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The Last Shakespearean?

1.

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?1 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 through a great quantity of recent academic writing, and often the answer seems to be: little else but the bubble reputation. The editor of another recent anthology called Materialist Shakespeare boasts, not untypically, that “sweeping studies of Shakespeare’s critical and cultural reception have demonstrated the socially constructed character of the Shakespeare phenomenon and canon.”2

This “demonstration”—a demonstration that has proven convincing largely to its demonstrators—has indeed proceeded apace through several decades’ worth of scholarly books and articles, in which phrases like “the Shakespeare hype” or “the so-called ‘Shakespeare’ text” no longer startle. The often combative stance of Bloom’s book can scarcely be understood without prolonged exposure to that great mass of deadening prose that purports to illuminate such matters as “the inherent contradiction between artisanal base and absolutist superstructure in the public theatre for which Shakespeare wrote”3 or “the authoritarian and misogynistic aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that have proven an embarrassment to enlightened modern sensibilities.”4

Stephen Greenblatt’s war cry a decade ago, to the effect that “there can be no appeals to genius as the sole origin of the energies of great art,”5 encapsulates a parti pris of which Bloom’s book stands as an extended refutation, or more precisely an exasperated dismissal. Hence the series of trumpet blasts with which it opens, a declaration of faith that would once have seemed a needlessly overblown recapitulation of the obvious:

The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe…. Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually.

Many hundreds of pages later he comes back to the same point: “These days, critics do not like to begin by standing in awe of Shakespeare, but I know of no other way to begin with him. Wonder, gratitude, shock, amazement are the accurate responses out of which one has to work.” If Samuel Johnson registered the moment when Shakespeare’s singular greatness became an accepted value, Bloom (the self-appointed heir of Johnson) finds himself at center stage precisely at the moment when that greatness can seemingly no longer be taken for granted. (The historical midpoint between Johnson and Bloom was that long Victorian and post-Victorian heyday of Shakespeare as universal childhood companion among the collection of masks and robes and playing cards in everyone’s attic.)

If his book is not precisely a po-lemic against postmodernist academics—Harold Bloom is not Allen Bloom, although one wonders if some of those buying his book are aware of the distinction—nonetheless his animadversions against what he likes to call the School of Resentment recur regularly enough to serve as a refrain. (It is interesting to note that while Bloom frequently cites the views of other Shakespeare scholars, only those for whom he has some measure of respect are mentioned by name, as if he would not deign to publicize the “gender-and-power freaks” who nonetheless cannot help but catch his irritated attention.) This creates an air of writing under siege and in extremity, as if he were indeed, as in some apocalyptic science-fiction film, the Last Shakespearean On Earth in a world taken over by poststructuralist androids. At the very least it makes you wonder what sort of book he would have written if he did not find himself in the literary critical equivalent of End Times, and was not therefore obliged to characterize himself as “Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater.”

The intellectual vexations of the contemporary academy are in many ways, however, little more than a footnote to the actual status of Shakespeare. As Bloom acknowledges, “Shakespeare’s influence…has become incalculable, and seems recently only to be growing.” If in the tumultuously overbusied 1960s it took quite a lot to get Shakespeare into the forefront of cultural business—usually it took a British star of the stature of Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, or Paul Scofield—it is hard at present to turn around without bumping up against at least the name. Hillary Clinton made a speech to celebrate the premiere of the wittily anachronistic comedy Shakespeare in Love (“I’ve actually always liked Shakespeare,” she volunteered, in riposte to an anecdote by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax about making out with his girlfriend in order to avoid watching Hamlet on a junior high school trip); in a single year, at least ten Shakespeare plays were mounted in New York City alone (including such rarities as Pericles, Henry VIII, and two productions of Cymbeline, not to mention a free performance of The Winter’s Tale in the shadow of the World Financial Center); viewers of public television were given Helen Hunt in Twelfth Night and Ian Holm in King Lear. Even NBC paid admittedly counterfeit tribute with a Tempest transposed to the siege of Vicksburg and dispensing altogether with the playwright’s words. (“That language is just too precious,” in the scriptwriter’s ambiguous comment. We were given instead a Deliverance-style milieu with Miranda as Daisy Mae and Caliban transmuted into Gator Man, whose most eloquent outcry was: “Ah want mah bayou back!”)

An ambitious series of new productions for audiotape of the complete plays has been launched in the past year by Arkangel, evoking an image of RVs in freeway gridlock tingling to the cadences of King John and Timon of Athens. Meanwhile so many competing editions of Shakespeare vie for shelf space that even our cavernous superstores have trouble accommodating them. There are editions in which Shakespeare’s language is translated into a wretched approximation of “modern English” on the facing page; editions championing the earliest surviving text, regardless of quality (in a fashion that reflects the scholarly ripple effect of yesterday’s rhetoric about “the death of the author”) ; editions in which each scene is glossed with detailed descriptions of how it was staged and acted in past productions; and one series that goes so far as to expand the canon by inducting the chronicle play Edward III as authentic if collaborative Shakespeare.

Many of these manifestations are not likely to rejoice a critic whose distaste for current Shakespearean stagings is almost as absolute as his distaste for current Shakespearean peda-gogy: Bloom’s text seems to offer advance reviews of Kenneth Branagh’s impending musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost (“Love’s Labour’s Lost is itself an opera, rather than a libretto that an opera could enhance”) or the all-star movie of Titus Andronicus forthcoming from Julie Taymor, the director of The Lion King (“Titus Andronicus…is a blowup, an explosion of rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody…. I don’t think I would see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it”). Yet it is curious that by many standards of measurement Shakespeare is more visible now than, say, forty years ago.

Shakespeare was indeed taken for granted in the 1950s; this was still an era when “the play’s the thing” or “age cannot wither her” might easily turn up in an ad for neckties or a newspaper column about a horse race. He stood as a more or less benign figurehead for Western civilization, flanked by the Parthenon and the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven’s Ninth, but there seemed no particular urgency or novelty about his presence. The suggestion of being under siege by cultural vandals, of having to fight for a place in a rapidly changing environment, may have had a positive effect on Shakespeare’s marketability by positioning him as a center of controversy. If film adaptations can serve as a rough measure of viability, the last decade has yielded—with a good deal of help from Kenneth Branagh—at rough count two Hamlets, a Henry V, a Richard III, a Twelfth Night, a Romeo and Juliet, a Much Ado About Nothing, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and an Othello.

The cultural milieu in which these movies have had to make their way is of course different from the milieu that greeted Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar or Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, but it can’t precisely be called hostile. More than a little dumbed down, perhaps, although even in the Fifties Shakespeare represented exotic fare for most filmgoers. In any event his current messy, frequently incoherent, omnipresence precludes our saying, as T.S. Eliot did in the early Thirties, that “for most of us today the great majority of the plays are solely literary acquaintances.”6 (Eliot could hardly have anticipated Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange coming to your local multiplex in the widescreen spectacular Titus Andronicus.)7

It can always be argued that the blandishments of the global media machine are a fate even worse than the civilized embalmings of the classroom and the museum exhibit, and that a Shakespeare kept current by such travesties as the NBC Tempest is no Shakespeare at all. Yet a writer who survived the rewrites of Nahum Tate and Colley Cibber, and the sugarcoated nursery versions of the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, will doubtless get beyond even his newest incarnation as the sort of proto-Spielberg described by John Madden, the director of Shakespeare in Love: “He was a guy with a knack for writing on deadline…. He was a superlative popular entertainer at one level, a bloke good at writing words rather than just a genius composing great literature in a solitary environment.” The “just” is priceless.

(In the event, Shakespeare in Love—a market-savvy blend of Titanic-inflected romance and comedy that borders but never crosses over into Monty Python country—has more convincing ease and amplitude in its Elizabethan atmosphere, no matter how deliberately gagged-up, than many a more ostensibly serious production. However puerile its premise—“Love,” in the words of the ads, “Is the Only Inspiration”—the frequent interpolation of scenes from The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the capacity of even a fragmented and randomly doled out Shakespearean text to assume control over its context.)

Perhaps this is all part of some fin-de-siècle Last Hurrah, to be succeeded by a dumb and dumber twenty-first-century cavalcade of bug movies, but for the moment Shakespeare seems secure. Indeed, the most disturbing symptom of cultural loss is not Shakespeare’s stature but the gradual silencing of all the literary past that is not Shakespeare, so that in a kind of ultimate tokenism he becomes not the high point but the sole occupant of Western Culture.

2.

The greatest virtue of Bloom’s book is its premise that for the reader of Shakespeare “the merely sensible procedure is to immerse yourself in the text and its speakers, and allow your understanding to move outward from what you read, hear, and see to whatever contexts suggest themselves as relevant.” The openness and straightforwardness of this is actually quite radical. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is never less than an exhortation to read, to the extent that Bloom frequently includes not merely lines and phrases but long passages from the plays—we might almost be perusing some Gems from Shakespeare of the Victorian past—as if to remind that the reader must always have the text before him. If, in the recent products of the academic Shakespeare factory, the playwright tends to vanish amid a welter of legal documents, medical texts, and other ambient arcana, here he is everywhere. The overwhelming effect of the book is to draw one back to each play in turn, if only to confirm or reconsider one’s distrust of the particular spin being given to it.

The book’s motto might be: Neither Foucault nor Miramax. On the one hand, Shakespeare as something other than a more or less random occasion for discussions of primogeniture, ducking stools, or the Essex revolt; on the other, Shakespeare without star presence, technically advanced lighting effects, or topically allusive costume design. Bloom’s insistence on reading as an act of passionate immersion in which self and world alike are at stake is in some sense an insistence on the removal of clutter, on establishing an encircling silence within which the work can be fully sounded. This is not less than a heroic task, and Bloom’s book feels haunted at times by a sense of itself as Shakespearean soliloquy played out on some heath or rampart in the wake of irretrievable catastrophe. There are moments when he seems to turn inward, as if gnawed by doubt that the general readers he is addressing actually exist: those readers adrift somewhere between the internecine quarrels of the academy and the perfected massage therapy of Show Biz International, and yearning to recover a sense of reading as a path out of confusion.

Here the text is to be considered as neither symptom nor effect but as point of origin, the secular scripture in which we find ourselves not so much mirrored as invented: “Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness.” The extensions and implications of Shakespeare’s multiple personalities—their capacity to mirror or splinter, infiltrate or voluntarily mutate—are given deliberate precedence over other aspects of the plays. Character is the thread, and little else is allowed to get in its way: certainly not mere event, or the stagecraft required to make event explicit. Nor is language in itself often under consideration except as the means through which character becomes manifest. In his discussions of Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, Bloom broaches the question of passages whose poetic effect is contradicted by their dramatic placement but does not go much further into the implications of such doubleness of apprehension.

He wants above all to belie the reductive notion that these characters are nothing more than linguistic constructs; yet, even if indeed “very little is gained by reminding us that Hamlet is made up of and by words,” it is hard to imagine where he would be without them. Bloom writes eloquently of the “cognitive music” of “Falstaff’s prose and Hamlet’s verse,” a music “that overwhelms us even as it expands our minds to the ends of thought.” It seems but a little step from that individualized music to the notion of a wider music in which all the voices of the plays coexist, in which poetry is the air they breathe, the music that underlies and sustains the plays even beyond character, and in which character at its farthest reaches can dissolve. Here as elsewhere, however, Bloom’s ellipses are as powerfully suggestive as what he actually states; the aspects he articulates clear the space for a potentially endless addendum of readerly rejoinders and amplifications and alternate angles.

To argue for the invention of character as the most fundamental aspect of Shakespeare’s art is to renew the oldest critical tradition. For eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers, it was his capacity to differentiate among a staggering number of human types that established the prodigious uniqueness of Shakespeare. In form and subject matter his plays were more or less comparable to those of his contemporaries; the cataclysmic difference was in the impression left by their characters. Within a half-century of Shakespeare’s death, Margaret Cavendish would opine:

So Well he hath Express’d in his Playes all Sorts of Persons, as one would think he had been Transformed into every one of those Persons he hath Described;… nay, one would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman, for who could Describe Cleopatra Better than he hath done, and many other Females of his own Creating.8

“His Characters,” wrote Pope in 1725,

are so much Nature her self, that ’tis a sort of injury to call them by so distant a name as Copies of her…. Every single character in Shakespear is as much an Individual, as those in Life itself; it is as impossible to find any two alike; and such as from their relation or affinity in any respect appear most to be Twins, will upon comparison be found remarkably distinct.”9

Finally and definitively there is the summing-up of Dr. Johnson, Bloom’s avowed model: “These Characters are so copiously diversified, and some of them so justly pursued, that his Works may be considered as a Map of Life, a faithful Miniature of human Transactions, and he that has read Shakespear with Attention, will perhaps find little new in the crouded World.”10

Bloom intends a good deal more by “the invention of the human” than the imitation of human models. We do not simply recognize ourselves in the plays; our very selves have been in some sense created by “an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.” If the plays constitute “The Book of Reality,” it is a reality that they have to a degree invented: they are a demonstration of “how meaning gets started,…how new modes of consciousness come into being.” The power of Bloom’s criticism at its best is to refresh that sense of witnessing a world’s birth that is the uncanniest effect of reading Shakespeare or seeing him performed: the sense that we are located in the heart of a transformation, not merely perusing or recollecting a change that happened ages since, but participating in it as it occurs. The play remains alive because it remains unsettled, perpetually open to unexpected reversal and revision, resistant at every point to calcification into a finished object.

For Bloom the essential point about Shakespeare’s characters is that they are, in Hegel’s phrase, “free artists of themselves,” that they lead us into “the process of self-revision, to change by self-overhearing and then by the will to change.” They can be followed—and it is precisely where he seeks to follow them—into an interiority that may leave the play behind altogether like a discarded skin. Hamlet and Falstaff and Cleopatra are to be apprehended not as roles but as selves, not imitations of life but forms of life, having real existence almost in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s dictum that “a god is an eternal state of mind.”

A reading that does not acknowledge that such a text’s ultimate reaches are unsoundable has no choice but to reduce what is read to the limits of what can conveniently be formulated. “As we read Shakespeare, we are always engaged in catching up, and our joy is that the process is never-ending.” It is a joy that can never be quite distinct from terror: to acknowledge that in reading a book one is in some sense read by it, that literature is not a matter of a controlling reader’s manipulation of inert data but of the mutual interpenetration of intelligences, is to open up annihilating perspectives. The desire to turn Shakespeare, or any other writer, into a historical exhibit—a shard of evidence—might derive from an instinct for self-preservation. Total reading is total openness, and there is no limit to the chill winds and abysses granted access through those openings. How much easier it is to deny that such a reading is even conceivable, to demonstrate laboriously just how many years and miles shut us off from Shakespeare’s unrecapturable reality. To assert, as Bloom does, that Shakespeare’s reality is, in the only sense that matters, alive and present is to question the plenitude of our own reality.

Bloom’s acceptance of the ultra-reality of Shakespearean characters takes him well beyond the currently recognized limits of literary speculation. He is much concerned with what they are doing when we don’t see them or before we knew them, and what they mean when they don’t speak: “Shakespeare is our Scripture, replacing Scripture itself, and one should learn to read him the way the Kabbalists read the Bible, interpreting every absence as being significant.” He tunes in to silences like that of Isabella in the last eighty-five lines of Measure for Measure, to withdrawals like that of Lady Macbeth, to absences like that of the dying Gloucester. He brings great energy to bear on things that don’t happen: “What can it tell us about Edmund, and also about Lear, that Shakespeare found nothing for them to say to each other?” He is just as concerned about what will happen after the play is over—what will the restored Prospero’s life in Milan be like?—and what might have happened if the boundaries between the plays could be dissolved, so that, for example, Falstaff might avoid his death and retire instead to the Forest of Arden to exchange witticisms with Rosalind.

Such speculation is natural if the text has been allowed its full privileges, permitted to take up residence in the mind over a lifetime and work whatever effects it can. If the characters create themselves, then they will continue to do so in whatever medium they come to dwell, including the mind of Harold Bloom. To this extent the role in which he half-comically casts himself—as “hopeless Romantic,” “an archaic survival among Shakespearean critics”—is pertinent to his sense of the plays as infiltrating and encompassing the lives of those who read them. A strain of covert autobiography surfaces at odd moments, in discussions of Love’s Labour’s Lost (“The descendants of Holofernes… were once to be found profusely on academic faculties, and I have a certain nostalgia for them, as they did no harm”) or Othello (“I have watched, with great interest, many of my former students, undergraduate and graduate, pursue careers of Iagoism, both in and out of the academy”).

Quirky digressions like these indicate the ways in which Bloom’s book is not quite what many of its purchasers doubtless take it for: that is, a calmly enlightening stroll through the galleries, with refreshments at the end. If in the early stages we seem to proceed briskly through each of the plays in turn, with the tour guide duly highlighting salient points and outstanding passages, it becomes clear soon enough that the guide much prefers some points to others; we are to be rushed past Much Ado About Nothing or Henry V with almost distasteful speed, while lingering long (but never long enough to suit the guide) in the precincts of As You Like It and Henry IV, Part One.

If an old-school survey like Mark Van Doren’s admirably readable Shakespeare (1939) suffers primarily from an excess of civilized reasonableness, making the plays a little cozier, a little more firmly under critical control than they could ever be, Bloom’s approach by contrast will not permit him the indignity of a smoothed-over surface. There are disruptions and ungainly repetitions; I lost count of how many times the words “rancid” and “proleptic” were employed. Reiteration of major points—a valuable technique in the lecture hall—has a somewhat different effect on the page. A certain aphorism of Nietzsche, according to which we find words only for what is dead in our hearts, is invoked so frequently that it becomes something like a mantra, without ever convincing this reader at least that it holds the key to Hamlet.

Bloom is delightful when insisting on minority opinions—that the Macbeths are the happiest married couple in Shakespeare, that Desdemona died a virgin, or that the lost “Ur-Hamlet” was written not by Thomas Kyd but by Shakespeare himself—but somewhat less so when squelching what he regards as beyond the pale. Of Petruchio’s “kiss me, Kate” speech in The Taming of the Shrew he writes: “If you want to hear this line as the culmination of a ‘problem play,’ then perhaps you yourself are the problem.” “Only an idiot,” we are told, would find any points of comparison between the “fifth-rate rascal” Sir Toby Belch and Sir John Falstaff. One is led, quite against Bloom’s intention, to sympathize with the problem cases and idiots who have thus incurred his wrath.

His by now well-known obsession with Sir John Falstaff—“the mortal god of my imaginings”—is stretched over many pages, well beyond the point where repetition serves a useful purpose, even if that very excess is intended as an homage to the Falstaffian spirit. The strengths and limits of the book are equally well summed up in these passages. Bloom refuses the stance in which the critic asserts an equanimity beyond the reach of any literary artifact to shake; on the contrary, he is bound to make clear the power exercised over him by what he is discussing, and if that clarification assumes a form nearly frantic, so be it. The stakes, after all, are mortal: “To reject Falstaff is to reject Shakespeare…. After a lifetime surrounded by other professors, I question their experiential qualifications to apprehend, let alone judge, the Immortal Falstaff…. Those who do not care for Falstaff are in love with time, death, the state, and the censor. They have their reward.”

“They” are the “academic puritans and professorial power freaks” who have argued that Shakespeare views Hal’s rejection of Falstaff with something like approval, however rueful, as a necessary sacrifice on the path to kingship. As one might surmise, Hal, whether as prince or king, gets short shrift in Bloom’s account, which shows equally little interest in the fine points of Hotspur, Glendower, or Henry IV himself. Another kind of sacrifice seems to be at work here, with Bloom casting aside all the rest of the Henry IV plays for the fat knight, as if to atone for Hal’s crime in rejecting him. In this version, there is Falstaff and there is the world of the state, concerned uniquely with “power, usurpation, rule, grand extortion, treachery, violence, hypocrisy, fake piety, the murder of prisoners and of those who surrender under truce.”

Granted. Yet this opposition doesn’t really describe the texture of a play that also finds time for the byplay between Mortimer and his Welsh-speaking wife, and for the dialogue of carriers at the roadside inn: “This house is turned upside down since Robin Ostler died.” Even Falstaff—the freest being in all Shakespeare, the one who comes closest to creating a private sphere free from contingency—could not be what he is, a world in himself, without those other worlds in his vicinity, squalid or callous or megalomaniac as they may respectively be. Somehow, in spite or more likely because of the weight of emphasis on Sir John, the spirit of the knight seems to elude capture; no commentary, not even Bloom’s, can do much more than point in the direction of the man himself.

To speak of the balance of the play or the demands of the anecdote is to go against the spirit of Bloom’s writing here, which wishes to give full and absolute primacy to Falstaff. That it is a deeply personal matter he makes clear through repeated evocations of Ralph Richardson’s performance in the role (in the celebrated Old Vic production of the mid-Forties), which he saw at age sixteen and through which he was “educated…to a first understanding of Shakespeare.” The insistence on the crucial importance of this encounter exemplifies the sense, implicit throughout, that literature is indeed a matter of real experience, with real consequences, rather than a rack of disposable identities: that in the course of a lifetime the reader and what he reads will be become intermingled in ways that dispassionate analysis can scarcely parse. If the critic is not finally talking about his own life, his own being, then literature can hardly have been a matter of great importance.

3.

At a certain point the reader is likely—is, indeed, compelled—to respond by calling upon his own experience. There is no doubt that Bloom most stimulates when he most annoys, and he annoys most when his own obsessions threaten to deny the possible truth of anyone else’s by asserting an orthodoxy of aesthetic response. The extraordinary breadth that he evokes with one hand—those dizzying cognitive reaches spiraling beyond possibility of capture—he seems to take away with the other. Shakespeare contains all of us, yet only “a double handful of critics” have been able to follow him in detail. A sense of constriction sets in when it comes down to enumerating precisely how many Shakespearean characters (“fewer than a double handful”: eight, to be precise) “are truly endless to meditation” (namely Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Lear, Edgar, Edmund, Macbeth, Cleopatra), and how many are merely great roles. Juliet, Bottom, Lady Macbeth, Antony, and Prospero are among those that lack infinitude; the likes of Cassius, Jaques, Viola, Angelo, or Ariel don’t even make the semifinals. This sort of quantifying impulse strikes me as antithetical to Shakespearean art, which is inconceivable without a range of characters extending to Osric, the gravediggers, Macduff’s wife and son, Trinculo and Stefano, Juliet’s nurse, Don Adriano de Armado, and, yes, those two carriers at the roadside inn.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bloom is utterly indifferent to minor characters, since he is eloquent in his accounts of the drunken prisoner Barnardine (“the imaginative center (and greatest glory) of Measure for Measure“) and the Clown who offers Cleopatra the asp (“the summit of this magnificent play”), and even finds room for Launce’s dog, Crab, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, “who has more personality than anyone else in the play except Launce himself.” But there is little suggestion here that the depth and complexity of some characters cannot exist without the apparent depthlessness or one-sidedness of others: that the ensemble impinges on the individual. Shakespeare’s is an art of perspective, and to cut some figures out of the frame is in some measure to do violence to the total effect. To pit the characters against one another in a sort of chariot race of sublimity, as Rosalind whips past Orlando and Touchstone toward the finish line, seems a peculiar competition indeed. A play is made of all its parts, and the shapeliness of their interaction defines a world. Shakespeare is characters but he is also scenes; solos, but also duets, trios, quartets. The later plays, with their particular interest in overall patterning at the expense of individual portraiture, have less to offer to Bloom’s approach and their treatment is the least satisfying portion of the book.

A play is after all in some sense a place, a tightly defined limit of time and space within which the multiplication of perspectives can occur. The limits make possible both that enlargement in which each instant suggests in passing the possibility of infinite contemplation and that delineation of momentary surfaces that change even as they are delineated. If time is dilated it is never quite suspended: even if outward circumstances are in some sense only a boundary marking—if each moment appears to recede into an infinitely vaster inward territory—moment nonetheless succeeds moment, and events move toward their outcome. The theatrical dimension of Shakespeare’s art lies in that precise unfolding that moves paradoxically in opposite directions simultaneously: coiling inward in readerly meditation, radiating outward in performance.

Bloom’s interest in these works as plays, that is as theater pieces, appears to have its limits. (Harley Granville-Barker, whose prefaces offer an extraordinarily sensitive reading of Shakespeare as live stage material, is notably absent from his list of critical predecessors.) His emphasis throughout is on reading, and he argues crucially that Shakespeare must have foreseen that he would be read by those who came after, since in his lifetime many of the plays had already been published: “He wrote primarily to be acted, yes, but he wrote also to be read, by a more select group.” Part of his sense of the inadequacy of performance has to do with our own contemporary inadequacies, whether as auditors—“Assaulted by films, television, and computers, our inner and outer ears have difficulty apprehending Shakespeare’s hum of thoughts evaded in the mind”—or interpreters: “When you read, then you can direct, act, and interpret for yourself…. In the theater, much of the interpreting is done for you, and you are victimized by the politic fashions of the moment.”

The question of whether Shakespeare lives most fully on the stage or on the page is one of those sweet conundrums in which either solution (at least for those of us who still love performance) is endlessly pleasurable. It is curious that a critic who makes so much of his own encounter at sixteen with Ralph Richardson as Falstaff will scarcely vouchsafe anyone else the possibility of a similar epiphany. Having for years shared Bloom’s opinion on the superiority of reading to performance, I would now, after several years of devoted playgoing, venture that even an inadequate performance of a Shakespeare play can be revelatory in ways that reading cannot anticipate. The theater of the mind is a theater all the same; to read Shakespeare is inevitably to envisage a potential staging, no matter how impossibly malleable its trappings. One can indeed achieve a performance in one’s thoughts, but such a performance is no less dependent on the caprices of its director.

Mere actors cannot be Hamlet or Lear, and Bloom resists the notion of reducing the great Shakespearean characters to “roles for actors.” Fair enough: it is precisely because these parts cannot ever be fully acted that they are inexhaustible and can be acted again and again. Yet however intrinsically unactable Lear (above all) can seem, the part was after all written to be acted, and by a particular player; we cannot know that Burbage did not have gifts as singular in his line as those of the playwright who had him in mind as he wrote. This is pure fantasy, yet surely no more fantastic than to suppose that the original productions of these plays were altogether unworthy of their director. We have the texts; we do not have the performances that were the texts’ occasion for coming into being. Yet the texts themselves, beyond the words, consist also of implied silences, spaces, gestures, exits, entrances; and the elusiveness and infinite suggestiveness of those implications is what makes directing Shakespeare itself (in Bloom’s phrase) “endless to meditation.” A bell rings: at such a point (in Macbeth II.i) text comes as close as it can to crossing the line into actual sound. Whether the idea of a bell ringing is more potent than the sound itself can be left to metaphysicians, but there is no doubt that the bell will, as it must, continue to be rung.

The dizzying aspect of Shakespeare, as Bloom suggests in countless different ways, is that there is no apparent end to the residual powers of creation in his text. The text continues to become something else, something further, responding to changing circumstances as if in anticipation. If there is a trick, no one has found it. The Shakespearean experience is the encounter with a surface completely alive at every point, each part seemingly unencumbered even as it makes part of the larger, constantly metamorphosing, living shape. The plays are not so much containers as openings, traps that are always closing yet are never closed. By resisting closure at all points, Shakespeare surpassingly avoids the trap of literature, the curse of the final act, the sense of the work finally revealing itself as after all only another one of those contraptions. We have always the odd sense that the endings are not really endings; that Hamlet, for example, did not really end but merely stopped because none of the characters were alive to continue it.

In this art of surprise, none could have been any more surprised than the playwright himself: in the act of reading we are surely no more startled than the mind that bodied forth what we read. Scholars, in the performance of their scholarly duty, question in what sense we can return to Shakespeare, or to any past. The work of annotating and explicating gets every year a little further removed from what it comments on, even as it tries to forestall as long as possible the moment when the work slips beyond our capacity for understanding, to become as unknowable as a cairn on some abandoned headland. And yet the work is not over there, back then, in that bundle of yellowed documents: it is here, continuing to extend itself.

Just as Hamlet reveals depths not in himself alone but potentially in other characters, reading Shakespeare makes it possible for us to discern Shakespearean qualities in other writers, other histories. Any attempt to teach us how to read Shakespeare is apt to become a demonstration of how Shakespeare teaches us to read. The cure for too much commentary on Shakespeare is Shakespeare: the great strength of Bloom’s work is to insist at every point that the reader return to the text rather than get lost in generalizations or factoids. He takes his place among those others, such as Hazlitt and Goddard, who seek to enter into a living relation with Shakespeare rather than assuming the manners of the dissecting room. The passion and obsessiveness of Bloom’s approach are its greatest recommendation. His own peculiar dance with those characters who most haunt him takes its place in a larger round, in that expansive field where we go on encountering further versions of Bottom or Ariel, Miranda or Caliban, Edgar or Iago or Beatrice, as they continue to give birth to themselves.

  1. 1

    Edited by John Elsom (Routledge, 1990). 

  2. 2

    Ivo Kamps, “Materialist Shakespeare: An Introduction,” in Materialist Shakespeare, edited by Ivo Kamps (Verso, 1995), p. 14. 

  3. 3

    Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” in Materialist Shakespeare, p. 83. 

  4. 4

    Louis Montrose, The Purpose of Playing: Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of the Elizabethan Theatre (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 110. 

  5. 5

    Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (University of California Press, 1988), p. 12. 

  6. 6

    T.S. Eliot, “Shakespearian Criticism,” in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by H. Granville-Barker and G.B. Harrison (1934; Anchor, 1960), p. 303. 

  7. 7

    Taymor’s film will actually be released under the punchier, more marquee-friendly title Titus

  8. 8

    In Letter CXXIII of “Sociable Letters, written by…The Lady Marchioness of Newcastle” (1664), reprinted in Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, 1623- 1840, edited by D. Nichol Smith (Oxford University Press, 1916), p. 14. 

  9. 9

    From the preface to Pope’s edition of Shakespear’s Works (1725), reprinted in Shakespeare Criticism, p. 43. 

  10. 10

    From Johnson’s dedication to Shakespear Illustrated (1753), reprinted in Shakespeare Criticism, pp. 75-76.