Review of:
Shakespeare: Mr. Personality
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
San Francisco Chronicle

Harold Bloom, the preeminent literary critic of our time, is a latecomer to Shakespeare criticism. He has read and studied Shakespeare for over fifty years but never published a book on the bard. In his introduction, he remarks that there is already more Shakespeare criticism in print than can be read in a single lifetime—by mortals, anyway. (I’d wager that Bloom could do it.) So why a book, and why now? Bloom chooses not to say. But the tone of his book has a voice of its own, the moody, passionate, and weary pondering of a man in his sixties who, after years of exhaustive study and an anguished, losing battle with the course of literary criticism, is finally ready to get it all down.

Like many of the writers now reviewing his books, I am a former student of Harold Bloom. Once, while I was writing a paper for his Tragedies and Romances class, one of my roommates observed, “When you’re writing for Bloom, you don’t want to say anything bad about Shakespeare’s characters. You’ll be insulting some of his best friends.” Indeed, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is a testament to Bloom’s love and admiration for Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, Lear, Cleopatra, and nearly every other one of Shakespeare’s characters, of whom there are more than almost any other author convincingly created. Bloom revels in the objects of his affection; one gets the sense that he prefers no company to theirs.

We read in search of other selves, Bloom says, and Shakespeare gives us more other selves (and therefore more of ourselves) than any other author. Bloom writes, “I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.” But Bloom’s claims for Shakespeare move far beyond the universally acknowledged recognition that Shakespeare was a master of complex character. His essential thesis, developed throughout, is that Shakespeare invented us. Before and to a greater extent any other author, Shakespeare brought interiority, and therefore personality, to literary invention. Four hundred years later, we are creations of Shakespeare: We are who we are because of him.

Of course, this is an outrageously grand claim, and it takes a hegemony of literate Western Civilization for granted. As his finale, Bloom makes a similarly insensitive gesture by sweeping the genders and generations: “Whether we are male or female, old or young, Falstaff and Hamlet speak most urgently for us and to us.” (Well . . . no.) But you don’t have to agree with Bloom’s central assertion to be instructed by it. More than he wants to convince us of Shakespeare’s ownership of world personality, Bloom would like to teach us how to read the plays. His claims for Shakespeare may be shockingly grandiose, but his hopes for us are modest. 

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom’s principal mode of criticism is what he calls “foregrounding,” by which he means comparing characters and plays to set them in relief. Because no one is comparable to Shakespeare, Bloom compares Shakespeare to Shakespeare, and the results are often as delightful as they are revealing: “The idea of play is as central to Falstaff as the idea of the play is central to Hamlet.” Bloom is also a master of the critical question, and many of his inquiries set the plays spinning on unexpected axes. Why do we love Hamlet, who loves no one? Why do the Macbeths want the crown? Why has Othello, fulfilled as a warrior, married in the first place? Some of Bloom’s local arguments (that the Hamlet we know is a reaction to and a revision of an earlier, unsuccessful Ur-Hamlet written by Shakespeare at the beginning of his career) are highly speculative, but this does not prevent them from providing a point of entry into the plays.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is in part a polemic, if only because, within the academy, the exercise of purely aesthetic analysis has become a polemic act. But Bloom’s swats at post-structuralist critics—“Our resenters . . . can be described (without malice) as gender-and-power freaks”—seem misplaced in a book of this kind, which in every other way is written for the ages. The basic point here is a good one: that by holding a political agenda up to a Shakespeare play, you will not shed light on the play, but the play will shed light on your theory. But his book would do as much to foreground the aesthetic if it simply went about its business of unfolding the plays.

At 768 pages, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is not intended to be read from cover to cover. Bloom devotes a single chapter to each play, enabling the student of a single work to dip in where relevant. Reading this book straight through is exhausting, not because the arguments are so vast and complex but because they are so similar. At least once every several pages, some unlucky character (or critic) is unfavorably compared to Hamlet or Falstaff, Bloom’s self-acknowledged gods. A single Nietzsche quote surfaces at least five times, as do favorite remarks of Dr. Johnson and A.C. Bradley. But there is much to enjoy and much to learn from Bloom, especially when read with a healthy amount of skepticism.