Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Harold Bloom. 1998. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead: NY.

When an author has spend his life examining a classic writer, it is interesting to hear what he writes at the end of his career. Harold Bloom is an important figure in American literary circles, although his ideas do not follow contemporary conventions. Modern scholarship, particularly in U.S. Ivy League universities, is so taken with the structuralists or deconstructionalists or postmodern methodologies that it becomes so disassociated from the subject it investigates as to be generally worthless. This is particularly problematic in contemporary Shakespearian scholarship. Bloom notices this defect and wishes to reexamine Shakespeare with a seriousness that reflects countless hours of struggling with the various plays and poetry to provide an interpretation without the popular ideological shackles that only serve to increase the distance between author and reader.

Bloom’s main point is that Shakespeare uses monologues to allow characters to overhear themselves speak and, from this self-awareness, change or alter their behavior. We recognize this in many writings that follow Shakespeare, but he was the first. Through this innovation, Bloom argues that Shakespeare is able to invent our understanding of the human. This may be a revolutionary position from which our civilization owes a debt to Shakespeare. However, even from this basic observation of Bloom a question emerges: what capacity does the reality of the person determine the meaning of humanity? While Bloom is on to something unique and wonderful in Shakespeare, there is a problem with Bloom’s interpretation that yields itself over and over in his interpretation of the plays.

This book features separate chapters for every one of Shakespeare’s plays and each one is wonderfully written and worthwhile in itself. He is able to show where there are many flaws in contemporary scholarship and performances that illustrate that mistaken interpretations are more common than is commonly assumed.

While Bloom’s work addresses weaknesses in contemporary scholarship, there is nonetheless an important problem in his work. Since he approaches Shakespeare’s plays through a modernist lens, he rejects ontology and is unable to even begin to understand the point of Shakespeare’s works. This leads the reader to question whether Bloom even knows anything about Shakespeare, “With Shakespeare, we know a fair number of externals, but essentially we know absolutely nothing [718].” In other words, because he has rejected metaphysics, he is unable to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. On one hand, this shows great dedication to a writer that he acknowledges that he cannot understand. On a deeper level, what can Bloom really tell us about an author whose work eludes his intellectual methodology? Thus, Bloom wishes to address a methodological gap in contemporary scholarship, but his work is also reduced because of his approach to his subject. It seems that Bloom is a victim of the very same reality he criticizes. There are many great parts of this text and it is worthwhile to take the time to read it. Still, one wishes that Bloom has more courage to actually interpret what Shakespeare wrote.

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