“What makes us free? What makes me free is the capaciousness of Shakespeare’s soul. He is the knowledge of what we were and of what we have become.”
In “Falstaff: Give Me Life” by Harold Bloom
“Weird" is the word that comes to mind after having finished his take on Falstaff. We all know about his fixation on Falstaff. No problem with that. I’ve also a kin interest on Hamlet. So, what? My problem with Bloom lies on a different plane. “Weird Ideas”. That’s Bloom all over. His ideas can be interesting - and, at their crankiest (as in “A Map of Misreading”, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human and his Genius book) quite funny - but there's far too much of Bloom the frustrated bard-oracle in them, which is why they fail to stand up beyond the books in which they appear. Show him a half-decent poet and he'll construct around him a new view of human history centred on an ancient Gnostic text and full of juicy prophetic names for things already perfectly well named (e.g. "The Chaotic Age" for the 20th century). There's an element of trying to out-crazy the crazy totalising schemes of Blake or Yeats. Bloom trying to out-poet the poets, or at least match them in inspired, over-learned nuttiness. That’s why his take on Falstaff seems far-fetched. if you asked me to name some critics that I thought were provocative, well-read, and 'advanced scholarship' I would perhaps list Zachary Lesser, Anne Ferry, Andrew Hadfield, Louis Montrose, Roger Chartier, and Alexandra Gillespie off the top of my head - with some heavy bias in there for the renaissance, given my own reading. While I'd love to see their works being praised (or even read) by those outside of the academy, I'm not sure that they really deal with work, authors, or issues 'popular' enough to attract that attention. I don't begrudge a Bloom or a Vendler their success: academia is going to have to try quite hard to prove its relevance with the big changes to higher education coming. But when their work gets talked about as if they were the only one’s writing, it can get a little frustrating. Bloom wasn't much of an original thinker, borrowing heavily from Northrop Frye in much of his work and, in the case of Anxiety, a book called The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Basically, Bloom just took Bate's book (which is primarily concerned with the anxieties felt by pre-Romantic writers) and jazzed it up with a bunch of Freudian rigmarole about wanting to kill one's father. This was not a convincing angle to take at all, but it was really the only thing "new" that Bloom brought to the table. Put another way, using his own terminology Bloom was not a "strong" critic. I think the anxiety of influence he described was probably something he personally felt as an academic. My favourite word to describe him is "weird" as stated, but we need some sort of superlative for someone who is a perverse in his judgments as Bloom: Othello never consummates his marriage to Desdemona; Orlando knows all along he is talking to Rosalind in disguise; Parolles is "the spiritual center" of "All's Well That Ends Well"; Portia, like Bassanio, is a yuppie lightweight, while Antonio is Shylock's evil twin; Kate tames Petruchio and dangles him like a puppet. Here's for "Measure for Measure": "It is difficult to decide who is more antipathetic, Angelo or Duke Vincentio. . . . Lucio is the only rational and sympathetic character in this absurdist comedy (except for the superb Barnadine)." Bloom simply announced these findings; he no longer argues; he is too Olympian for that. His notorious misogyny may be the key to many of these ludicrous sallies: Desdemona as castrating intimidator; Kate as emasculating manipulator. Bloom says that Shakespeare invented us, which implies that, as a demigod, he was too elevated to be anxious over much of anything. But surely he was stimulated by an Oedipal rivalry with Marlowe; "two competing young playwrights from strikingly similar origins egged each other on to do better, and more original, work." No, I'm sorry, they were the same age but Marlowe died in May, 1593, by which time Shakespeare, egged on by the supposed competition, had written exactly none of the plays that make him the Bard: had he died the same year, he would be about as famous today as Beaumont or Fletcher. Marlowe was quicker to attain box office success, which is the success that Shakespeare cared about, so Shakespeare copied him shamelessly. That isn't exactly rivalry or competition. Bloom, on no evidence whatsoever, pronounces "Titus Andronicus" a parody of Marlowe. A knockoff is not a parody. Such a genre did not even exist at the time. The audience wanted its pornography of violence straight up, not with a smirk, and the audience was Shakespeare's deity.
Calling Bloom "overrated" doesn't even begin to say it, but the fault is ours, not his: I wouldn't expect him to see himself as we should have seen him.
3 stars for the book due to the quote at the beginning of this post.