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The Globe and Mail

Shakespeare and Bloom: a marriage of true minds

The great playwright, says the U.S. supercritic and bardolator,
devised characters who by their dramatic example extended the
range of mankind's self-consciousness and expression.
SHAKESPEARE: The Invention of the Human

Saturday, December 19, 1998
REX MURPHY

By Harold Bloom
Riverhead, 745 pages, $49

Harold Bloom on Shakespeare has been long awaited. The spectacle of a first-class, well-stocked mind rendering an account of the primary and singular genius of English literature is of the greatest interest. Such was the experience when Northrop Frye engaged the closing years of his life in a masterful survey, over two volumes, of the imaginative and literary relationship between the Bible and English literature.

Both Frye and Bloom "wrapped up" in two volumes: Frye's The Great Code and Words as Power were meditations on the single theme of the Bible's transcendent influence on human creativity. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human was preceded by Bloom's 1994 work, The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages,in which Bloom made the provocative declaration that Shakespeare is the canon. He returns in this book to tell us how little that assessment is an overstatement.

Shakespeare operates at the very pitch of linguistic and lexical power. His poetical resource is massive and unparalleled. In the fields of rhetoric, image or metaphor, in lyric address, range, subtlety and plenitude of diction, disposition of verbal harmonies and contrasts, verse drive and texture, liveliness of representation -- in sheer force and certitude of assigning words in their fullest reach and beauty -- no other writer may sustain more than a circumscribed and restricted comparison with Shakespeare. In this sense, Bloom is right. Shakespeare is the canon.

Still, it is a mighty claim, and a book that sets out to uphold it has to be persuasive, learned, joyous and powerful. It has to revisit the playfield of all the mighty critics, refresh our understanding and estimation of Shakespeare, revivify his impact on us and realert us to what matters in his work. The esteem most of us hold for the lord of language is vague and glowing, a halo of habitual esteem, our consent to his greatness not much past a ritual. He has been smothered in paean since the days of Ben Johnson. Bloom's book has set itself a terrible assignment. How does it fare?

It is all that it should be. It is the casebook of a gigantic enthusiasm. All literary criticism is an enthusiasm attempting to justify itself. "The better to enjoy life, or the better to endure it," was Samuel Johnson's perfectly expressed caption for the cause of literature. The critic looks to literature to unseal the springs of that enjoyment or endurance. Bloom, the bardolator, has felt the force and wonder of Shakespearean poetry and holds the deepest conviction of its worth and beauty. This, he cries, is what literature, the holy craft of words and beauty, has to offer for us all.

All great criticism of Shakespeare -- that of Johnson, Coleridge, A. C. Bradley, Borges -- is mere paraphrase, though there is an ocean in that "mere." Not paraphrase in the drudge sense of recapitulation of plots or the dreadful mauling found in prose summaries of great speeches and famous scenes. Rather paraphrase in the sense of an attempt to restate the Shakespearean effect in the language of response.

When one of the great readers -- a Coleridge, or now a Bloom -- makes a full effort to account for his response, the term has implications of an intense commitment to clarity. Our readings are deepened, enhanced and pointed toward fulfilment. Great readers are as rare as great writers, and almost as blessed. They are our aesthetic sherpas.

The book is a continous meditation, play by play, beginning with The Comedy of Errors and terminating with the jointly authored (with John Fletcher) The Two Noble Kinsmen.The effort is to catch the growth of what Bloom calls the power of Shakespearean characters "to reconceive themselves." The creation of character is the pre-eminent Shakespearean gift, "a virtual miracle" toward which "the accurate stance is one of awe." It is not the least pleasure of this book that it gives itself so plainly to such hosannas. We do not hear much of awe or miracles in the tight, brittle lingo of modern "literary" studies. The hermetic willfulness and prideful abstractionism of so much current academic practice affrights as much as it affronts -- and it's silly to boot. Jargon is a swamp, not a fortress. Bloom's exuberance is a style of candour.

Bloom's argument is subtle without being difficult. Shakespeare, he argues, has devised characters who by their dramatic example and practice extend the range of human self-consciousness and human expression. Not that certain human emotions or thoughts would not have come into being without Shakespeare, but that he devised the modes of self-awareness by which those thoughts and emotions are recognized as belonging to us as human beings. Further, through his uncanny dramatic imagination and unequalled expressive force, he gave those thoughts and emotions their primary verbal being. In other words, Shakespeare extended the repertoire of human sensibility.

Hamlet is the sublime figure of articulate self-consciousness, a genius of awareness and expressiveness. Falstaff is both the pioneer and the emblem of mind (and body) at play. Lear is consciousness emergent upon its own collapse. These three, the trinity of Bloom's bardolatry, and the whole caravan of other characters, have literally peopled our imagination, made available whole categories of scrutiny, response and emotional resource that not ours before the intervention of the plays.

This is the text of Bloom's psalter. I would not have Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human reduced to its theme, however, though contrary to some I think Bloom more than makes the case that the idea of "inventing" the human expands our reception of Shakespeare, which is a neat circle. This book is much more than a generous thesis argued. It is also a serial reading of the plays. I was convinced the chapter on The Merchant of Venice,especially the discussion and subtle exfoliation of the character of Shylock, was the best. But then came the chapter on Hamlet, which is a prodigy of literate understanding and inquiry, and then came one on Lear. Bloom's chapters read better than most short stories. The response to Lear is (for me) the high mark; the most sublime tragedy receives the most forceful, most persuasive engagement, and the best writing. Lear clearly inspires him:

"The Fool and Lear sing trios with the undertaker, in this great spiritual chorus of things falling apart."This is my favourite sentence in a book spangled with maxim and axiom. If there must be critics, let them all write like this. Maybe this is something Bloom has learned from his self-claimed master, Samuel Johnson, whose own majestic preface on Shakespeare -- it is no coincidence -- was also Johnson's most beautiful prose, a lyric of appreciation: What is loved deeply will be graciously expressed.

At its deepest core, Bloom's Shakespeare is an articulation of the value and joy of humane letters. His 800-page fan letter to the Bard of Avon, and his generous and frequent salutes to Samuel Johnson, the great poet and the great appreciator, is a passioned accounting of what literature means to life. The advocacy is built upon a simple silent premise: If Shakespeare is the richest, finest, fullest illustration of the human imaginative impulse in literature, then an honest, argued and thorough accounting of one lifetime's profound response to him will ineluctably say why literature matters.

No one will read this book and not see it as scrupulous, magnificently engaged and intelligent, alert to the very edge of interpretative acuity. Which is to say, no one will read it and not breathe some of Bloom's continuous astonishment and joy when he is overcome by what another interpreter so aptly named "the Shakespearean moment."

Astonishment and joy are gifts of the human condition, additions to our circumstance in this vale of tears. Shakespeare -- poetry -- is the majestic provider of human wonder and beauty. That is why he matters and why, in all plainness, literature is good for us.

Harold Bloom has done a work of rescue and celebration. I have but one complaint. This book, in its scant 750 or so pages, is too short.
Contributing reviewer Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and a reporter and commentator for The National Magazine.

Recent Related Reading

Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan (Oxford University Press, 479 pages, $72.50

). The price will probably keep this out of the hands of all but the most devout bardolator (see above). That's too bad, because Honan, a professor of English at the University of Leeds, offers a lively portrait of a man who remains one of our most profound mysteries. This relatively sober account, eschewing the wilder shores of speculation, is particularly good on Shakepeare's early years in Stratford and on the apparent cautiousness of his character, both professionally and personally. This does not feel like the portrait of a genius, but rather of a very astute theatrical personage. Still, there are those plays.

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