Lorin Stein reviews 'Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human' by Harold Bloom

By Lorin Stein
October 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Early in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Harold Bloom dismisses "The Merry Wives of Windsor" as a "throwaway, with an impostor pretending to be Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff without titanic wit and metamorphic intelligence is not Falstaff ... and 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' is a scabrous exercise in sadomasochism, immensely popular forever on precisely that basis." Like many of Bloom's pronouncements, this one has a certain confessional pathos. The "Boom-Boom" Bloom who has played to the culture warriors' peanut gallery with his Billboard-style greatest hits of the Western Canon, and who's padded his books with slapstick attacks on the "School of Resentment," is not the real Bloom -- the Bloom who taught us how to read Wordsworth, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, Stevens, Bishop and Ashbery -- any more than the fat knight in the laundry basket is the mentor of Prince Hal.

The real Bloom, the indispensable Bloom, is everywhere in "Shakespeare" -- and he's all too easy to miss. Reviewing the book recently in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, "If it's practical criticism you're after, forget it: this stuff is about as practical, and as dazzling, as a unicorn." Dazzling, maybe. But if this collection of short studies (one on every play) isn't practical criticism -- an aid to students, teachers, playgoers, readers-in-bed, anyone who wants an aesthetically plausible account of the plays or a model for detecting personae on the page -- then I don't know what is. In fact, "Shakespeare" is probably the first generally useful book that Bloom has ever written, more helpful to the nonacademic than even the old college standbys by A.C. Bradley or Harold Goddard. It's most helpful of all, perhaps, to theater directors, who are (I suspect) Bloom's secret ideal audience.


Not that Bloom prescribes productions, ` la Jan Kott or the orthodox engagis who have dominated American Shakespeare performances in recent decades. Bloom's readings of the plays simply do more for a director -- admit more complexity, key motives to a higher pitch -- than anybody else's. They are models of originality where originality is needed most. Between readings, Bloom likes to assert, in various formulations, that Shakespeare "invented the human." Several early readers (Lane among them) have mistaken this claim for an argument. It is nothing of the kind. It's an attitude -- indebted (like much else in Bloom's later criticism) to Oscar Wilde, who noted that art doesn't imitate life; life imitates Shakespeare, as best it can. After years of hearing and reading Bloom's variations on this theme, I'm not sure that he's made it any clearer or more intellectually respectable than Oscar wanted it to be. That said, Bloom has put his Wildean attitude to excellent use. Insisting that Shakespeare invented us (whatever that may mean), Bloom dodges the tiresome search for the plays' "relevance" that has dumbed Shakespeare down to make him an ill-informed commentator on the politics of our day.

We are living, oddly enough, though a golden age of Shakespearean criticism. Last year Helen Vendler published what should become the definitive edition of the sonnets; now Bloom has given us the crowning achievement of his career, a book that should appeal, in its particulars, to Bloomians and non-Bloomians alike. If any piece of literary criticism can have a practical effect -- on our stage and imaginations -- this is the one.

Lorin Stein

Lorin Stein lives in Manhattan.

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