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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

“Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”, Harold Bloom

745 pages, Riverhead Hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-1573221207

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom stated that Shakespeare (along with Milton) was the center of Western Thought. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human he contends that Shakespeare, alone, “went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it.” Bloom assigns Shakespeare the singular honor of being responsible for our personalities, not just in the Western world, but in all cultures. Falstaff and Hamlet, the central characters of Bloom’s discourse are, he says, “the greatest of charismatics” and are “the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.” Naturally, critics of Bloom have taken great exception to such sweeping statements, and their general reactions have been of resentment. Individual critical response depends on what particular school of criticism the respondent adheres to, but most often critics and readers alike have simply attacked Bloom himself. However, even those who denigrate both Bloom and this book have found the time to read and review it to a greater extent, rather than to a lesser.

The book, itself, is made up of three major critical discussions by Bloom combined with brief discussions of each of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays. Bloom begins by expressing his awe at Shakespeare’s ability to create literary characters that epitomize the quintessential nature of humanity itself. In Bloom's opinion, Shakespeare shapes all of humanity, not just the elite literati. Bloom does acknowledge the fact that great writers existed before Shakespeare and says that, “The idea of Western character” defined as “the self as a moral agent” came from many sources at many different times. Individually, however, Bloom says, Shakespeare’s predecessors created nothing more than “cartoons” and “ideograms” rather than fully-developed personalities: “Every other great writer will fall away”, he says, but “Shakespeare will abide, even if he were to be expelled by the academics…” And Bloom makes his point so convincingly that even those who cannot abide Shakespeare (or Bloom) will be swayed.

Bloom next turns to short, individual synopses of each play, with each review intended to support Bloom's argument that Shakespeare was truly the inventor of the human. These reviews do bristle with long quotations from the plays themselves but they are always extremely interesting to read. Bloom, however, is nothing if he is not contentious. In concluding his review of The Taming of the Shrew he says, “Shakespeare, who clearly preferred his women characters to his men, enlarges the human, from the start, by subtly suggesting that women have the truer sense of reality.” After the individual play reviews, Bloom treats us to a concluding essay entitled, “Coda: The Shakespearean Difference,” and says that “Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection.” Bloom, himself, identifies most intimately with Falstaff: “What Falstaff teaches us is a comprehensiveness of humor that avoids unnecessary cruelty because it emphasizes instead the vulnerability of every ego, including that of Falstaff himself.”

Whatever your feeling about Bloom or Shakespeare, Bloom does take a critical stance that he supports textually. His humor is there but it is, at times, scathing. While no one should take everything Bloom introduces in this book at face value, no one should dismiss it all, either. Both this book (and Bloom) deserves a lot more than that.

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