Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is a Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, and a literary critic who has received a great deal of attention for his controversial theories of poetic influence expressed through more than twenty books he has written about Shakespeare. He is a MacArthur Prize fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, recipient of many accolades for his work, and self-confessed “Bardolater” (i.e. worshipper of Shakespeare, p.xvii).
Bloom takes an aesthetic approach to literature and believes that Shakespeare has profoundly shaped human consciousness and that readers understand themselves better as a result. Some consider him to be the preeminent literary critic of modern time, while others denounce his conceit and arrogance. He in turn has condemned methods of academic literary criticism, such as feminist and post-modernist perspectives on Shakespeare, and “resenters”, as Bloom refers to them. “Resenters” are “those critics who value theory over the literature itself”(p.9). He also refers to those who question Shakespeare’s authorship as members of the “flat Earth society” (“The Charlie Rose Show”).
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is one of his most recent books, a 745-page hardcover published in 1998. This enormously popular, critically acclaimed, provocative, and controversial book is a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, aNational Book Award Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year. This book interprets every Shakespeare play and has been described as Bloom’s magnum opus (Riverhead Books- Penguin Group [USA]).
In his book, Bloom describes his intended audience as common readers and theatergoers, claiming to offer them a “fairly comprehensive interpretation of all Shakespeare’s plays”(p.xviii). He claims that although common readers, whom he is grateful for, “rarely can read Dante; yet they can read and attend Shakespeare” (p. 3).
Bloom fiercely and passionately argues that Shakespeare embodied and created modern human nature in this book, an impressive and sometimes overwhelming literary critique. Bloom is quoted from an interview, in regards to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, on November 16, 1998 in The New York Times, ”I think our kind of inwardness, which really means our sense of personality, is a Shakespearean invention. He more than prefigured our humanity, its quandaries and dilemmas. Shakespeare so deeply pervades not just Western culture, but so far as I can tell, all the world’s culture.”
Bloom asserts that prior to Shakespeare, characters in literature were incapable of changing themselves. What distinguishes Shakespeare’s characters from those in earlier literature is their capacity to “develop rather than unfold”(p.xvii). Consequently, Shakespeare revolutionized character development, which has profoundly changed not only theater, but also literature, morality and philosophy. The title of this book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, suggests that the history of literature can be demarcated into two distinct periods: pre-Shakespearean and post-Shakespearian. With Shakespeare’s “invention of the human”, another dimension has been added to literature with characters rich in meaning and purpose.
Bloom even compares Shakespeare’s influence to that of the Bible, and Hamlet to Jesus, “After Jesus, Hamlet is the most cited figure in Western consciousness; no one prays to him, but no one evades him for long either” (p.xix). He goes further saying, “the enigma of Hamlet is emblematic of the greater enigma of Shakespeare himself: a vision that is everything and nothing, a person who was (according to Borges) everyone and no one, an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us” (p.xix). Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest creation and to us, “death’s ambassador” (p. 733). Hamlet is the most eminent and introspective of Shakespeare’s characters, “No other single character in the plays… matches Hamlet’s infinite reverberations”(p.384). Bloom states, “It is not just that Hamlet comes after Machiavelli and Montaigne; rather, Hamlet comes after Shakespeare, and no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean” (p. 385). Bloom describes Hamlet as a character nonpareil; “Hamlet is the perfected experiment, the demonstration that meaning gets started not by repetition nor by fortunate accident nor error, but by a new transcendentalizing of the secular, an apotheosis that is also an annihilation of all the certainties of the cultural past” (p. 388, 389). Hamlet is a play filled with the word “question”, but Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet asked the definitive question of the modern age, “To be, or not to be?” (Act 3, Scene 1) nearly four centuries before the advent of existentialism.
It is as if Shakespeare is the God of literature, and Hamlet is Jesus or God. Bloom is a Shakespeare hagiographer, referring to his regard of Shakespeare as “Bardolatry”. He says, “no Western writer, or any Eastern author I am able to read, is equal to Shakespeare as an intellect, and among writers I would include the principal philosophers, the religious sages, and the psychologists from Montaigne through Nietzsche to Freud” (p. 1, 2). Bloom maintains that Shakespeare taught us “how and what to perceive”, as well as “how and what to sense and then to experience as sensation” (p. 9). In fairness, Bloom does admit that Shakespeare has a few peers- Homer, the Yahwist of the Old Testament, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, Shakespeare “has become the first universal author, replacing the Bible in the secularized consciousness” (p. 10).
To demonstrate how far-reaching this book has been, we need only to see the volumes of reactionary literature, interviews, and articles Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human has inspired, lovingly or otherwise.
According to a critic of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Chuck Lipsig, “Bloom never does much to demonstrate his thesis: That Shakespeare’s plays created the inward-looking point of view that is considered synonymous with humanity. He never really makes it clear whether he means Shakespeare was merely the first to create characters with this inwardness, or whether he actually is stating that humankind did not have that self-analyzing ability until Shakespeare’s plays had disseminated throughout the world of humanity. However, these flaws really don’t matter that much in the face of a great scholar expressing his opinions of his great love.” I am inclined to agree with this statement, that it is sometimes ambiguous in terms of what came first, the plays’ reflection of humanity, or humanity’s reflection of the plays. However, I think that Bloom essentially argues, quite convincingly, that Shakespeare’s plays drastically altered human nature and experience. “Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us” (p. xviii), Bloom states. He also says, “Shakespeare’s originality was in the representationof cognition, personality, character. But there is an overflowing element in the plays, an excess beyond representation, that is closer to the metaphor we call ‘creation’” (p.xviii). So it seems that Shakespeare did represent something he observed from humanity, perhaps essential human nature, but he greatly expanded upon whatever principle it was to create something infinitely greater and completely new in his works. I think that by using the word “invention” in the title of this book, Bloom implies that Shakespeare invented what had not existed, rather than representing what already existed, and it is evident to me from the following excerpt, “What Shakespeare invents are ways of representing human changes, alterations not only caused by flaws and by decay but effected by the will as well, and by the will’s temporal vulnerabilities” (p. 2). I would argue that like any other “inventor”, Shakespeare created the modern personality from existing organic materials in human nature (i.e. the Id and the Ego). He merely expressed it more fully and completely than anyone before or since.
Another critic of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Phyllis Rackin, was not impressed. She states, “There isn’t much in this book to interest Shakespeare scholars. Many of Bloom’s observations about the plays have been made before, others are just plain wrong, and his scholarship is seriously defective. However, although Bloom decries what he calls the ‘swamp of Cultural Studies’, his book is interesting as a cultural phenomenon, because it exemplifies two of the uses to which Shakespeare is often put in contemporary American society. Its facile denunciations of recent Shakespeare scholarship ride easily in the wake of the well-publicized right-wing backlash against current academic work in the Humanities. Bloom is hardly the first to enlist the authority of Shakespeare in the culture wars of the 1990’s. Witness the public flap stirred up by the well-publicized but incorrect claim that Georgetown University was ‘dropping its Shakespeare requirement’.” Her points are well taken, but so are Bloom’s. She is hypercritical and seems to almost engage in the kind of stubborn-minded rhetoric for which Bloom has been blamed. Of course some of Bloom’s observations have been made before; that is unavoidable because every critic makes familiar-sounding observations. The difference between critics (including Bloom) is the utilization of the observations to support one’s particular theory, unique or not. She seems to be inferring that Bloom is part of a right-wing anti-intellectual movement. Bloom is definitely not a part of this. In a recent episode of the “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS, he referred to George W. Bush as a fascist. She claims that “there isn’t much in this book to interest Shakespeare scholars”, but they are not the intended audience. Bloom explains to whom he is speaking, “I offer a fairly comprehensive interpretation of all Shakespeare’s plays, addressed to common readers and theatergoers” (p. xviii). Phyllis Rackin also does not give any examples of how Bloom’s scholarship “is seriously defective” to support this condemning remark.
Robert Atwan of Boston Review wrote a mixed-opinion article in reaction to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, posing some very interesting questions and asserting that Bloom falls short of systematically supporting his central claim. He states, “A book devoted exclusively to Shakespeare’s cognitive power and his decisive role in the alteration of human consciousness would have allowed for a more coherent and persuasive argument… Why was the spark of modern consciousness set into motion by a single dramatist from one small nation and not by the general European intellectual movement we customarily call the Renaissance? … Bloom’s thesis raises countless questions like these that he rarely addresses or anticipates.” While Bloom makes a strong case for the genius and influence of Shakespeare, he is so preoccupied with idolizing him that it is as if Shakespeare’s works were created in a vacuum and exclusively touched humanity. Bloom says, “Almost the only lasting human concern that Shakespeare can be said to have not affected is religion, whether as praxis or as theology” (p. 726). He also says, “I am not concerned, in this book, with how this happened, but with why it continues. If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare” (p. 3). Bloom’s book is intended to be a testament to Shakespeare, but leaving so many questions unanswered not only weakens his argument, it is an almost vulgar inconsideration of other influences contributing to the modern human.
A collection of 18 essays examine Bloom’s theories and the impact of Bloom’s Shakespearean criticism, and have been packaged in a book titled, Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare, edited by Christy Desmet and Robert J. Sawyer. Of the 18 essays, 3 praise Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 10 are mainly in opposition, and 5 are mixed. All are present-day critical studies engaging multiple perspectives. An example of a pro-Bloom essay is “Bloom’s Shakespeare”, by Jay L. Halio, in which he states, “Full of insight and wit, along with some seemingly outrageous assertions, it is invariably provocative and intellectually stimulating… Bloom’s liberal humanism may not be the fashion of our days, but it is worthier of attention than the fads and trends that pass for critical acumen in some circles.”(p.19). Other pro-Bloom essays are: “The Case for Bardolatry: Harold Bloom Rescues Shakespeare from the Critics”, by William W. Kerrigan (p.33-42) and “Inventing Us”, by Hugh Kenner (p. 65-67). An example of an anti-Bloom essay is “Bloom with a View”, by Terence Hawkes (p.30) in which he states, “Rambling, repetitive, anecdotal, it delivers its tin-eared obiter dicta—and mixed metaphors—with the fruity sententiousness of the common-room sage… In the end, too much of the book consists of such gracelessapercus sonorously parades as argument”. Other anti-Bloom essays are: “ ‘The play’s the thing’: Shakespeare’s Critique of Character (and Harold Bloom)”, by William R. Morse (p. 109-124), “ ‘I am sure this Shakespeare will not do’: Anti-Semitism and the Limits of Bardolatry”, by David M. Schiller (p. 247-258), and “The 2% Solution: What Harold Bloom Forgot”, by Linda Charnes (p. 259-268).
According to Bloom, Shakespeare’s characters, which are among the most complex and fascinating in literature, have created us, especially Hamlet. Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been staged worldwide in practically every language since they debuted. No other writer has had such universal influence, nor produced works so brilliant that they have transcended the theater and literature to such a magnitude. Bloom even purports that Shakespeare’s works have formed the basis of modern thought, i.e. how we look at ourselves, and how we perceive the world. Thus, Shakespeare’s genius is relevant still, four centuries later. One of Bloom’s contributions to Shakespeare’s status is his profound reverence for him, which encourages others to honor and regard Shakespeare as Bloom does, as a genius, as a playwright whose talents are not even vaguely rivaled by another writer of literature, as one whose character development yielded the most sophisticated and marvelous characters ever created in literature. Bloom also contributes to our understanding of Shakespeare, by reminding us of Shakespeare’s genius, and by promoting Shakespeare as provocative entertainment. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human has dramatically provoked Shakespearean discourse. Bloom has taken an esoteric argument and perhaps made it less pedagogical and more accessible for the general reader. Bloom’s book has helped to further preserve Shakespeare’s literary eminence.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human has perhaps been so controversial because Harold Bloom makes a target of himself. He is extravagant, extreme, and antagonistic, expressing himself in an overconfident and oftentimes arrogant manner, coming off, perhaps intentionally, as offensive and brutish. Bloom harshly criticizes many schools of thought simultaneously, as if they are equivalents of one another, and often makes very blunt and blanket statements about Shakespeare’s works and Shakespearean discourse. This has angered many Shakespeare scholars. Linda Charnes in her essay, “The 2% Solution: What Harold Bloom Forgot”, she states, “It’s galling the way Bloom lumps together and dismisses feminist, psychoanalytic, and political criticism and theory in his now famous umbrella term, ‘the School of Resentment’ (Bloom 1998, 488). It’s annoying to hear the tired clichés about immensity and transcendence trotted out yet again. It’s amazing to see a truly distinguished scholar such as Bloom pilfer other people’s ideas without giving them credit”(p. 260). One could also get the impression that he is bringing Shakespeare a lot of attention only to further his eminence and fortune. Hugh Kenner suggests that Bloom has a more or less self-serving motive, “What, the with-it voice asks, is any professor’s role but to exalt his turf to protect his greenkeeper’s fees? (And as for Harold Bloom, doesn’t he teach, ah, Shakespeare? Even begin his book by asserting that he’s done little else for twenty years?)”(p. 65).
Anti-Bloom critics may risk their own images by attacking Bloom. According to William W. Kerrigan in his essay, “The Case for Bardolatry: Harold Bloom Rescues Shakespeare from the Critics”, “Bloom reminds us, as perhaps no other critic could, what a tragedy it is to have the center of the canon, the best writer of all, monopolized by a school of self-important drudges” (p. 41). Instead of engaging in literary discourse, some such critics may be viewed as vying for their own dominion in academic discussions by being petty and clashing with one another. Harold Bloom’s opposition may appear to be hoping for recognition by challenging him.
“Democratizing” and “elevating” Shakespeare could be considered inappropriate. It minimizes the works of other brilliant authors and playwrights. Gary Taylor, in his essay “Power, Pathos, Character”, concurs, “Hyperbolic praise entails and requires hyperbolic denigration… If Shakespeare—or any other object of adoration, aesthetic or religious or erotic—is immeasurably superior to all others, then all those others must, by definition, be immeasurably inferior to him” (p. 43).