Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
Riverhead Books, $35
by Robert Atwan
When I was teaching Shakespeare years ago to bright but culturally disengaged engineering students, I remember searching for an effective way to help them appreciate the awesome complexity of the plays. I wanted them to set aside for a moment abstract ideas ("revenge") and personality traits (Hamlet's "procrastination") and concentrate instead on the intricacy of the play as a whole. By this I did not simply mean the discovery of recurring metaphors or patterns of imagery; I hoped instead to open up for inspection a poetic and dramatic interrelatedness-passage echoing passage and scene mirroring scene-of such magnitude that the only authentic response could be astonishment.
The traditional "organic" approach to the plays-seeing each one as a living thing in which all parts coalesced into a unified whole-failed to inspire the imagination of my technologically oriented students. One evening while wiring up a new hi-fi system, however, I happily hit upon the global image I needed. The next day I unfolded the schematic diagram that accompanied the equipment, and invited the students to imagine the play in terms of integrated circuitry, to envision it as a vast map of linkages and interconnections. I found that they quickly caught on to the overarching complexity of Shakespeare's dramatic language. Today such a mechanistic, two-dimensional model is of course electronically obsolete, and I might now display an imaging map suggesting the tremendous interconnectivity of the cerebral cortex.
While the multilayered architecture and the dramatic intricacy of the major plays never ceases to amaze me, I never supposed anyone would approach the level of admiration Harold Bloom reaches in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. For Bloom, Shakespeare stands alone not only as the greatest literary genius who ever lived, but the greatest intellect of all time, so far ahead of anyone who came before or after him that we can never catch up. He represents the outer reaches of human intelligence, and when we immerse ourselves in his plays we enter territory as yet uncharted. This means that even the most gifted critical minds-Bloom's included-cannot contain Shakespeare; he contains them. As Bloom puts it, "no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean."
The great critics of the English Romantic period (Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb) also held Shakespeare in awe, but for the most part they viewed his genius as merely an all-encompassing creative power. No one else, they believed, came closer to capturing human nature in its widest variety. Shakespeare's brilliance, moreover, had little to do with power of observation. Shakespeare captured so much of humanity not because he was a gifted observer but because he had only to look deeply into his own mind to find everything he needed to know. In 1811, Charles Lamb summarized this power in one convoluted sentence:
We talk of Shakespeare's admirable observation of life, when we should feel, that not from a petty inquisition into those cheap and every-day characters which surrounded him, as they surround us, but from his own mind, which was, to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson's, the very 'sphere of humanity' he fetched those images of virtue and of knowledge, of which every one of us recognizing a part, think we comprehend in our natures the whole; and oftentimes mistake the powers which he positively creates in us, for nothing more than indigenous faculties of our own minds, which only waited the application of corresponding virtues in him to return a full and clear echo of the same.
Lamb's praise approaches what George Bernard Shaw in 1901 termed "Bardolatry." Though it anticipates Bloom's argument, however, Lamb's comment still falls short of Bloom's overall assessment of Shakespeare's genius. Bloom finds nothing wrong with the worship of Shakespeare; in fact, he claims that it "ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is." Bloom believes not only that we can't fully explain Shakespeare, but that "Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us." It is a gigantic, intriguing-and by all means a provocative-leap from imagining a Shakespeare who is the "sphere of humanity" to imagining that he outright invented humanity. But what exactly does that mean?
In his monumental study of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, another of Bloom's literary idols, sensibly points out that when Shakespeare began to write there was very little systematic study of the human mind and emotions. When Bloom claims that Shakespeare invented the human, however, he doesn't merely mean that he pioneered these psychological fields in literature before they became established in what gradually became our modern disciplines. According to Bloom, Shakespeare-especially in his creation of Falstaff and Hamlet-so utterly altered human consciousness that after him the world was a different place and we were different creatures. In other words, Shakespeare re-created humanity.
This a bold claim, and one expects to find ample discussion of it. Yet here Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human disappoints. For Bloom chooses to devote most of the book to critical essays on each of the plays, leaving himself only some fifty pages of front and back matter to explain what he means by his provocative subtitle. Though richly packed with brilliant observations from a lifetime of reading and teaching Shakespeare, these essays do not add up to the kind of systematic support Bloom's central claim deserves and demands. A book devoted exclusively to Shakespeare's cognitive power and his decisive role in the alteration of human consciousness would have allowed for a more coherent and persuasive argument. It would have given Bloom the opportunity to explain more precisely what Shakespeare's unique intelligence consists of and why "the aesthetic achievement of Shakespeare cannot be separated from his cognitive power." Had he not restricted himself to a chapter-by-chapter coverage of each of the plays, Bloom could have focused more closely on his favorite plays and characters-Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Cleopatra, Rosalind, and Macbeth-and established more cogently how they shaped our vision of the human. The play-by-play organization seems also to work against Bloom's own critical disposition: for example, he proudly acknowledges that to "exalt Falstaff above his plays" is to commit a formalist and historicist "sin." Yet if Bloom believes the corpulent Sir John is "more than a role" (indeed, if "Hamlet and Falstaff have become our culture"), then why confine his fullest treatment of Falstaff to a chapter on Henry IV?
Even if Bloom's central assertion cannot be proven-historically, empirically, or deductively-it might have inspired more reflective and speculative criticism. Why was the spark of modern consciousness set into motion by a single dramatist from one small nation and not by the general European intellectual movement we customarily call the Renaissance? Did Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Dürer make any contributions to the invention of the human-or was this invention entirely a business of words? Assuming Shakespeare did indeed transform human consciousness, how quickly did the change occur? Though they clearly appreciated Shakespeare's enormous gifts, did his contemporaries realize their limited minds were suddenly being permanently altered and enlarged?
Bloom's thesis raises countless questions like these that he rarely addresses or anticipates. It's also difficult to know how far to take his claim. He makes no attempt to define what he means by "human" either in its post-Shakespearean or pre-Shakespearean sense. Surely, when we read Plato or Sophocles or Juvenal or Petrarch or Dante or Rabelais we cannot help but recognize their vital and convincing connection to the human spirit. Yet, how "human" were they? It's not at all clear how Bloom wants us to understand the great minds that preceded Shakespeare (should we consider them "old human"? "pre-human"? ), but coming as they did before the "invention of the human," they cannot, in Bloom's view, speak to us in the ways that Shakespeare has now accustomed us to be spoken to. Their "inwardness" is insufficient. Though they may transmit important messages, their bandwidths are simply too narrow. If by some historical intervention they were given the opportunity to read Shakespeare, would Erasmus have been able to comprehend Hamlet? Could Machiavelli grasp Richard III?
Let's suppose that Shakespeare did invent the human. How good an invention did it turn out to be? Bloom claims that if Shakespeare had died at twenty-nine, like his friend Christopher Marlowe, the world would be a different place: "we would be very different, because we would think and feel and speak differently. Our ideas would be different, particularly our ideas of the human, since they were, more often than not, Shakespeare's ideas before they were our own." But would a non-Shakespearean world be a better or worse place to inhabit? Did Shakespeare, with his powerful creations of abusive, tyrannical, and murderous egoists, supply the future with the best "role" models? Should it make us uneasy that Hitler, in an attack against modernist theatrical filth, praised Shakespeare (along with Goethe and Schiller) as one of the great dramatists of all times? Isn't the playwright also responsible for fashioning the modern psychopath or, as Bloom might have it, the "criminal visionary"? To be sure, Bloom recognizes the full spectrum of benignity and malignity included under the word "human." He writes in his discussion of Richard III: "To invent Richard is to have created a great monster, but one that will be refined into Shakespeare's invention of the human, of which Iago, to everyone's delight and sorrow, will constitute so central a part." That still leaves us with a societal implication one wishes Bloom had unpacked: if Shakespeare had never written his major plays would the world be a kinder, gentler, more equitable, and harmonious place to live?
Bloom might also have devoted more attention to his theory's critical and philosophical ramifications. If throughout four centuries Shakespeare has remained the circumference of our intellectual possibilities (if he wholly "contains" us, as Bloom likes to put it) then might we also-imagine Shakespeare's art as an immense prison system that has kept his human invention tranquilly confined within its intellectual walls for life? If Shakespeare, as Bloom predicts, will also "go on enclosing those likely to come after us," could it be about time for humanity to make its break? What intellectual world might lie on the other side of this enormous jailhouse? Or is it Bloom's contention that from Shakespeare there is no exit?
Imprisonment is one of Shakespeare's dominant tropes, one that figures in nearly every play, whether there is an actual jail or not. "Denmark's a prison," says Hamlet, echoing his ghostly father's complaint about his own purgatorial "prison-house." "Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower," says the Duke of Clarence in Richard III, as he recounts a ghastly dream of escape that leads to an even more smothering imprisonment. In Measure for Measure, a vastly underrated play given over entirely to the idea of imprisonment (Bloom's analysis is brilliant), even death offers no escape: the unfortunate Claudio imagines that to die is "To be imprison'd in the viewless winds." It's possible that the repeated images of confinement and entrapment suggest a psychological obsession on Shakespeare's part, but they also raise an aesthetic issue that goes to the heart of reading the major plays.
"The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," thinks Hamlet, as he plainly equates dramatic composition with a baited trap. We may profitably consider how close this image brings us to Shakespeare's artistic core. Bloom points out that Shakespeare always seems way ahead of us; though Bloom relishes the intellectual challenges we face in continually trying to catch up, he doesn't address the peculiar frustrations of that impossibility. Like Nabokov (another literary genius fascinated with prisons and traps), Shakespeare exerts terrific intellectual pressure on even the most sophisticated reader. The more we read Shakespeare, the more we find our interpretive responses not only anticipated but voiced by characters whose perspectives we have learned not to trust. And no character's voice goes completely unchallenged. Bloom concentrates only on the liberating dimensions of the major plays, and one can only agree with him that they teach us to be smarter readers of literature-all literature. Yet he ignores the frustrations of being continually ensnared by Shakespeare's genius. The complexity of any one of the major plays can be so overwhelming that it seems impossible to form a conclusive or comprehensive vision of the play as a whole.
What surprises me most about Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is that Bloom surrenders so eagerly to Shakespeare's superiority. Throughout his career Bloom has stoutheartedly struggled against all kinds of political, religious, and cultural dominance-so why not intellectual sovereignty as well? Indeed, intellectual strife, the Emersonian sort, is one of Bloom's dominant tropes. Yet Emerson could say in his journals: "The only objection to Hamlet is that is exists." If Bloom believes William Shakespeare "contains," "encloses," or "circumscribes" him, why is he so uncharacteristically comfortable with the fact? Why doesn't he measure the limits of his and our confinement? If anyone could mastermind the great escape from the Shakespearean dungeon and show us the way to a post-Shakespearean world it would surely be Harold Bloom. Even if he had to tunnel his way out.
Samuel Johnson thought that Shakespeare should be criticized "without envious malignity or superstitious veneration." Bloom never shows any sign of envious disrespect for Shakespeare, and he does find flaws in the plays, especially in the minor works, but even in some of the great ones. But when he says that if "any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare," are we approaching "superstitious veneration" and starting to slide down a slippery slope from harmless Bardolatry to offenses against Moses's first and second commandments? Bloom is careful to claim that Shakespeare invented, not created, the human, but throughout his book we are repeatedly introduced to a humanity that has apparently been re-created by Shakespeare in his image, presumably as a revision of Adam and Eve. Bloom's critical genius has always drawn its inspiration from Milton and Blake's daringly rebellious Lucifer. In Shakespeare has he found a master who finally makes subversion unthinkable?
Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review