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SHAKESPEARE: The Invention of the Human;\o7 By Harold Bloom\f7 ;\o7 (Riverhead: 746 pp., $35)\f7

November 22, 1998|ERIC SAMS | Eric Sams is the author of several books on Shakespeare scholarship, including "The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594," and the editor of "Shakespeare's Edward III."

Even those happy few English speakers who have Shakespeare in their blood are disposed to doubt that he is also in their genes. He may have helped to condition some of us, but we know that words spoken on a stage or printed in a book aren't said by real people. If you cut them, these people don't bleed. Hamlet, Falstaff and the rest are no doubt larger than life but that means they're not alive. Yet this sense--that every English speaker is, so to speak, genetically indebted to Shakespeare--is exactly Harold Bloom's proposition in his enormous new work, "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human." Bloom, "the preeminent literary critic of our time," as his publisher calls him, writes that Shakespeare "not only invented the English language but used it to create human nature." And indeed Bloom actively argues just such amazing assumptions, play by play, preaching powerfully throughout 746 pages on excerpted texts totaling some 6,000 lines.

Dissenters may protest that the resulting annotated anthology is just a catalogue deraisonne. But it's far better than that. Indeed, its perusal resembles reading Shakespeare by flashes of insight, which are often dazzling. We revisit the plays of Shakespeare's apprenticeship, Hamlet's astounding transcendence of the play, Richard II's anticipation of the mad Danish prince's nihilism, Falstaff's comic genius and more. Bloom clearly has all the dramatis personae at his fingertips and examines them as real people.

Bloom's brilliant readings disclose fascinating interrelations between the plays, such as, for instance, that the duplicitous spirit of "Othello's" satanic villain Iago also bedevils the problem play "Measure for Measure." With Iago's equivocating maliciousness in mind, Bloom calls the play a "simultaneous invocation and evasion of Christian belief and Christian morals." (Helen Vendler has thrown fresh light on that same dark dichotomy between supreme and sublime beauty of utterance and denial of orthodox Christianity in her recent analysis of the "Sonnets.") But there is something more at work here. If what Bloom says is correct, that Shakespeare has shaped our language and contributed significantly to our mythology (he is even a better psychologist than Freud), then such evasions and dichotomies are to be taken as signs of the playwright's own personality; in creating human nature, Shakespeare reveals himself.

Bloom's ploy may well prove popular. It extends Shakespearean studies to cover such perennial topics as God and sex. Before long, the poet's own beliefs and practices will be laid bare. Biographical criticism, once frowned upon as hopelessly old-fashioned, will again be allowed. This was sometimes a paradox, but now the time gives it proof--for example, in the availability today of "Edward III" (now published in the Riverside Shakespeare, the New Cambridge series and my own edition for Yale), a play in which a secretary is hired to write sonnets for the king as Shakespeare did for the Earl of Southampton. Bloom excludes that play even though it contains deep and compelling analogies with "Measure for Measure" and the "Sonnets" in parallel passages about the abuse of sex and power and the inevitability of death.

Most of the world's population, however, won't be relying on their reading for their experience of such topics. Taking literature literally is like a playgoer leaping up onto the stage to defend a threatened heroine, thus turning the canon into a western. In this book, however, even the sublime and triumphant King Henry V is a cynical monster, while the central figure of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a rank impostor or false Falstaff. Indeed, whole plays are denounced: Thus "I Henry VI" is a botch and "Titus Andronicus" mainly a sendup, while "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" travesties love and friendship alike and "The Merchant of Venice" is profoundly anti-Semitic.

Bloom's approach avowedly derives from 19th century character analysis, as exemplified by William Hazlitt and A.C. Bradley. That tradition was spiritedly attacked by L.C. Knights in his satirical essay "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" (1933) and by C.S. Lewis in "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?" (1942). But Bloom's viewpoint, however remote and exalted it may seem, commands a vast vista that should be looked up to with respect. Like aerial photography, it reveals long-lost settlements that once teemed with rich life from which lessons can still be learned. It also identifies potentially fertile fields often left entirely untilled, such as Shakespeare's early start--including his authorship of the "Hamlet" play described by Thomas Nashe in 1589 and his possible involvement with the even earlier "Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth" attributed to an anonymous hand.

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