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Culture Wars: Does life imitate Shakespeare?

Harold Bloom talked to Claire Fox about Shakespeare, the 'invention of the human', and bar-room behaviour

'I am delighted to be the renegade, the authorised pariah as it were, the fool with a capital F.' Professor Harold Bloom seems to delight in playing up his unpopularity among fellow literary critics. Mind you, judging by the controversy caused by his new book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he may have a point.

Bloom always elicits huge hostility from the literary establishment, and never more so than with his latest work. At 300 000 words and over 750 pages, with a substantial essay for each play, critics have called Shakespeare: the invention of the human overlong, overblown, repetitious and a slog. While lambasting the 'vituperative' tone of the reviews and the credentials of the reviewers (John Carey and Stanley Wells are of 'such sub-intelligence'; Gary Taylor is 'an idiot'; Stanley Carvell is 'inedible, unspeakable'), Bloom readily accepts some of the criticism. He says the book is a rather 'ramshackle affair' which relatively few will read all the way through, and admits that he is 'not sure what gets in this book and what doesn't'.

But the literati are not normally so averse to long and ramshackle books. The main reason why Shakespeare has incensed them is its central argument: that Shakespeare invented our modern sense of the self and illuminated human nature, through creating three-dimensional, complex human beings, recognisable as such.

'Hamlet and Falstaff, Rosalind and Iago, Lear and Cleopatra are clearly more than great roles for actors and actresses. It is difficult not to assume that Hamlet is as ancient a hero as Achilles or Oedipus, or not to believe that Falstaff was as historical a personality as Socrates.' Bloom himself seems to want to personify the point. He was obviously delighted when one of his colleagues told him that 'like any really good book on Shakespeare, it has to be written by one of the really great Shakespearean characters. There's no doubt which character wrote this book'. Harold Bloom is Falstaff.

Whatever the book's faults or the author's eccentricities, Shakespeare is a great humanist cry, pointing towards an explanation of why Shakespeare was a universal thinker. To Bloom, Shakespeare's plays provide the first real evidence of individual personality as we know it. 'In the Bible, in Homer, in Euripides, even in Dante, men and women sicken and grow old, their relationship to God or the gods changes, they die but they do not change because they never overhear themselves as they do in Shakespeare. They don't change because they don't reconceive or perspectivise themselves. The doomed beings in Euripides even - let alone in Socrates - do not have personalities as we understand personalities.'

Bloom's book brings to the surface the way that Shakespeare, in literary terms, reflected the revolution in society when modern human consciousness came to the fore, and men, previously acted on by the gods, became actors in the world themselves. He explains this as 'the movement from characterisation to character via the introduction of the personality'.

Bloom skilfully unravels the devices used by Shakespeare to transform humanity's literary persona into the three-dimensional personalities, which now influence our own self-reflection and introspection. These devices - soliloquies, asides, over-hearings, and so on - are now part of our theatrical tradition, but they represent a great deal more. Shakespeare's dramatic representation has been so influential, argues Bloom, that it has invented the human in Western civilisation. 'I do not know whether God created Shakespeare, but I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether greater degree.' He is not alone in thinking this. As William W Kerrigan wrote in Linguafranca, 'Shakespeare invented literary character as we know it, and insofar as we create ourselves in and through literature, Shakespeare has invented us' ('The case for Bardolatry', November 1998). And against those critics who claim that earlier writers than Shakespeare got there first, Bloom acknowledges that Chaucer was Shakespeare's 'authentic influence' and his 'starting point'. But the depiction of complete personalities in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is 'fitful', confined to the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.

Bloom is reluctant to take my point that Shakespeare the creator was himself the creation of an historic moment, emerging at the birth of the modern age in the post-Reformation era of the sixteenth century. He is wary of the historicist's formulation that historical context should take precedence over literary content, which has the associated suggestion that Shakespeare was less a genius than a narrow mouthpiece for the politics and productive forces of his day. 'It's purely dialectical. One can indeed see how fortunate he was to have been born where and when he was born. But to try and confine his mind, his achievement, his work, his art, his vision to those 30 years of Elizabethan and Jacobean history in the Foucault-inspired historicism and cultural determinism is an absurdity.' Foucault, he explains, was 'a fellow whom I knew fairly well. We used to drink together although we didn't always get along'.

Bloom's version of Shakespeare holds that his greatness was innate, as if his imagination were always going to triumph in any circumstances. For me, it is equally certain that history threw up the moment that allowed individuality to be expressed by Shakespeare's genius. But this is a quibble. It is the context of the book that makes Bloom's work so valuable. Shakespeare: the invention of the human has caused a storm precisely because it is not about history, but about today. The notion that Shakespeare was a universal thinker, capable of transcending the boundaries of his immediate historical circumstances, is heresy in today's relativist literary criticism.

Bloom has written Shakespeare in opposition to the ruling cabal of Shakespeare professionals. When a colleague mischievously commented that the book would set Shakespeare criticism back 100 years, Bloom boasts to me that he retorted 'that's wonderful, that's exactly what I want to do'. He is attempting to bring back character criticism, an approach that rose to prominence in the Romantic criticism of Coleridge and Hazlitt and sought to counter the Aristotelian idea that character was subordinate to action. But for at least two decades, Shakespeare studies has been dominated by New Historicism. For example, Stephen Greenblatt infamously declared in 1981 that any individual's belief that he is free to shape himself is merely 'the ideological product of the relations of power in a society', thus dismissing human agency altogether. Bloom describes Greenblatt as 'a minor league thug' and bitterly recounts how his former student announced to a thousand people in the Carnegie Theatre that 'I was indeed many years ago Professor Bloom's student, but I'm delighted to tell this audience that I never learned anything from him'.

Bloom's particular approach is shaped by his desire to counter the prevailing prejudices of literary criticism. It is a purposely one-sided and heavy-handed polemic. But this approach has almost been wilfully misrepresented by critics who insist on reading the book literally, insisting that Bloom's claim that Shakespeare 'invented the human' is an argument rather than a polemical attitude. Professor John Carey even suggests a hint of senility as he rejects the alleged Bloom thesis that Shakespeare literally created human personality, as though he was a latter-day god. But Bloom's subtlety is clear when he writes, 'while it is true that Shakespeare's persons are only images or complex metaphors, our pleasure in Shakespeare primarily comes from the persuasive illusion that these shadows are cast by entities as substantial as ourselves'. As for Carey, 'this man would not know a trope or a metaphor if it bit his backside. What can you do with such people? This horrible literal-mindedness has always been a curse of the academy in the teaching of literature'.

Bloom is equally scathing of those critics who accuse him of neglecting Shakespeare's language in the book. Indignantly, he points out that he 'touches on all 39 plays, the bloody book is 750 pages, the publisher had warned me that that was the absolute limit'. In any case, he says, he has written 24 books of literary criticism and these critics are missing the essential ingredients of this project - to restore the centrality of character to a reading of Shakespeare. 'I am interested here in primarily what has vanished - to the exclusion of almost everything else - simply because the book is meant to be restorative. I am just redirecting readers and potential playgoers to something that is not talked about.'

Bloom makes much of these readers and playgoers, saying that he has written the book for them alone. As the book has sold 116 000 copies in the USA he has obviously struck a chord. But he is adamant that he does not want 'a single Shakespeare scholar or person who teaches literature to read it. I am not writing this for literary critics'. I ask whether his appeal to the 'common playgoer and common reader' is similar to other attempts at popularising Shakespeare, and he is quick to make the difference. He is not attempting the tiresome search for the plays' 'relevance' that has reduced Shakespeare to an ill-informed commentator on the politics of our day, and he condemns 'popularising directors' as 'the great curse of Shakespeare at this time, besides the horrors of the academy'.

So many modern productions are 'disastrous debasements' which either 'politicise' Shakespeare or 'absurdly modernise' him. 'I don't think there's a living Shakespearean actor I enjoy more than Ian McKellen, but I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music a couple of years ago to see Mr Richard Eyre's production of Richard III and I was furious. It was Sir Oswald Mosely, not Richard III. That is debasement. And that Kenneth Branagh - he is such an idiot. He's a bad actor and a bad director. That Henry V was unbearable: that long section where this butcher walks the length of the battlefield and beyond, while they are singing the praise of the Lord and he's holding a dead boy in his hand. What has this got to do with the text of Shakespeare? It just allows Branagh to look sort of noble.'

For Bloom, the assumption that the common playgoer will only 'get' Shakespeare if directors make it modern is 'ghastly, ghastly'. But he is no purist; he simply argues that Shakespeare should be retained through the text in any modern adaptation. 'My students persuaded me to see that DiCaprio film Romeo and Juliet, and I rather liked the fact that it stuck to the actual text. It is superior because every single line is pure Shakespeare - so all I'll say is, give the text some chance.'

Bloom's general objection is to the politicised moral superiority which now informs the study of literature. One colleague commented that if Shakespeare is the man Bloom says he is, he understood the evil of the Holocaust. 'This is ridiculous. The invention of the human does not include the invention of Nazi beasts.' I am reminded of the point that Lisa Jardine makes in Reading Shakespeare Historically (1996): 'The conceptual struggle between gender and nationality in Henry V did not become part of my own dialogue with the play until the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the personal tragedies of the young Bosnians who entered my classroom forced it upon me.' Bloom is not a Jardine fan. 'That ball thrower, I won't speak to her. Once Ms Jardine ended her diatribe by shaking her fist at me and crying out on behalf of the feminist critics, "we'll stop interrupting you, Harold, when you start listening to us". The effrontery of these people is astonishing.'

Bloom may attack the 'usual suspects' in Shakespeare, but he is insightful as to the limits of their analyses, which tell us more about the academic fashions of the day than about Shakespeare's plays. 'You are likely, if you are shrewd, to achieve Shakespearean insights into your favourite hobbyhorse, but you are rather less likely to achieve Freudian or Marxist or feminist insight into Shakespeare.'

Bloom's special concern is what is happening in academia, where literature is politicised at the expense of the texts. He recounts how his old friend Anthony Hackett had wept after reading the book, because since he retired from the University of Georgetown, the principal lecturer on Shakespeare tells his classes that Juliet and her nurse are having a lesbian affair. 'You could turn the text upside down and shake it and you still can't produce a lesbian affair.' He calls the changes in the substance of university teaching a 'cultural tragedy', and is horrified that students can get a BA, MA or even a doctorate in English without ever having read Shakespeare, Chaucer or Milton. 'Then there's the outrage in the study of Romantic poetry. Suddenly it isn't Blake, Shelley, Keats, Lord B, Coleridge and the greatest of all - Wordsworth. It's Charlotte Armstrong et al, who couldn't write her way out of a paper bag. The madness!'

But Bloom's sense of isolation is mitigated by his students. 'The undergraduates don't want any of this, they really would like just to be taught Shakespeare.' He has faith in their integrity but worries about their fate, and recently has tried to persuade them to 'flee the academy' and 'go into the professions to become a literary critic on your own'. He had some hope for their future in the media, but has become disillusioned that 'those who have taken over the universities have extended their influence way beyond, and now the media are being heavily "PC'd"'. For those determined to stay within the university world, especially the 'tougher young women', he counsels 'all right, stay in the academy because you can fight it out. They are not going to make you a politicised feminist in spite of yourself because you insist upon yourself, and you're so bright that you'll be able to do it'. He is less sure about the young men. 'For them to go through that barrage - I can hardly recommend it.'

Bloom is wary of viewing the present state of culture as a war, with the debate characterised as two discreet poles of opinion, and places himself between - or above - two academic camps: 'the mouldy figs' (the old school) and 'these resentniks, the School of Resentment'. He refuses to adopt the obvious labels. An elitist? 'I'm a proletarian through and through! I am a son of a Bronx garment worker from Odessa and a splendid lady, a housewife who had come from near Brest Litovsk. Both never learned to speak English.' Bloom spoke only Yiddish until he taught himself English as a six-year old, by reading William Blake. 'Still at night when I fall asleep, I basically talk to myself in Yiddish.' Even though he is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, he does not have insider status. He resigned from the Yale staff 23 years ago: 'Yale did not want me. After a terrible fight with a nest of vipers, I said "just make me a professor of nothing in particular - Dr Pangloss".'

For one so robust, Bloom is more pessimistic about the future state of culture than I had imagined. 'If there was a war we lost it.' He finally quotes King Leonidas, the Spartan commander at Thermopylae, telling his men 'they have the numbers, we the heights'. He concluded, 'that's exactly where we are now, and sooner or later they climb up and they will overwhelm you. I don't see how that's to be stopped'.

This grim ending to a conversation with somebody who exudes energy and enthusiasm seems less than apt, and I call him a bar-room maudlin. Earlier Bloom had cited the treatment he handed out to Jonathon Bates, whose review in the Wall Street Journal claimed he had all the manners of a bar-room bore. 'I hit the roof - I mean a bar-room bore, how dare he? I am particularly charming in bars. As a Falstaffian I have to be. I wrote him a letter - "Dear Mr Bates, since you have referred to me as a bar-room bore, no further correspondence is possible between us as I do not wish to speak to you again, do not answer this letter".' But he takes my point in good part. 'I go on fighting', he says. 'I am not as gentle as I pretend'.

Buy Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human from amazon.co.uk:

Professor Harold Bloom: a born-again Falstaff?

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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