October 1998


By Harold Bloom
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Our foremost literary critic, Harold Bloom, is known for his influential and often controversial views, whether the subject is his theory of poetic influence or which authors and their works should comprise the Western canon. To distinguish his approach from the writings of other critics, several years ago Bloom wrote, I increasingly feel that criticism must be personal, must be experiential, must take the whole concern of men and women, including all its torments, very much into account, must offer a kind of testimony . . . [the great critics] remember always that high literature is written by suffering human beings and not by language, and is read by suffering human beings. Where do we get our present day understanding of what it is to be human? In his exhilarating new book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom illuminates our understanding of the human, or human nature, or personality as we understand those terms in a secular sense. What Shakespeare invents is ways of representing human changes, alterations not only caused by flaws and by decay, but effected by the will as well, and by the will’s temporal vulnerabilities. Bloom notes that the representation of human character and personality remain always the supreme literary value. And Shakespeare did it better than anyone else. The work of Chaucer and others influenced him, but if we compare Shakespeare’s work with writers both before or contemporary with him, his understanding of the human experience far exceeds that of everyone else. He demonstrates this through many characters but, in particular, Falstaff and Hamlet are the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it. For Bloom, Shakespeare went beyond psychologizing us. He extensively informs the language we speak, his principle characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist. Bloom describes his book as a personal statement, the result of a lifetime of involvement with Shakespeare’s work. He guides us through each of the 39 plays, 24 of which he regards as masterpieces, in approximate chronological order as they were written and performed. The result is a dazzling performance by a major teacher. Passionate about his subject, immensely learned, strongly opinionated, he conveys a lot of information and provides provocative commentary in a most engaging way. There are generous passages from the plays, some quite well known, others not.

This extraordinary volume will be a treasured companion for anyone who enjoys the plays of Shakespeare.

Roger Bishop is a monthly contributor to BookPage.

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