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From Barnes & NobleThe Shakespearean Canon
Where do personality and character come from? You may think they come from your parents, or you may think they come from God. If you belong to the "School of Resentment" Harold Bloom loves to deride, you may imagine character traits to be determined by one's location on the matrix of race, class, and gender. Whatever your position, chances are that you're wrong: Neither God nor family nor society invented you, but one William Shakespeare, "the man from Stratford." Such at least is the argument that literary critic Harold Bloom propounds in his typically audacious new book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
Shakespeare's plays remain, for Bloom, "the fixed center of the Western canon" because "their influence upon life has been nearly as enormous as their effect upon post-Shakespearean literature." Not only literary characters but we ourselves derive from Shakespeare: "Had Shakespeare been murdered at twenty-nine, like Christopher Marlowe...we all of us might be gamboling about, but without mature Shakespeare we would be very different, because we would think and feel and speak differently." Certainly some of Shakespeare's figures are mere caricatures, but as Bloom traces Shakespeare's career, moving more or less chronologically through each of the 39 plays and infusing literary criticism with an unusual narrative force, we see the playwright progressing from such two-dimensional screens of inspired rhetoric as Richard III, who "has no inwardness," to the solidity of A Midsummer Night's Dream's Bottom the Weaver, and finally to the run of bottomlessly real and living characters that commences with Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One and concludes with the eponymous principals of Antony and Cleopatra. After the astonishing 14 consecutive months in which he composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, even Shakespeare, Bloom suggests, "was wary of further quests into the interior." Shakespeare depicts and creates the "interior" of the great characters through what Bloom calls their "self-overhearing," their self-conscious monitoring of the always-shifting relationship between what they say and what they do and are. "Iago and Edmund [the villains of Othello and King Lear, respectively] are the most Shakespearean characters because in them, and by them, the radical gap between words and actions is most fully exploited." Into this gap rushes meaning, and personality.
"The dominant Shakespearean characters," Bloom insists, "are extraordinary instances not only of how meaning gets started, rather than repeated, but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being." Whatever our own mode of consciousness, it was probably inaugurated by Shakespeare. Shakespeare thus turns out to have invented, say, Newt Gingrich or Harold Bloom: "Newt is a parody of Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and Bloom a parody of Falstaff." This must surprise the Speaker of the House; it delights Bloom, and probably seems to him an instance of innocent Falstaffian self-love, for Falstaff is Bloom's favorite character in all Shakespeare. Even the extravagance of these somewhat silly claims can be seen in terms of Falstaffian exuberance.
Since Bloom approaches Shakespeare's work through character, his account of each play naturally centers on that play's most vivid personage. A Midsummer Night's Dream becomes Bottom's play; As You Like It would be better termed, to Bloom's mind, "As Rosalind Likes It"; and the Henry IV plays belong, of course, to Bloom's beloved Falstaff, the fat, jesting, impossibly intelligent knight. Falstaff is "a great vitalist," teaching us "the perfection and virtual divinity of knowing how to enjoy our being rightfully." Fat Jack refuses to grow old and insists that, for all his white hair and rolls of fat, he has not aged a day in his life: "My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head, and something of a round belly." Bloom refuses to see such a figure as mere words upon a page. Falstaff creates us, not we him. And so real is Falstaff to Bloom that Prince Hal's rejection of the fat knight seems to grieve deeply the literature professor.
Still, for all Bloom's emphasis on "the invention of the human," his insights are not exclusively characterological. And despite his own preference for Falstaffian gusto, Bloom does not shy away from recognizing the darkness of so much of Shakespeare. "The authentic Shakespearean litany," Bloom observes, "chants variations on the word 'nothing,' and the uncanniness of nihilism haunts almost every play, even the great, relatively unmixed comedies." Bloom's last big book, The Western Canon, was joyously received by cultural conservatives, but his account in the new book of King Lear can hardly give comfort to trumpeters of "family values": "Shakespeare's intimation is that the only authentic love is between parents and children, yet the prime consequence of such love is only devastation." For Bloom, the reason to read Shakespeare is not that he will make us happy or wise. We must read Shakespeare because he has already made us, just as we are.
Shakespeare: The Inventionof the Human is a delightfully against-the-grain book. It revives the Great Man Theory of History while at the same time dispensing with any notion of literature's moral usefulness. In an age in which few people have time for poetry, it flouts Auden's claim that "poetry makes nothing happen." Poetry, it turns out, can make everything happen.