Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

by Harold Bloom


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In Harold Bloom's New York Times bestselling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the world's foremost literary critic theorized on the authorship of the historic play Hamlet. In this engaging new stand-alone work, he offers a full and warmly personal account of the play itself, explores its extraordinary impact throughout the history of western literature, and seeks to uncover the mystery at its heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573223775
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 874,258
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.52(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Harold Bloom is a Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. As The Paris Review has pointed out, "no critic in the English language since Samuel Johnson has been more prolific." His more than thirty books include The Best Poems of the English Language, The Art of Reading Poetry, and The Book of J. He is a MacArthur Prize Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the Academy's Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, the International Prize of Catalonia, and the Alfonso Reyes Prize of Mexico.

Alfred Kazin has said, "Bloom is all literature, (he) positively lives it," and The New York Times called him "the most original literary critic in America." He lives in New Haven and New York.


New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut

Date of Birth:

July 11, 1930

Date of Death:

October 14, 2019

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

Read an Excerpt



Hamlet is part of Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy, and is of no genre. Of all poems, it is the most unlimited. As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures.

Contrary, doubtless, to Shakespeare's intention, Hamlet has become the center of a secular scripture. It is scarcely conceivable that Shakespeare could have anticipated how universal the play has proved to be. Ringed round it are summits of Western literature: the Iliad, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Macbeth, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time, among others. Except for Shakespeare's, no dramas are included. Aeschylus and Sophocles, Calderón and Racine are not secular, while I suggest the paradox that Dante, Milton, and Dostoevsky are secular, despite their professions of piety.

HAMLET'S OBSESSIONS are not necessarily Shakespeare's, though playwright and prince share an intense theatricality and a distrust of motives. Shakespeare is in the play not as Hamlet, but as the Ghost and as the First Player (Player King), roles he evidently acted. Of the Ghost, we are certain from the start that he indeed is King Hamlet's spirit, escaped from the afterlife to enlist his son to revenge:

If thou didst ever thy dear father love-


The spirit does not speak of any love for his son, who would appear to have been rather a neglected child. When not bashing enemies, the late warrior-king kept his hands upon Queen Gertrude, a sexual magnet. The graveyard scene (V.i) allows us to infer that the prince found father and mother in Yorick, the royal jester:

He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now-how abhorred in my imagination it is-my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.


Hamlet is his own Falstaff (as Harold Goddard remarked) because Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," raised him until the prince was seven. The Grave-digger, the only personage in the play witty enough to hold his own with Hamlet, tells us that Yorick's skull has been in the earth twenty-three years, and that it is thirty years since Hamlet's birth. Yet who would take the prince of the first four acts, a student at the University of Wittenberg (a German Protestant institution, famous for Martin Luther), as having reached thirty? Like his college chums, the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet can be no older than about twenty at the start, and the lapsed time represented in the tragedy cannot be more than eight weeks, at the most. Shakespeare, wonderfully careless on matters of time and space, wanted a preternaturally matured Hamlet for Act V.

Though we speak of act and scene divisions, and later in this little book I will center upon the final act, these are not Shakespeare's divisions, since all his plays were performed straight through, without intermissions, at the Globe Theatre. The uncut Hamlet, in our modern editions, which brings together all verified texts, runs to nearly four thousand lines, twice the length of Macbeth. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, and the prince's role (at about fifteen hundred lines) is similarly unique. Only if you run the two parts of Henry IV together (as we should) can you find a Shakespearean equivalent, with Falstaff's role as massive, though unlike Hamlet my sublime prototype speaks prose only-the best prose in the language, except perhaps for Hamlet's.

The Tragical Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke stands apart among Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, quite aside from its universal fame. Its length and variety are matched by its experimentalism. After four centuries, Hamlet remains our world's most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality, just as Hamlet himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed. I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do. I have been willing to call such a stance Bardolatry, which seems to me only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare.

HOW SHOULD we begin reading Hamlet, or how attend it in performance, in the unlikely event of finding the play responsibly directed? I suggest that we try to infer just how the young man attired in black became so formidably unique an individual. Claudius addresses the prince as "my son," meaning he has adopted his nephew as royal heir, but also gallingly reminding Hamlet that he is a stepson by marriage. The first line spoken by Hamlet is, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," while the next concludes punningly, "I am too much in the sun." Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually may be Claudius's son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude? His notorious hesitations at hacking down Claudius stem partly from the sheer magnitude of his consciousness, but they may also indicate a realistic doubt as to his paternity.

We are left alone with Hamlet for the first of his seven soliloquies. Its opening lines carry us a long way into the labyrinths of his spirit:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew...


The First Folio gives us "solid flesh," while the Second Quarto reads "sallied flesh." While "sallied" could mean "assailed," it is probably a variant for "sullied." Hamlet's recoil from sullied flesh justifies D. H. Lawrence's dark observation that "a sense of corruption in the flesh makes Hamlet frenzied, for he will never admit that it is his own flesh." Lawrence's aversion remains very striking: "A creeping, unclean thing he seems....His nasty poking and sniffling at his mother, his traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable." Though Lawrence's perspective is disputable, we need not contest it, because Lawrence himself did: "For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go...and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence." We can sympathize with Lawrence's ambivalence: that "a creeping, unclean thing" should also be "as sincere as the Holy Spirit" is the essence of Hamlet's view of humankind, and of himself in particular.

The central question then becomes: How did Hamlet develop into so extraordinarily ambivalent a consciousness? I think we may discount any notion that the double shock of his father's sudden death and his mother's remarriage has brought about a radical change in him. Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother, and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling, nurtured by Yorick, yet fathered by himself, an actor-playwright from the start, though it would not be helpful to identify him with his author. Shakespeare distances Hamlet from himself, partly by appearing on stage at his side, as paternal ghost and as Player King, but primarily by endowing the prince with an authorial consciousness of his own, as well as with an actor's proclivities. Hamlet, his own Falstaff, is also his own Shakescene, endlessly interested in theater. Indeed, his first speech that goes beyond a single line is also his first meditation upon acting:

These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show...


In some sense, Hamlet's instructions to the actors go on throughout the play, which is probably the best of all textbooks on the purposes of playing. Hamlet is neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but an enthusiastic and remarkably informed amateur of the theater. He certainly seems to have spent more time playing truant at the Globe in London than studying at Wittenberg. The Ghost exits, murmuring, "Remember me," and we hear Hamlet reminding the Globe audience that he is one of them:

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.


Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack My Heart with Words, for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something. For Hamlet, the play's the thing, and not just to mousetrap Claudius. At the very close, Hamlet fears a wounded name. I suggest that his anxiety pertains not to being a belated avenger, but to his obsessions as a dramatist.

—from Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom, Copyright © 2003 by Harold Bloom, Published by Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., All Rights Reserved, Reprinted with Permission from the Publisher.

Table of Contents

Hamlet: Poem UnlimitedPreface

One: Inferring Hamlet
Two: Horatio
Three: Plays Within Plays Within Plays
Four: Two Soliloquies
Five: Ophelia
Six: Shakespeare to the Players
Seven: The Mousetrap: Contrary Will
Eight: Gertrude
Nine: Claudius
Ten: The Impostume
Eleven: The Grave-Digger
Twelve: Wonder-Wounded Hearers
Thirteen: In My Heart There was a Kind of Fighting
Fourteen: We Defy Augury
Fifteen: Let It Be
Sixteen: Apotheosis and Tragedy
Seventeen: Hamlet and the High Places
Eighteen: Fortinbras
Nineteen: Had I But Time—O, I Could Tell You
Twenty: Annihilation: Hamlet's Wake
Twenty-One: The Fusion of High and Popular Art
Twenty-Two: Hamlet As the Limit of Stage Drama
Twenty-Three: The End of Our Time
Twenty-Four: The Hero of Consciousness
Twenty-Five: Hamlet and No End

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"An intellectual fireworks display." —San Jose Mercury News

"Not perhaps since Samuel Johnson has a critic explained to a general audience as ably as Mr. Bloom does how much Shakespeare matters to our sense of who we are." —New York Times

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Hamlet: Poem Unlimited 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a Harold Bloom enuthusiast. I've read his THE BOOK OF J, THE AMERICAN RELIGION, THE WESTERN CANON and SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN; and enjoyed every one of them; and I have recommended one or the other of them to virtually everyone I know. I do so again to anyone reading this review. But HAMLET: POEM UNLIMITED is a rip-off. It's 154 pages are half filled with quotes from Shakespeare's plays. The book ought be only 77 pages and half the price. Better yet, perhaps it ought to be added to SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN as an appendix to a second edition. Anyone literate enough to follow HAMLET: POEM UNLIMITED at all has a copy of the play and fully capable of looking up by Act, Scene and line any reference to which Bloom may have her or him read. This book has received rave reviews by the critics--for what? Solely on Bloom's reputation? Intelligent readers will know it for what it is, but too late to recover their investment. Save your money and wait for it to show up in your local library where you can check it out for free. HAMLET: POEM UNLIMITED is the author's half-baked ideas he himself edited out of SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN. If you're not a Bloom fanatic (like me), don't even bother borrowing it from the library. For all his love for 'Hamlet' and Hamlet, Harold Bloom's interpretations are stale and simply wrong. 'Hamlet' is something he hasn't yet imagined.
michaelm42071 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bloom says early on that this book is an extension of his remarks on Hamlet in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), where he admits he got bound up in questions about the original Hamlet play and didn¿t say what he intended to about this play. ¿I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do,¿ he writes in the first chapter. ¿I have been willing to call such a stance Bardolatry, which seems to me only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare.¿Reading this long essay (scarcely 150 pages, with generous margins), I am strongly reminded of that other Bardolater, Thomas De Quincey, who apostrophizes Shakespeare in ¿On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth¿ by saying ¿Thy works are . . . like the phenomena of nature . . . to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties.¿ Bloom seems to be arguing, not that De Quincey reads Shakespeare as a Romantic because De Quincey was a Romantic, but rather that Shakespeare invented Romantic sensibility and enabled De Quincey:[early in Act V] Hamlet is already in his own place, the high place of his dying . . . . It is the place where even the most acute of all self-consciousnesses, Hamlet¿s, will lose the shadow of self while continuing to expand as a consciousness. What we have called Western Romanticism is the last embellishment of Hamlet¿s great shadow, cast off to become a thousand other selves.¿Hamlet discovers,¿ Bloom had written a little earlier, ¿that his life has been a quest with no object except his own endlessly burgeoning subjectivity.¿
HamletteTheDame More than 1 year ago
This book is crammed with so many thoughts and ideas about "Hamlet" that I have never encountered before that I really feel almost addled. If you've studied Hamlet before and wish you understood more of it, or if you love Hamlet and are always eager to see new angles and perspectives on it, by all means, get thee to a library or book store and find a copy. While I don't agree with all of Bloom's conclusions, he has so many excellent observations and ideas that I now find this book invaluable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an 18 year old recent high school graduate who plans to major in English next year. I will admit that I have nothing to which I can compare this book, as it is the first book of this kind that I have read. I read it in about February of this past year, after my AP English teacher told my class about it. One of my classmates beat me to the library's copy and, after she raved about it, I went in for the kill. Hamlet is by far my favorite Shakespearean tragedy. The essays in this books only added to the genius that is Hamlet...and Shakespeare. It is highly accessible for most readers, and actually makes for an enjoyable read. I strongly recommend it to anyone with a moderately strong interest in Shakespeare.