Shakespeare didn't just write plays - he wrote us


By Harold Bloom

Riverhead Books

800 pp., $35

This 750-page study grew out of a lifetime of reading, meditating, and teaching by one of the supernova luminaries of American literary criticism.

Harold Bloom, Sterling professor of humanities at Yale, is considered by many in the academic community (possibly including Bloom himself) as the preeminent critic of this age. Who else would attempt a definitive annunciation of "The Western Canon" (1994), in which Shakespeare is concentered? In fact, for Bloom, Shakespeare is the canon.

For 40 years, he has written prolifically - at least 20 major works of criticism, countless editions of and introductions to collections and anthologies, essays, and at least one novel. He has inspired, provoked, antagonized, and edified multitudes of scholars and nonacademic readers. His latest book was nominated for this year's National Book Award for nonfiction.

"Shakespeare" is not a scholarly work, in the professional sense. It is innocent of footnotes, bibliography, and index. Incidental reference to and quotations from a myriad of critics are infrequently documented.

Drawing from his immense erudition, Bloom brings in historical heavyweights from Western literature, philosophy, religion, and psychology - from Empedocles and Lucretius to Chaucer and Milton to Emerson, Nietzsche, and Freud - all laid to the measure of Shakespeare's sublime transcendence.

Bloom deplores efforts by some contemporary critics - Marxists, feminists, deconstructionists, semioticians, neo-historicists, which he catalogs as a School of Resentment - to find "social energies" in Shakespeare's plays. And he rejects any categories for the Bard. "Shakespeare's politics, like his religion, forever will be unknown to us," he writes. "I suspect that he had no politics, and no religion, only a vision of the human."

Given Bloom's lively style and provocative opinions, "Shakespeare" is congenially readable by the nonscholar. Bloom describes himself variously as "a heretical transcendentalist, gnostic, in orientation" and "perhaps the last High Romantic Bardolator." He does not so much explicate as pontificate.

He asserts flatly: "I will not just begin with the assumption that Shakespeare was palpably the best writer we shall ever know. Shakespeare's originality in the representation of character will be demonstrated throughout, as will the extent to which we all of us were, to a shocking degree, pragmatically reinvented by Shakespeare."

Bloom's body of evidence for his thesis draws from Shakespeare's entire dramatic canon. The key element of his commentary is character analysis. Bloom's favorites are Falstaff, Hamlet, and Rosalind, "the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare."

"Falstaff, like Hamlet, is always transforming himself, always thinking, speaking, and overhearing himself in a quicksilver metamorphosis, always willing the change and suffering the change that is Shakespeare's tribute to the reality of our lives." These three characters transcend the confines of the plays they inhabit, and each has the unique quality of "inwardness" that permits the reader/audience to know the characters as creatures of the familiar world.

Bloom's incisive insights also explore the deeper and darker recesses of the Shakespeare personae, "characters who are truly endless to meditation."

"The great villains - Iago, Edmund, Macbeth - invent Western nihilism, and each is an abyss in himself," he writes. "But Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, and Cleopatra are something apart in world literature: through them Shakespeare essentially invented human personality as we continue to know and value it. Falstaff has priority in this ... invention of the human."

* Norman Anderson is a retired Shakespeare professor, living in St. Louis.

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