The Last Shakespearean?

A best seller and finalist for the National Book Award, the object of a full-strength publicity campaign ranging from a profile in People to an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human must be considered in part as a publishing phenomenon. Bloom has of course already enjoyed a progression of “crossover” titles, notably The Book of J (1990) and The Western Canon (1994), and his Shakespeare figures (in marketing terms) as their culmination, the indispensable critic on the indispensable writer. It holds forth the promise of a restoration of the kind of criticism that can speak to the nonspecialist reader, distilling vast reaches of experience and thought into companionable commentary on each of Shakespeare’s plays in turn; and, beyond that, the restoration of a world in which such criticism counted for something, a world in which the systematic reading of the plays would be an inevitable pilgrimage for anyone who cared about reading in the first place.

In Bloom’s own list of acknowledged predecessors in this venture, the most recent critic cited is Harold C. Goddard, whose wonderful The Meaning of Shakespeare was published posthumously in 1951. Trying to recall a more recent work with comparably wide appeal, I find myself going back as far as Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964); yet Kott’s book spoke to a far more rarefied audience. Kott made Shakespeare new by treating King Lear as a play by Beckett, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a violent ritual for whose occasion the ingestion of psychotropic mushrooms would not have been out of place. He proffered a series of serviceable analogies by which Shakespeare could be redeemed from the complacencies of the Common Room and seen—in a fresh and appropriately Sixties light—as radical, absurdist, sexually turbulent, politically unblinking, a writer to be valued precisely insofar as he could be positioned as a prophet of the modern. Yet I do not recall Jan Kott chatting with Merv Griffin or even Dick Cavett, and it is doubtful that his book’s very existence was so much as suggested on television or in the glossy magazines of the day. His success was limited to a tier of intellectual readers and theater people already familiar at least with the reputation of Ionesco and Sartre and Genet, readers for whom “existentialism” and “alienation” were brand names as reliable as, say, Nike or Compaq.

Part of what has changed in the interim is suggested by the fact that in our own day Kott’s premise has been challenged by a critical anthology entitled Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? A generation of academics for whom demolition of received literary values long since became a routine operating procedure inevitably saw in Shakespeare the biggest game of all: if he could be cut down to size, nothing else was likely to put up much of a fight. “What makes him so great?” is the implicit question that runs …

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