M. D. Hudson's Reviews > Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Shakespeare by Harold Bloom
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Jun 03, 2012

it was ok
Read in June, 2012

I dimly remember when this book came out (1998) how big and important and controversial it was supposed to be. Given Harold Bloom’s prodigious reputation, I was afraid of the thing, and so avoided it, figuring it to be fraught with lit theory of the densest sort. A couple years ago I found a copy dirt-cheap at some thrift store or another and its fat binding has glowered at me from the shelves since. A few weeks ago I decided to give it a try and found it to be a piece o’ cake, mostly.

To be fair about it, I am somewhat prejudiced against Bloom. There was always something of the legacy-monger about him, as follows: Once upon a time, an ambitious non-creative man of letters established himself in the literary firmament with a vast and complicated body of theory, the “anxiety of influence,” a quasi-Freudian concept whereby writers are primarily motivated by a frantic, anxious desire to overcome their elders (no doubt I am grossly oversimplifying a theory of terrifying complexity – I spent about seven minutes with the book in question about fifteen years ago, so I do not know much about it). This theory was elaborated from the late-1950s to the early-1970s, when a Freudian reading of literature was pretty much ala mode in American letters. By the 1970s, his “anxiety of influence” theory had made Bloom’s reputation, and Bloom probably thought he had the culture by the balls. But as it turns out, by the 1980s, the French and the feminists and the post-structuralists were deconstructing and whatnot while Freud became increasingly debunked. Bloom had secured Ivy League tenure by then, but intellectually he’d backed the wrong horse – his Freudian reading of literature had about as much relevance as phrenology. Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” had become part of the academic mold from whence sprang far fresher toadstools of theory. Or, to wax Shakespearian, the “anxiety of influence” is but one of lit crit’s “whoreson dead bodies” in the academic graveyard, fit only to be mocked by a clown like me.

Which brings us to Bloom’s sea change: apparently realizing the sterility of a purely academic approach to literature, coupled with the fact his own theory-mongering was no longer of much importance, Bloom decided to try and turn himself into a real man of letters. And to his credit, Bloom resisted the siren wail of the theorists, what he calls The School of Resentment. And yet I find his later man o’ letters manifestations to be suspect. For one thing, in order to stay intellectually spooky, he refers to himself as a “Jewish Gnostic” (according to Wikipedia). I thought this was a little sad, sort of like those Loonie Toons episodes where we see Wile E. Coyote’s mailbox with “GENIUS” scrawled across it. Bloom’s gnosticism gained him some fans, and he even wrote a sci-fi novel along Gnostic lines (again, Wikipedia – I had no idea!). As Robert Frost said, one should never refer to oneself as a “poet,” just as you would never call yourself a “hero.” Other people can call you “poet” or “hero,” but never call yourself those things. Perhaps “Gnostic” should be added to the list.

And yet Harold Bloom is the gnostic professor who came in from the cold: it seems Bloom craved a broad, cultural relevance. My guess is that the other Bloom – Allan – and his c. 1987 astonishing success with “Closing of the American Mind” goaded H. Bloom into engaging directly with America’s “pocky corse” of a decaying culture. His first descent from the skyey firmament academia was his book “The Western Canon” and its controversial list of what books are worth bothering with. A few years later came this book, which tells us how important Shakespeare is in a startling new and exciting way. Now of course Shakespeare has been picked over more than any writer in existence, so Bloom had to come up with an angle. And so Shakespeare is now not only the greatest writer of all time, or even the most remarkable all-round genius, he also actually invented “the human.” Thus the kerfluffles and the tiny furrowed brows of woe that descended upon the culture back in 1998.


Now on to the book. First off, as far as it goes, the title of the book is indeed controversial: to state any writer (or anybody at all) invented “the human” still strikes me as preposterous. As for this being a theory coherently developed by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare’s “invention of the human” consists almost entirely of Harold Bloom telling us, again and again, that, well, Shakespeare invented the human. This passage, from the “Othello” section, is pretty much how it goes, over and over and over:

“A. C. Bradley, an admirable critic always, named Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra as Shakespeare’s “most wonderful” characters. If I could add Rosalind and Macbeth to make a sixfold wonder, then I would agree with Bradley, for these are Shakespeare’s greatest inventions, and all of them take human nature to some of its limits, without violating these limits. Falstaff’s wit, Hamlet’s ambivalent yet charismatic intensity, Cleopatra’s mobility of spirit find their rivals in Macbeth’s proleptic imagination, Rosalind’s control of all perspectives, and Iago’s genius for improvisation…” (p. 439)

There it is, most of the Falstaffian bulk of this book, bounded in a nutshell – at least the theoretical part, if this can be called a theory: to suggest Shakespeare took “human nature to some of its limits” is hardly controversial or much beyond a bright eighth-grader’s book report on “Macbeth.” What I thought the book was going to be an elaborate lit crit exercise in proof-mongering is little more than this kind of tub-thumping. Throughout the book you’ll find variations of this passage: the recitation of the “sixfold wonder” and sketchily-supported claims of human nature to “its limits.” A. C. Bradley is frequently invoked with approval, as is Dr. Johnson, Nietzsche and William Hazlett. But T. S. Eliot and G. B. Shaw coming in for periodic drubbings.

To say Shakespeare “invented the human” makes him paradoxically less than human. It reminds me of those people who say Hitler was a “monster.” Adolph Hitler was not a monster, he was a human being, which makes him all that much worse. William Shakespeare was a human being with serious sexual jealousy issues and a real genius for language that developed over the course of his career – which makes him all that much more…human.


Throughout the book are frequent references Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” although he never quite calls it that. But little reminders of this Bloomsian anxiety are salted throughout the text; you’ll nose them as you go through the book whenever you encounter the adjective “Marlovean,” which refers to Shakespeare’s anxiety and terror of Christopher Marlowe’s reputation; it is only until Shakespeare throws off Marlowe’s influence (around the time of “Romeo and Juliet” or the “Henry IV’s”) that Shakespeare truly becomes Shakespeare, so we’re told, again and again. Although spends considerable time, in fits and starts, on this Marlovean theme, it never really goes anywhere. It's as if Bloom wants to keep a claim staked for his earliest theoretical works without drawing too much attention to its rather creaky claims of Freudian relevance. To further distance himself from his roots, every fifty pages or so he ungraciously mentions Sigmund Freud with arch disapproval.

Sometimes Bloom’s academic roots show; decades of theory-mongering has seemingly warped his prose. When he tries to write like a man o’ letters, his prose is far too pedestrian, while his academic stuff is too academic. To illustrate, here is an academic bit from his “Richard II” discussion:

“Shakespeare did not invent the dignity of men and women, despite Renaissance enhancements, some of them Hermetic, that vision had developed across millennia. But aesthetic dignity, though not itself a Shakespearean phrase, is certainly as Shakespearean invention, as it the double nature of such dignity. It either coheres with human dignity, or survives isolated when the greater dignity is lost… (p. 269)

An example of “Renaissance enhancements” would be helpful, Hermetic or otherwise. We are told Shakespeare invented the human, but not human dignity, which has a double nature of some sort. Perhaps something profound is being said here, but I’ll be buggered if I can figure it out. We are “knock’d about the mazzard with a sexton’s spade” of abstraction, but not provided with enough to incorporate it into the rest of the discussion. You might notice in the passage above, the word “proleptic,” which is one of Bloom’s favorites, and it is used, especially in the “King Lear” section, with alarming, almost Tourette’s Syndromesque, frequency. “Proleptic” means either “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as being presently existing or accomplished” or “a figure by which by which objections are anticipated in order to weaken their force,” or “a conception or belief derived from sense perception and therefore regarded as not necessarily true.” There are a couple other definitions as well; I never was able to tell just which one Bloom had in mind and grew weary, finally, of trying to figure it out. The book is riddled with such theoretical dry rot and proleptic verbal tics.

When he is not formulating academic abstractions, Bloom awkwardly stoops. And so in the stuff he tries to conjure up for us middlebrows, Bloom will toss off stuff like this: “Johnson was massively right; something inhibited Shakespeare.” (p. 115). Here’s another random example, which I found after exactly four seconds of randomly searching for a good example:

“Critics regularly have called Sir John one of the lords of language, which beggars him: he is the veritable monarch of language, unmatched whether elsewhere in Shakespeare or in all of Western literature. His superbly supple and copious prose is astonishingly attractive…” (p. 294).

What serious critic in the past 40 years would call anyone a “lord of language”? This is just silly, and it demonstrates how Bloom always has to have an adversary, and the book is loaded with this kind of huffing and puffing against his dimwitted, often unnamed and perhaps imaginary, adversaries. Then there is the Bloomsian hyperbole – I mean, heck, somebody somewhere might suggest James Joyce or Goethe are “veritable monarchs of language.” Or are they merely “lords of language”? This isn’t literary criticism so much as it is rhetorical afflatus masquerading as criticism and far too much of the book is made up of the stuff. As for “supple and copious prose” I sort of understand the “supple” bit, but “copious” is hardly a virtue. This is blurb-writing, and Shakespeare doesn’t need any blurbs these days. It’s the kind of slack crap found in my Goodreads reviews. Hardly fit stuff for an actual work of criticism from a real critic.

Along the same lines, Bloom’s traumatic theatrical experiences are given a lot of space in this book. He tells us again and again how crushed he is by the thousands of Shakespearean stagings he has seen over the past 60 years – apparently Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff is the only competent Bard on the Boards he has ever seen. As for movie versions, forget it – he hates ‘em all, pretty much. Nowadays, even on stage, Shakespeare is acted and directed so poorly that, alas, Bloom finds it best just to read ‘em on the page. Again and again he tells us this. It is, after all, a very fat book.

Bloom has a few Shakespearean quirks which tend to undermine his authority. He seems to be one of the few people who believe Shakespeare actually wrote the third-rate “A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter,” the authorship of which was supposedly “proven” by linguistic forensic “scientist” Donald Foster (who apparantly has since rejected his own findings). Bloom also thinks Cormac McCarthy’s character Judge Holden from “Blood Meridian” is the only literary character as terrifying as Iago. See my review of “Blood Meridian” for what I think of that particular bit of nonsense. The theoretical Old Testament writer “J” is constantly brought forth as one of Shakespeare’s few fellow geniuses, this “J” being, of course, the basis of one of Bloom’s books (gotta keep that legacy out there so nobody forgets!). Bloom also believes that the mysterious “Ur-Hamlet” was actually written by Shakespeare (rather than some hack such as Thomas Kyd) – it might perhaps even be Shakespeare’s very first play, a failure which he rewrote (successfully, I might add) some years later. Actually, I find this theory kind of compelling, although as with so many other things in this book, Bloom merely asserts it (over and over again) rather than trying really to prove it. I am happy to report Bloom doesn’t think the Earl of Oxford really wrote the plays.

Far more annoying are those times Bloom insists on telling us how much he suffers for his appreciation of Shakespeare, and how he is assailed by a sea of knuckleheads: “As perhaps the last High Romantic Bardolator…” (p. 79) he’ll say, referring to his beleaguered self, the term “Bardolator” and “Bardolatry” apparently having once struck him as screamingly clever. Here is one that will make you throw up in your mouth a little bit: “As Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater, an archaic survival among Shakespearean critics, I do not hesitate to find an immense personal bitterness in “Timon of Athens”… (p. 589). These “bardolator” claims struck me as sad, pathetic attempts to establish a legacy for himself as the last of the humanists. Can you imagine Lionel Trilling making such claims? For all of Bloom’s agonies over our debased culture, his own ostensibly high-culture book too often descends to this kind of cheap self-satisfaction and advertising.

“Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human,” despite the bombast of its title, is primarily one of those old-fashioned readers guides to the Bard that used to get issued from the eggheads at the university for the vast Time-magazine-reading middlebrows who once belonged to the Book of the Month Club. It just so happens I came across a copy of one such effort, “Shakespeare” by Mark Van Doren (1939, in a c. 1950s Doubleday Anchor paperback reprint) which is pretty much doing the same thing Bloom is, with more economy. As one of the Last of the Muddled Middlebrows (that’s my legacy!), I appreciate the effort – I love Shakespeare, but often find myself lost or baffled by the language and those awful overly-elaborate plots. And so I unapologetically read footnotes, cribs, guides, etc. Just out of curiosity, I read Bloom on “As You Like It,” then I reread the play itself, then I read Van Doren’s take. Both were competent guides to the overall action and themes of the play. To be sure, Bloom is windier (pp. 202-225) than Van Doren (pp. 127-135). Van Doren had, I thought, more penetrating things to say about Touchstone; Bloom seemed to me rather incoherent on the clown. Van Doren’s prose is old-fashioned and florid (making it an unlikely candidate for a reissue), but Bloom’s regular-guy approach is awkward, often pointlessly prolix when not obfuscated by habitual academic abstractions and blatant advertisements for his own brilliance.


And yet…By the time I got to the end of the book, despite its flaws, I had warmed up to it considerably. For all his self-aggrandizement and academic harrumphing, Bloom’s book does have its virtues. If nothing else, Bloom’s quotes from other sources are generally quite interesting and to-the-point – I especially admired the Hazlett, Dr. Johnson, and Nietzsche quotes (I did not realize Nietzsche took such notice of Shakespeare). To some extent these quotes unintentionally show up the banality of Bloom’s prose, but I am glad for my own edification Bloom included them. Bloom’s love of Shakespeare, despite the fact he feels compelled to explain it to us (okay, okay, you are a Bardolator), is obviously genuine. Bloom is a smart guy who has spent a lot of time with Shakespeare, and much of the book is a competent reader’s guide with a fair amount of competent historical and biographical backgrounding. There are a couple of plays that I either never read or particularly cared for on stage that Bloom changed my mind about (“Richard II” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in particular). His take on the late plays (“Corolianus” and “Winter’s Tale” etc.) are sympathetic and convincing (the last sections of the book are less bombastic than the earlier bits).

Still, I wish Bloom were a better writer. For all its Falstaffian bulk, this is a fairly light book and it made me pine for Jarrell, Frank Kermode, Eliot, Trilling and other pre-theory critics of the not-so-distant past. These guys knew how to write! Which is to say that perhaps the most damning thing I can say about it is that I never once felt compelled to single out and save any of Bloom’s passages. Some of his ideas were worth a folded-down corner, and some of the works he quotes, but nothing he actually composed rose to the level of the quotable. My copies of Eliot’s “The Lives of the Poets” and all of Jarrell’s books of criticism, and Trilling’s “The Liberal Imagination” are dogeared and underlined a lot. I think this was supposed to be canonical, or at least the anchor to some future folio called “The Workes of Harold Bloome, Agnostick Doctor,” and although it had potential for such status, given Bloom’s mind and his love for Shakespeare, it doesn’t make it. It is too hasty, too repetitive, too herky-jerky in its academic vs. middelbrow aims. To some extent, Bloom makes the same basic mistake Clive James made with his “Cultural Amnesia” (which I reviewed for GoodReads): he wants to complain about our culture and its declining standards, and yet he does it in a sketchy, poorly-written fashion that leads the reader to wonder if Bloom and James are part of the problem rather than staunch defenders of the faith during the sad dissolution of Western Civ.

A few stray thoughts on the book’s overall organization and appearance: although the bulk of it is organized in a very straightforward play-by-play manner, on either end there are four separate bits of editorial Bloom: a “To the Reader” and “Shakespeare’s Universalism” at the front, then, after hundreds of pages of play-by-play discussion, two more pieces, “Coda: the Shakespearean Difference” and “A Word at the End: Foregrounding.” Why didn’t Bloom just compose a single large piece on his approach? Beats me, but the way it is here, he’s like a guy on the telephone who can’t quite hang up. It also gave me the impression that this book was, like Gertrude’s wedding, o’er hasty. Furthermore, the fact “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human” lacks an index is inexcusable given its author’s pretensions. The jacket illustration is Michaelangelo’s “Delphic Sibyl” for reasons I cannot fathom (Renaissance Hermeticism?). Finally, I hated the resolutely non-Renaissance san-serif type, which I found hard to read; I can’t tell you what exactly it is because books don’t carry those little dabs of font information anymore, apparently (“…Buttefucco Bold is based on a late-15th century Renaissance font designed by Josephus Buttefucco for a folio edition of Virgil…”). Whatever it is, it sucks.

Some fifteen years later, is “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human” still an “important” work? Maybe. Kinda. But probably nah. Which means, I guess, that Harold Bloom should still be anxious.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Bobby Bermea Loved your piece. Though you have to admit that you taking Bloom to task for being long-winded is, well, kinda funny.

message 2: by Peter (new)

Peter I think he does find it funny. After all, he wrote this: "This is blurb-writing, and Shakespeare doesn’t need any blurbs these days. It’s the kind of slack crap found in my Goodreads reviews."

Which is not true. Instead, this review is quite helpful and interesting. Thank you!

Rachael Thanks for this. I'm about halfway through the book and was getting both annoyed by and confused at the frequent references to overthrowing Marlowe. I wasn't familiar with Bloom before, but your review has now given me enough context with his scholarly background to no longer be confused, even if I still find it annoying.

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