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Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Paperback – September 1, 1999
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"Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare's greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness." So Harold Bloom opines in his outrageously ambitious Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This is a titanic claim. But then this is a titanic book, wrought by a latter-day critical colossus--and before Bloom is done with us, he has made us wonder whether his vision of Shakespeare's influence on the whole of our lives might not be simply the sober truth. Shakespeare is a feast of arguments and insights, written with engaging frankness and affecting immediacy. Bloom ranges through the Bard's plays in the probable order of their composition, relating play to play and character to character, maintaining all the while a shrewd grasp of Shakespeare's own burgeoning sensibility.
It is a long and fascinating itinerary, and one littered with thousands of sharp insights. Listen to Bloom on Romeo and Juliet: "The Nurse and Mercutio, both of them audience favorites, are nevertheless bad news, in different but complementary ways." On The Merchant of Venice: "To reduce him to contemporary theatrical terms, Shylock would be an Arthur Miller protagonist displaced into a Cole Porter musical, Willy Loman wandering about in Kiss Me Kate." On As You Like It: "Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share." Bloom even offers some belated vocational counseling to Falstaff, identifying him as an Elizabethan Mr. Chips: "Falstaff is more than skeptical, but he is too much of a teacher (his true vocation, more than highwayman) to follow skepticism out to its nihilistic borders, as Hamlet does."
In the end, it doesn't matter very much whether we agree with all or any of these ideas. What does matter is that Bloom's capacious book sends us hurrying back to some of the central texts of our civilization. "The ultimate use of Shakespeare," the author asserts, "is to let him teach you to think too well, to whatever truth you can sustain without perishing." Bloom himself has made excellent use of his hero's instruction, and now he teaches us all to do the same. --Daniel Hintzsche --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In some ways the crowning achievement of the controversial Yale critic's career (which has produced The Anxiety of Influence; The Book of J; etc.), this sweeping monograph devotes an essay to each of the plays, emphasizing their originality and their influence on subsequent literature, feeling and thought. The result is a series of brilliant, persuasive, highly idiosyncratic readings punctuated by attacks on current Shakespeare criticism and performance. The ratio of screed to reading is blessedly low; although Bloom has kept his common touch, one feels that he has ceased the play to the peanut gallery that made The Western Canon a cause c?l?bre. The leitmotif of Shakespeare's "invention of the human," i.e., of the changeable, individual human character, is a useful through-line to the essays but never highjacks them as Bloom's critical tropes sometimes do. Other extravagant claimsAthat Shakespeare wrote an early version of Hamlet between 1589 and '93, or that the playwright may have lived in physical terror of his street-tough rival MarloweAmay raise eyebrows, but they will not matter to readers who need this book. Those readers fall into two categories: performers and everyone who studies Shakespeare outside the academy. For the latter, Bloom is an ideal cicerone: a passionate, sensitive reader who tempers his irreverent common sense with an even-more-instructive stance of awe. And no criticAnot even Bloom's masters A.C. Bradley or Harold GoddardAwrites as well for actors and directors, or understands as clearly the performability of the plays. Indeed, it is a great pity that Bloom has not followed the example of Helen Vendler's recent edition of the sonnets and included a recording of his own recitations. BOMC main.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
But remember, Bloom was not just your average guy chewing his cud -- he's probably the most well-read and brilliant reader of our generation. Due to a sleep disorder that he had, he often would stay up all night and would typically consume several volumes of literature in one evening. So, when forced to listen to his musings, there are many kernels of brilliance that make their way to the surface. Many professors have begrudged him his popular success, but by avoiding jargon, Bloom does us all a service by popularizing Shakespeare for everyday readers and making us want to go back and read and reread Shakespeare. At the very least, these chapters will make you run to a bookstore to read more Shakespeare -- how can you criticize anyone who instills a passion for literature? I have read all of Bloom's major works and enjoyed them for many of the same reasons I list above. Buy this one and read a chapter or two at a time along with the plays. It's a book to be savored over a long period of time.
Naturally, critics of Bloom have taken great exception to sweeping statements such as the above and their general reaction is one of resentment. Individual critical response depends on what particular school of criticism the respondent adheres to, but most often critics and readers alike have simply attacked Bloom, himself. However, even those who denigrate both Bloom and this book have found the time to read and review it to a greater extent, rather than to a lesser.
The book, itself, is made up of three major critical discussions by Bloom combined with brief discussions of each of Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays. Bloom begins by expressing his awe at Shakespeare's ability to create literary characters who epitomize the quintessential nature of humanity itself. In Bloom's opinion, Shakespeare shapes all of humanity, not just the elite literati.
Bloom does acknowledge the fact that great writers existed before Shakespeare and says that, "The idea of Western character" defined as "the self as a moral agent" came from many sources at many different times. Individually, however, Bloom says, Shakespeare's predecessors created nothing more than "cartoons" and "ideograms" rather than fully-developed personalities. "Every other great writer will fall away," he says, but "Shakespeare will abide, even if he were to be expelled by the academics..." And Bloom makes his point so convincingly that even those who cannot abide Shakespeare (or Bloom) will be swayed.
Bloom next turns to short, individual synopses of each play, with each review intended to support Bloom's argument that Shakespeare was truly the inventor of the human. These reviews do bristle with long quotations from the plays themselves but they are always extremely interesting to read.
Bloom, however, is nothing if he is not contentious. In concluding his review of The Taming of the Shrew, he says, "Shakespeare, who clearly preferred his women characters to his men, enlarges the human, from the start, by subtly suggesting that women have the truer sense of reality."
After the individual play reviews, Bloom treats us to a concluding essay entitled, "Coda: The Shakespearean Difference," and says that "Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection." Bloom, himself, identifies most intimately with Falstaff. "What Falstaff teaches us is a comprehensiveness of humor that avoids unnecessary cruelty because it emphasizes instead the vulnerability of every ego, including that of Falstaff himself."
Whatever your feelings about Bloom or Shakespeare, Bloom does take a critical stance that he supports textually. His humor is there but it is, at times, scathing. While no one should take everything Bloom introduces in this book at face value, no one should dismiss it all, either. Both this book, and Bloom, deserve a lot more than that.
The criticism follows mainly two points: the inwardness and the irony. This two themes, especially the second one, are part of the "creation of the human", characteristic that Bloom assigns to Shakespeare. In fact, all the essays try to proof that Shakespeare created personality as we know it and changed forever our modes of cognition; giving birth to characters that do not only change by hearing others, but by overhearing their own singular and unique voices and this way being able to separate themselves from the roles they play and achieving ever-growing inwardness and freedom. It may sound, indeed, as if Bloom were worshipping a god. But at this he responds "Why not?".