In Harold Bloom’s native United States, his latest tome has proved something of a publishing phenomenon. When I visited New York last autumn, this academic panorama of Shakespeare was enjoying a lengthy sojourn in the New York Times’ bestseller list; its daunting 750-page bulk was to be found on the coffee tables of those Manhattan hostesses deliciously satirised by Tom Wolfe as ‘X-rays’; and its outspoken, authentically Falstaffian author was being lionised in newspaper interviews and profiles. People (like me) were even seen reading it on aeroplanes.
A best-selling book about the Bard? Not even an accessible biography, at that, but a systematic survey of his dramatic work, via an examination of the supreme intellect and uniquely humane consciousness informing it. ‘It restores the role of literary critic to one of central importance in our culture’, glows the publisher’s jacket blurb, and, for once, they have a point. Bloom has entered the Indian summer of an eminent career in the role of cultural guru, a Lear raging against the changing orthodoxies of a world now beyond his control.
He can, like Lear, overstate his point. And in this last testament of a lifetime teaching Shakespeare, Bloom has a typically extravagant point to make. Bloom’s Shakespeare is more than merely ‘the best writer we will ever know’. Nor did he just ‘invent’ the English language, while offering insights into human nature which will always remain state of the art. To Bloom, the Shakespeare canon is so obviously sui generis, so quantum a leap beyond anything that came before (or, of course, has come since), that Shakespeare did more than simply peer shrewdly into man’s inner self. He invented it.
Forget Freud, in other words, or anyone else who might lodge a claim to having divined and codified the nature of human personality; Shakespeare was there first. (That may, come to think of it, be why Freud ended his life perversely supporting the efforts of the aptly named J Thomas Looney to prove the Stratford man a fraud, whose works were really written by the Earl of Oxford.)
Bloom’s thesis is that Shakespeare ‘teaches us how and what to perceive, and he also instructs us how and what to sense and then to experience as sensation’. In creating what Shelley called ‘forms more living than real men’, he is the greatest master at ‘exploiting the void between persons and the personal ideal’. Once he has made this point, somewhat repetitively, and gets down to specifics, Bloom grows more penetrating. The clue to Shakespeare’s ‘preternatural’ ability to endow his characters with personalities lies in his ‘vitalism’ (or what Hazlitt called ‘gusto’). As the likes of Falstaff are (in a phrase borrowed from Ben Jonson) ‘rammed with life’, so, too, are the murderous villains (Aaron, Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Macbeth) and the comic villains (Shylock, Malvolio, Caliban).
With Dr Johnson, who spoke of the ‘ diversity of persons’ in the canon, Bloom asserts: ‘No one, before or after Shakespeare, made so many separate selves.’ It was also Johnson (‘first’, according to Bloom, ‘among all Western literary critics’) who said that Shakespeare ‘taught us to understand human nature’. Back on his hobby-horse, Bloom has Hamlet and Falstaff manifesting ‘the most comprehensive consciousness in all of literature’, amounting to ‘the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognise it’.
And that’s just the introduction . Having rearranged the conventional order of the plays, attributing Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet to Shakespeare and defying the Oxford editors by placing the Henry VI cycle before Two Gentlemen of Verona, Bloom proceeds to deliver a play-by-play analysis of all thirty-eight works in the canon. He includes the ]ate duet with Fletcher, Two Noble Kinsmen, but rejects the collaborative Edward III recently adopted by the Arden and Riverside editions. If his analyses are boldly colloquial, at times so sounding almost as if they were dictated, his insights are unfailingly original and uncompromising. Whatever else he may be accused of, Bloom can never be called tentative. ‘One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb’, he opens his essay on The Merchant of Venice, ‘not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy is a profoundly anti-Semitic work.’
The bastard Faulconbridge in King John is identified as an early breakthrough in what Keats called ‘negative capability’: Shakespeare’s ability to endow even his villains with an engaging humanity. Bloom waxes eloquent on Cleopatra’s theatricality and Lear’s capacity for love, but he keeps returning to Hamlet’s supreme intellect (‘thinking his way to the truth, of which he perishes’) and, above all, to Falstaff, with whom he clearly identifies almost to the point of obsession. For Hamlet (a ‘universal figure’, not ‘a picnic of selves’) the self is ‘an abyss, the chaos of virtual nothingness’, but for Falstaff ‘the self is everything.’
‘Universalism ‘ may have gone out of fashion on American campuses, much to Bloom’s voluble indignation, but it remains his mot juste for Shakespeare’s achievement. Impervious to historicists, demystifiers, deconstructionists, feminist, and all other ideologues from the ‘swamp’ of contemporary cultural politics who have ‘battered and truncated’ him, Shakespeare has ‘replaced the Bible in the secularised consciousness’. He is ‘a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go … almost too vast to apprehend’.
Whereas Marlowe drew ‘cartoons’ and Ben Jonson ‘ideograms’, Shakespeare was the first writer to endow his dramatis personae with ‘human inwardness’. In characters from Malvolio to Mercurio, Bottom to Shylock, he was not so much ‘imitating’ life (as he himself seems to have thought) as ‘creating’ it. And so, mutatis mutandis, he has created us. Our ‘primal ambivalence’ was Shakespeare’s own invention to a ‘scandalous’ extent. ‘To have invented our feelings is to have gone beyond psychologising us: Shakespeare made us theatrical, even if we never attend a performance or read a play.’
We are all role-players, in other words, wittingly or not – even those who never make the pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s universe. Those of us who do can expect Bloom to be sitting in ferocious judgment, as we reveal yet more of ourselves in our responses:
If your Falstaff is a roistering coward, a wastrel confidence man, an uncourted jester to Prince Hal, well, then, we know something of you, but we know no more about Falstaff. If your Cleopatra is an ageing whore, and her Antony a would-be Alexander in his dotage, then we know a touch more about you, and rather less about them than we should.
Ultimately, even to Bloom, Shakespeare’s uncanny power in the rendering of personality is ‘perhaps beyond explanation’. That won’t, of course, stop him trying. His problem is that ‘life itself has become a naturalistic unreality, partly because of Shakespeare’s prevalence.’ But if Shakespeare’s consummate achievement is, in a word, to ‘enlarge’ us, it is Bloom’s to perform the same service for him.