Bowled over by the Bard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 March, 1999, 12:00am

Harold Bloom, Professor of English at New York University and of Humanities at Yale, is an academic institution in the United States. Yet many academics think his ideas are retrograde and defensive, as he clings steadfastly to the notion of a great literary canon and its unquestioned pre-eminence over the philistinism that seeks to subvert it. Bloom's The Western Canon (1994) became a bestseller in presenting such a notion and his latest book is a homage to the man he believes made the Western Canon: Shakespeare.

It takes balls and bombast to title the work, Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, and he tries to justify this by arguing: 'After Jesus, Hamlet is the most cited figure in Western consciousness and the worship of Shakespeare ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is . . . He [Shakespeare] is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.' Bloom has spent a lifetime trying to get there and evidently thinks he has made it. We are the products of Shakespeare's invention, he reasons, then takes the 35 plays one by one to illustrate - unconvincingly - how. Bloom would have us accept that the notion of a human psyche and all its constituent parts never existed before Shakespeare chose to invent and tell us so.

Any reader of Ovid, Chaucer and Montaigne would protest. Ovid's characters were defined as much by their struggle to invent new languages for representation of inner selves as any Shakespeare ever rendered. And the pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales speak in voices echoed by many of the Bard's creations.

Throughout, Bloom makes too many grandiloquent assertions, only to have to back down. Forgetting or ignoring his premise, he later claims that Falstaff is not only the man to whom we owe our ability to laugh at ourselves, but was the Wife of Bath's progeny. Surely, then, Shakespeare must owe her a nod.

Well, yes, says Bloom, it is just that Shakespeare did it better.

It seems he does everything better. If Shakespeare has become, as Bloom repeats, the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in language, it seems peculiar that Bloom avoids the matter of the Bard's language and when he does address it, his critical powers seem embarrassingly feeble.

Rosalind in As You Like It (whom Bloom reckons comes close to Shakespeare's own voice) speaks the lines: 'Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.' Bloom thinks these both the best starting point to truly apprehend her and the best medicine for all lovesick males.

Later, he uses the lines again and writes: 'I have quoted the last sentence of this before, and I wish I could find occasion to use it again, for it is Rosalind's best and therefore very good indeed.' But other than being very good, what exactly did Shakespeare invent? Hamlet made us sceptics in relationships, says Bloom. Through him, we learnt to doubt articulacy in the realm of affection. If someone says they love us too readily, we are inclined not to believe them because Hamlet has got into us, even if we have not read Shakespeare.

Lear became the West's dominant image of fatherhood and, through him, Bloom wonders whether it was Shakespeare or nature that invented the emotional inferiority of men to women. Timon of Athens teaches us the nature of dying, by inventing a new language for it. And Antony and Cleopatra marks Shakespeare's loving farewell to the invention of the human (again, he does not tell us why) and with Cleopatra's death something vital abandons the Bard.

Evidently it abandoned Bloom too. His sickness is his ego and the 18th-century school of literary criticism it is trapped in. He does not recognise how concepts provided by anthropology, philosophy, religion, politics, psychoanalysis, feminism, historicism, 'Parisian theory' (deconstruction), or post-colonial criticism can provide separate frameworks for the interpretation of the Bard. They simply 'contain Shakespeare', he reasons, who is 'the cultural history that overdetermines us'.

Does Bloom ask why he overdetermines us? No. Does he acknowledge the rise of Shakespeare's greatness with the coincidental spread of Britain's Elizabethan empire and so too, the dominance of English as a universal language? No.

Shakespeare was never a problem solver, Bloom tells us. He presented what was vital, invented a picnic of selves through which his characters spoke and left the rest for us to rationalise.

In doing so, he warded off philosophers, who wish to explain us away, as if we were so many muddles to be cleared up. He was Freudian before Freud, Nietzschean before Nietzsche; indeed, they owe their very disciplines of thinking to him but cannot better him, because he always got there first.

And how Bloom is fascinated by that. Who Shakespeare was, why he knew so much and we so little of him. By incessantly locating Shakespeare in King Lear 's Edgar, he thereby asserts (with no evidence whatsoever), that Edmund is Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. More than addressing what Shakespeare invented, Bloom's book becomes his own invention. His readings force from the characters a social context that allow him to build a portrait of the Bard himself.

In Macbeth, Bloom concludes, Shakespeare presented 'a sort of purposiveness without purpose' that no interpretation can wholly comprehend. Ultimately, that is all Bloom presents here, but unfortunately, at four times the length.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the human by Harold Bloom Fourth Estate $350