As an English teacher by profession, I do a lot of reading. That comes with the job. As such, every year I make a New Year’s Resolution to read one massive work of literature I’ve never read before. I didn’t really choose one this year right away, but when I did, I went with a work of nonfiction for a change. That would be Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
Man, am I glad I read this one.
But first, a caveat. Bloom is an incredibly fascinating and entertaining writer. True, a book like this one isn’t for everybody, but Bloom can craft a compelling argument. Mostly. What Bloom doesn’t do is really explain so much as proclaim. In a weird sort of way, his book reminded me of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. Both authors at various points just make statements and criticize others’ views because they are the expert in the room. The biggest difference is a crucial one. I didn’t like Kyle’s book because he was not a particularly introspective writer. Bloom, on the other hand, is a blatantly introspective writer. Sure, he may just make proclamations about the wit of characters like Rosalind and Falstaff without really giving examples of said wit and how it is superior to other characters. He basically expects you to just know and/or accept these statements as true.
Why would I excuse one over the other? Simple: Bloom has spent his entire professional life reading and thinking about Shakespeare. He may believe he is without peer as a result, but the way he makes his cases is outright fascinating. I didn’t really agree with all of his points. Like Bloom, William Shakespeare is my favorite author, I have taught the Bard’s plays many times over, I have my favorites, and I have read all of Shakespeare’s plays at least once. Where we part company is more that I view Shakespeare as a talented man, but still a man. My Shakespeare wrote some rough plays early in his career as befits a man just starting out.
Bloom, however, sees Shakespeare as the universal writer who invented the modern concept of the human being. All truly self-aware people, in a sense, and all characters in Shakespeare’s work, either lead to or follow from either Falstaff or Hamlet. Now, I can agree that Shakespeare’s characters are among the most three-dimensional fictional characters ever written. But to see Shakespeare as almost a godlike writer, well, that may be a bridge too far for me.
That said, there is a lot of fun in watching Bloom give his own take on all of Shakespeare’s plays. The man has some interesting opinions. He believes Desdemona and possibly Othello died virgins. The Taming of the Shrew, he insists, is a romance between equals and not the slightest bit misogynistic. He claims The Tempest has no plot and Nick Bottom is the lead character in A MIdsummer Night’s Dream. Macbeth is a man of great imagination but perhaps not great intelligence. One short early chapter dealt with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I would say that play, perhaps Shakespeare’s first, is just a bad first effort. Bloom ties himself up in knots because he can’t fully commit to the idea that maybe Shakespeare just wrote a bad play. He believes there must be something brilliant in there he just can’t see.
Furthermore, Bloom loves to refer to various plays as either “nihilistic,” “parodies,” and “Shakespeare purging Marlowe from his system”. And while Bloom will admit we know little of Shakespeare the man, that doesn’t stop Bloom from insisting certain passages are slams on London or the court of James I, or that Shakespeare himself was not anti-Semitic, but he still wrote an anti-Semitic play in The Merchant of Venice.
So, why read a book like this? Well, even if you don’t agree with Bloom’s conclusions, there’s something fun in seeing the man explain himself. This is one man’s views on a literary subject he’s dedicated his life to. Sure, he dismisses everyone with an alternate view as wrong, sometimes at great length. Likewise, he doesn’t believe most stage or film productions are worth seeing because no one gets is right (here meaning his idea of right) anymore. But if you put as much thought and work into any sort of ideas, well, they should at least be worth a listen. And quite frankly, if I wrote the way Harold Bloom does, I wouldn’t merit publication. Heck, my first encounter with his work came in grad school. My conclusion then was if I wrote papers that way, I’d fail and rightfully so.
But when you are an expert, you can somewhat get away with it. So, if this is a topic you love, come see what an expert has to say. You don’t even have to agree with him. 9 out of 10 dismissals of Christopher Marlowe.