare” are refreshingly cool. He has no patience with critics who try to reduce Shakespeare merely to a fortuitous product of his times, let alone with those who inflict their own fantasies (feminist, Marxist, whatever) on his works. He is equally scathing about modernist staging, and here again I concur completely. The opening paragraph of the chapter about The Tempest may serve as an example of Mr Bloom’s polemical best combined with his not unappealing sense of humour:

Of all Shakespeare's plays, the two visionary comedies – A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest – these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed. Erotomania possesses the critics and directors of the Dream, while ideology drives the bespoilers of The Tempest. Caliban, a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature (his father a sea devil, whether fish or amphibian), has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists – the usual suspects – know their causes but not Shakespeare's plays.

Insights into certain plays and characters are the second best thing about Mr Bloom’s mighty book. Sadly, as I’ve said in the beginning, these are relatively few and rather hard to find. Certainly, they don’t lie in the author’s almost maniacal proclivity for comparisons with other writers, most notably Chaucer, Milton, Nietzsche and Freud, but also with just about anybody else. I admit this may be my own mistake, for Mr Bloom assumes his readers will be more widely read than I am, but I am still inclined to view such instances as the weakest form of criticism. At one place, or rather in many places in one chapter, he makes several ingenious comparisons between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Othello which, for a change, are explained for beginners, but why they matter to the prospective reader is still mysterious to me. Similar parallels, when I find them intelligible at all, usually reflect the character of the whole book: fascinating but far-fetched, ultimately of some use as mild entertainment only.

But I was about to say something about Mr Bloom’s penetrating analysis of Shakespeare’s characters. It’s hard to concentrate on that. See what I mean by “defects leaping first”? So let’s stop here.

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