A dog barks at Sir Oracle

I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark
– From The Merchant of Venice, I,i, 93-4

129It’s not often that a book of literary criticism – and one weighing in at over 700 pages at that – comes with “The New York Times Bestseller” blazoned across its cover. But this – Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom – is no ordinary literary criticism: this is written by Harold Bloom, who, perhaps uniquely, is a celebrity literary critic. And this, presumably, is his magnum opus – the world’s most celebrated literary critic writing about the works of the world’s most celebrated writer. On the cover of my edition is a Sybil from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Now, what do Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes have to do with the plays of Shakespeare, one may wonder? Easy: they are both universally reckoned to be representative of the highest peaks in their respective fields; there is no work of literature greater than the plays of Shakespeare, nor any work of art greater than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. If books played music, I imagine this one would play Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

We’re left in little doubt, in short, that the tome we are holding in our hands in a worthy tome. The greatest writer, the greatest artist, and, without too spectacular a leap of the imagination, the greatest literary critic. This is a tome worthy to be placed reverentially beside the Complete Works of Shakespeare itself – one volume containing the text, the other explaining to us how we are to understand that text.

There has, of course, been so much written about these works, that new books on this topic, to avoid repetition of what has gone before, generally try to find a new angle; and Bloom’s new angle is mentioned both in the title, “The Invention of the Human”, and ialso in the first paragraph:

Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves. Sometimes, this comes about because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is the royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than hundred major characters and many more hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.

One may argue against this by saying, as I did, “Bullshit!” And it is just as valid an argument as Bloom’s, since neither is supported by evidence.

Does Achilles in The Iliad not change because “[his] relationship to himself … has changed”? Does not Sakuntala similarly change in the play by Kalidasa? What about the protagonists in the Greek tragedies? In what way is the development of Hamlet or of Othello different from that of, say, Achilles or of Sakuntala or of Clytemnestra? Bloom hedges his bets by adding the word “relatively” (“Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging…”); and, later, he says “no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well…” (my italics); in short, he appears to be implying that other writers have achieved this also, but not to the degree that Shakespeare has – that the difference between Shakespeare and other writers is quantitative, not qualitative. But if this is indeed what Bloom means, then it seems to make little sense to ascribe to Shakespeare “the invention of the human”.

There are other problems too. In Shakespeare, we are told, characters “develop” rather than “unfold”: this has the potential of being a useful critical insight if Bloom could be bothered to spell out what he sees as the distinction between the two. But he isn’t. Neither does he bother to explain what he means when he says that Shakespeare’s characters “reconceive” themselves. These are terms that all require discussion, and explanation: instead, they are thrown out in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Well, given the choice, I left it: if the author can’t be arsed to explain what he means, I can’t be arsed to try to figure it out.

This opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the book – terms used that are neither defined nor explained nor even for that matter discussed, and contentions, consistently unargued, delivered in an oracular manner. Indeed, the picture on the cover seemed after a while quite appropriate: it is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Sybil at Delphi, the most celebrated of oracles.

However, it is questionable whether the Oracle at Delphi, enigmatic though it frequently was, spoke such gobbledegook as Bloom indulges in. Normally, I would try to argue against points I disagree with rather than baldly dismiss them as “gobbledegook”, but when no argument is presented in the first place, what is there to argue against? If it’s just a matter of unargued opinions, “gobbledegook” carries as much weight as anything Bloom says.

Bloom dutifully goes through the canon, play by play, making oracular pronouncements with little if any analysis. There’s much that I find myself taking issue with, but I don’t know that I have the time or energy to go through it all; and since no argument is ever presented, nothing seems worth arguing against. For instance, he insists The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. This, as I am sure he knows, is a contentious point: critics, commentators, actors, directors, and even ordinary readers, at all levels of erudition (sometimes no less than Bloom’s, and occasionally, perhaps, even greater), remain divided on this point. And so, if one is to take sides on the matter, one might have thought some sort of argument might be in order. But no – argument, it seems, is only for little people: you don’t need argument when you’re a celebrity literary critic. Bloom refuses, as ever, to provide an argument, imagining forceful statement of opinion to be an adequate substitute:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.

(Something wrong with that sentence surely! “Nevertheless” means, as I understand it, “in spite of…”, and so, when one uses the word “nevertheless”, what follows that word is “in spite of” something that appears to contradict it; but , in this sentence, Bloom follows “nevertheless” with “[it is] a profoundly anti-Semitic work”, and it is far from clear what this is “in spite of”. One might have expected a celebrity literary critic to write a bit better than this!)

Bloom then proceeds to shake his head, more in sorrow than in anger, at the very thought that anyone could have the temerity to disagree with him:

Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation.

Except this is not an observation: it is a critical judgement, and a contentious one at that; and, like all critical judgements, it is something to be arrived at after argument, not something to begin with. No wonder his sensitive and intelligent students were unhappy.

Undaunted, Bloom continues:

Nor do they accept my statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos.

Bloom does not feel the need to explain why a “comic villain” cannot also be “a figure of overwhelming pathos”; neither is he willing to admit the possibility that Portia may not indeed be particularly sympathetic, and that there is no reason to present her as such. Instead, he offers utterly unargued, and hence, utterly worthless assertions:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed.

He continues:

I am afraid we tend to make The Merchant of Venice incoherent by portraying Shylock as being largely sympathetic. Yet I find myself puzzled as to what it would cost (and not only ethically) to recover the play’s coherence. Probably it would cost us Shakespeare’s Shylock, who cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended, if indeed we can recover such an intention.

I have read this passage over many times – far more frequently than it deserves – and I still wonder that so highly rated a literary critic could be capable of writing in so incoherent a manner. What, exactly, is “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? And, what is more, a “Shakespeare’s Shylock” who “cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended”? If Shakespeare’s Shylock is indeed something other than what Shakespeare intended, in what way is the achieved figure different from the intended figure? And how can anyone – even the oracular Bloom – know or even guess at what Shakespeare intended if the end result, which is all we have to go on, is something other than the intended result? Furthermore, if “Shakespeare’s Shylock” is indeed other than what Shakespeare had intended, why should we refer to the achieved character rather than to the intended character as “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? I have no idea frankly what Bloom is on about. And, after giving this matter far more thought than is warranted by the wretched quality of the writing, I can’t say I am much interested either: once again, if Bloom can’t be arsed to make himself clear, I can’t be arsed to search out his meaning.

Let us move on to another play featuring an outsider in Venetian society – Othello. This, Bloom proclaims (and, needless to say, doesn’t argue) is not “Othello’s tragedy”, but “Iago’s play”. And Othello must be, Bloom insists, a splendid character: Bloom deplores what he describes as “a bad modern tradition of criticism that goes from T. S. Eliot to F. R. Leavis through current New Historicism” that “has divested the hero of his splendour”. Fair enough: criticism is frequently dialogue with past interpreters, and a dialogue with Eliot and Leavis on Othello would certainly be interesting. Except Bloom isn’t interested in dialogue: the sound of his own voice is enough for him. Although both Eliot and Leavis – especially Leavis – have argued their points closely with reference to the text, Bloom, who doesn’t, is happy simply to label their criticism as “bad”, and not go further. Now, one may or may not agree with Eliot and Leavis on Othello, but one might have thought their closely argued critical insights deserve somewhat better than this.

And what is Bloom’s own take on the play? Well – where does one start?

For Bloom, this is “Iago’s play”, and he compares Iago to Milton’s Satan:

Milton’s God, like Othello, pragmatically demotes his most ardent devotee, and the wounded Satan rebels. Unable to bring down the Supreme Being, Satan ruins Adam and Eve instead, but the subtler Iago can do far better, because his only God is Othello himself…

I will refrain from commenting on Paradise Lost, as it is a long time since I read it, and I do not remember it too well: I do not recall, for instance, Satan having been “God’s most ardent devotee”, and neither do I remember Satan being demoted; but I may well be wrong on both these points. But Othello I have read frequently enough, and, while I do not claim to be anything other than an amateur enthusiast of Shakespeare, I do know that there is nothing in the text to lead us to conclude that Iago had been Othello’s “most ardent admirer”; and neither is there anything in the text to indicate Iago has been demoted: he has not been appointed Othello’s lieutenant, but being passed over for promotion is not the same as demotion. But why look for textual evidence that could spoil a nice theory? For Bloom, Iago had been Othello’s most ardent devotee, but had turned against Othello on being demoted, and this accounts for his motive. So the issue that commentators have debated and disagreed upon for centuries is here resolved at a stroke – and if the text does not support it, so much the worse for the text. After all, whom are we to believe? – Bloom, or the crooked text?

If we do take that radical step of consulting the text, we find that Iago states two motives: in the opening scene, he tells Roderigo – a character whom he deceives, and with whom he is consistently dishonest – that he hates Othello because Cassio had been preferred to himself for the position of lieutenant: no mention or even hint of an “ardent admiration” for Othello, nor even of demotion. This motive, once stated, is never referred to again. Later in the play, Iago puts forward, twice, a very different motive: in his soliloquies at the end of I,ii, and again at the end of II,i, Iago mentions that he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Othello:

And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true
But I or mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as it were for surety.

…partly to diet my revenge
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…
(II, 1, 293-5)

And later, his wife Emilia also refers to Iago’s suspicions:

…Some such squire it was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.
(IV, ii, 146-8)

[The line numbers both here and elsewhere refer to the numbering in the 3rd Arden edition of Othello]

Of course, both these motives can and have been questioned. But if we are to look for Iago’s motives, then it would seem that sexual jealousy, twice mentioned in soliloquies and once referred to independently by his wife, carries greater weight than lack of promotion, which is mentioned only once, and that to a character whom Iago deceives throughout the play. But it is the lack of promotion (or “demotion”, as he calls it) that Bloom seizes upon, while the possible motive of sexual jealousy is airily dismissed: referring to Iago’s expression of sexual jealousy, Bloom informs us: “…Iago tells us what neither he nor we believe.” Well, we may not believe it, but what evidence does Bloom have that Iago doesn’t? Bloom then refers to Iago telling us that he suspects Cassio with his wife as well, and comments:

We can surmise that Iago, perhaps made impotent by his fury at being passed over for promotion, is ready to suspect Emilia with every male in the play.

I do hope he intended that “we” as a Royal “we”, as, try as I might, I cannot surmise anything at all of this nature. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing in either text of the play – the Folio or the Quarto – to indicate an Iago “made impotent by his fury”.

Idiocy soon piles on idiocy, and after a while, the whole becomes what Dr Johnson referred to in another context as “unresisting imbecility”. Iago, we are told, is a “genius” who has planned everything out meticulously: it is Iago, indeed, who is “the author of the play”. But surely, Iago fails at the end, and is arrested? Bloom has his explanation for this: this was the only point where Iago has miscalculated, he says: Iago didn’t take into account Emilia’s loyalty to the dead Desdemona; and, further:

Iago is outraged that he could not anticipate, by dramatic imagination, his wife’s outrage …

I actually read the last scene of Othello again to see if there is the slightest hint here of Iago’s outrage on this score. He is certainly outraged by his wife turning against him, but is there any indication that he is outraged by his own inability to anticipate this? I certainly can’t find any. And, as ever, there is no point looking at Bloom’s book for any supporting evidence: he doesn’t do “evidence”.

It seems to me that Iago, far from being a “genius”, is a rather shallow man of very limited vision, who most certainly does not plan the whole thing out. More than once, we see him making it up as he is going along:

How? How? Let’s see (I, iii, 393)

Later, almost half way into the second act, he admits that his plan is still “confused”:

…’Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery’s plain face is never seen, till used.
(II, 1, 309-10)

It is interesting that in neither of these soliloquies, nor, indeed, at any other point till as late as Act IV does Iago mention or so much as hint at bringing about the death of Desdemona. And even there, it is Othello who suggests it, not Iago:

Get me some poison, Iago; this night: I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again: this night, Iago.
Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
– (IV,I, 201-4)

What evidence is there that Iago had planned this from the start? We have been privy to his soliloquies, and have heard him making his plans: if this was what he had been planning all along, why didn’t he tell us?

As far as I can see from what I find in the text, Iago, far from being the supreme genius who effectively writes the play, miscalculates throughout, and finds himself having to improvise as he goes along. He had not, for instance, anticipated Othello’s violent rage:

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore…” etc. (III, iii, 360ff)

It is only at this point, when he realises that his own life is in danger if he does not provide Othello with proof, does he find he has to go further. Of course, he is quite happy to go further; but we had witnessed him make his initial plans in his soliloquies at the end of I,iii and at the end of II,I, and in neither of them did he anticipate anything like this. Neither had he anticipated Roderigo’s decision to retire from the fray, and stand up for himself:

I tell you ’tis not very well. I will make myself known to Desdemona: if she will return me my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you
(IV, ii, 198-202)

It is only at this point that the murder of Roderigo – once again, a feature that had not appeared in Iago’s plans as revealed in his earlier soliloquies – becomes a necessity. Is all this really the result of meticulous planning by a “genius” who could “anticipate”, “by dramatic genius”, everything except Emilia’s outrage?

Let us not labour the point. The entire book is full of “surmises” – opinions which, when not banal, are merely silly, and always unsupported by evidence or by anything resembling argument. Possibly there may be an interesting insight here and there, but if there is, it is all but buried under a mountain of pompous and comically self-important idiocy. At no point in this book could I discern a new shaft of light into these works.

There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it
– Julius Caesar, I,ii,284

The sad thing is that given Bloom’s celebrity status, this book, for many, I imagine, will be the first and possibly the only experience with literary criticism. That really is a shame, as there is no shortage of very good critical writing that provide the finest of insights on these endlessly fascinating plays . Bloom’s book, in this respect, is even worse than useless.


17 responses to this post.

  1. Gosh. I can’t think of anything you’ve written, Himadri, with which I disagree so completely as I do with this. Bloom’s position obviously got your goat from the start and everything else seems to have been viewed through a red mist. However, in the absence of a comfy chair, your own scintillating presence and a large bottle of vino, and with the immediacy of a hearty Caribbean buffet at my chums, Mario and Buumba’s eatery in the company of five lovely ladies, I shall refrain from any attempt at debating. Just thought I’d register that I rather enjoyed the book myself (not that I agreed with everything in it, but I quite like to be entertained and stimulated by something from which I demur and Bloom’s waspish campness is always fun, my dear). And I do think his underlying point has some validity. That’s all.


    • Oh – a Caribbean buffet with five lovely ladies seems a far more attractive prospect than debating Shakespeare & Bloom!

      I don’t know that my strictures are due to my not agreeing with Bloom. Agreement is so overrated, don’t you think? I certainly don’t see the point in reading books just to be able tonod away in agreement. Give me a book with which I can have a good fight, says I! Give me a book that makes me say “That can’t be right!”, and which challenges me to think out why it can’t be right. That way, I can revisit and then possibly revise my own ideas.

      But that’s the problem with this book: I don’t know why Bloom is saying what he is saying. He may well have good reasons; and had he given these reasons, I may well have been saying to myself “Oh yeah! – I hadn’t thought of that before!” And I may well have revised my own ideas – as I have done often enough in the past, and will, I’m sure, continue doing.

      But the problem with this book is that there’s nothing to argue against: unlike yourself at the Caribbean buffet tonight, there’s nothing to sink one’s teeth into!

      Anyway, I do hope we meet up in the not too distant future sitting in comfy chairs, and sharing a bottle or two of vino!

      Cheers for now!


  2. Posted by ombhurbhuva on October 6, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Idiosyncratic would be the kind word for his theories. I enjoyed Omens of Millennium. Genius and The Western Canon were bloated and I picked through them. Not interesting and tendentious. He is probably guilty of getting in his own light


    • This is the first book I am reading by Bloom. No doubt he has done fine work in the past – otherwise he wouldn’t have acquired so formidable a reputation. I’ll have a look at Omens of Mellennium, and see what that’s like – thanks for the recommendation.


  3. Posted by alan on October 6, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    I think I can see the difference between a character unfolding versus one developing. Sometimes a character remains the same but more of their past and abilities are revealed over time to make them more interesting or to solve a problem.
    I see development occurring when people change their behaviour in response to their experience and the consequences of their actions.
    The latter is more difficult than the former, in my opinion.


    • Yes, that certainly seems likely. But wouldn’t it have been nice if Bloom had taken the trouble to tell us precisely what he meant, rather than leave us to conjecture!

      But Bloom’s contention still doesn’t hold: Achilles in The Iliad develops rather than unfolds, even with that definition.


  4. I enjoyed your post very much. Shakespeare seems to bring out the wrong-headedness of critics. For example, Tolstoy wrote a long critique of Hamlet mostly complaining that the Bard did not write the play Tolstoy thought he should have written. http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/is-shakespeare-overrated/

    I should reread Merchant of Venice to see why I instinctively disagree with Bloom’s “profoundly anti Semitic work” judgment. I think it is not profoundly, but “shallowly” anti Semitic. Its deeper (profound) implications are not. (I note that if Bloom’s students don’t agree with him either, he thinks it is the students are lacking.) Perhaps Shylock is not performed as a comic villain because the text does not suggest it and producers of plays have found that it doesn’t work on stage. Bloom’s use of the term _should_, as in “that is certainly how the play should be performed” makes him sound a lot like Tolstoy.


    • Tolstoy on Shakespeare was a strange case. Orwell wrote an interesting – though, to my mind, not entirely convincing – essay on Tolstoy’s strictures on “King Lear”, arguing that Tolstoy unconsciously saw himself in Lear. It’s speculative, naturally, and like most speculative arguments, leaves me unconvinced. I do need to sit down and read Tolstoy’s writings on Shakespeare: these are, after all, the two writers who possibly mean more to me than any other.

      With “The Merchant of Venice”, for me, even asking the question “Is it anti-Semitic?” is wrong-headed. If I may draw an analogy, Mozart, in his opera, “Cosi fan Tutte”, took what was essentially a misogynist bar-room anecdote; but this anecdote is but the framework, and what Mozart fills this framework with utterly transforms the basic material. For Mozart probes deeply into the heart of the matter – How do these people feel? What do they desire? Why do they act as they do? And the unpromising basic material is transformed.

      Similarly, I think, with “The Merchant of Venice”. Shakespeare takes an essentially anti-Semitic story (“heroic Christians outwit murderous Jew”) but then, he probes: what can a lifetime of living with unmotivated hatred do to the human soul? It is unthinkable that Shakespeare would not have considered this question, given his insatiable curiosity into the workings of the human mind. Yes, of course Shylock is a very deeply flawed character: so is Othello, so is Macbeth. But like them, he is, I think, a tragic figure – possibly Shakespeare’s first great tragic creation. And what I find particularly gut-wrenching is that he is sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to know what he has become:

      Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
      But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs

      He knows he has become a “dog”, and he knows also what has made him thus. This, for me, arouses all the pity and the terror that we are told tragedy should inspire. It makes me feel as I do about Macbeth when he laments what he has lost:

      I have liv’d long enough: my way of life
      Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
      And that which should accompany old age,
      As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
      I must not look to have

      To reduce all this merely to “anti-Semitic” is, I think, a grossly inadequate response.


      • Thank you for your understanding response. My point exactly, but you say it better. On the surface it is Christian outwitting murderous Jew. On the level of dramatic interaction it is a presentation of the effects of racist or religious hatred on both the hater and the recipient of the hatred.

        Years ago I took my 11- or 12-year old son to see The Merchant of Venice. Not only was he a kid, he was a kid who had not yet read any Shakespeare. He was quite shaken by the play and at the end his sympathies were all with Shylock. Shylock was played by Morris Carnovsky (may he live in my memory forever!) but I guess Bloom would not have approved.

  5. I owe Bloom’s book a favor because it directed me to Harold Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare – that’s the one you want.

    Bloom is at his best in this book working on passages. Or such was the case early on – I gave up after the earliest plays. I certainly never got as far as Othello. Nowhere close.

    I did learn a lot from The Western Canon, but you have learn how to read him. As ombhurbhuva says, I pick through the book, separating the insights from the Bloomian bluster.

    No one has read more than Bloom, so I learn something just from that.


    • I couldn’t really go through the whole book: I’d have ended up witha post as long a sthe book itself! So I just went for a couple of plays – The Merchant of Venice because I thought Bloom’s (unargued) assertion that it is anti-Semitic is particularly egregious; and I went for Othello because I have revcently been reading and pondering on Leavis’ essay on it – an essay that is forcing me to reconsider what I had thought were fairly sound and long-established views I have of this work. This, for me, is what good criticism should do: not provide me with things I already agree with, but introduce me to new ways of looking at matters, and challenge my old ways of thinking. But you can’t do that, of course, merely with ex cathedra assertions.

      I don’t know the Goddard book at all, but I’ll search it out- thanks for the tip.


  6. But you were not clear if you liked the book Himadri ☺

    I agree that Bloom is often pompous and snobbish and frustratingly does not always supply sufficient evidence. However I see him as a bold thinker who is constantly taking wild leaps from tree limbs. Often the limb breaks (usually when he does not provide enough evidence as you point out.), at other times he just falls short and crashes to the ground with disastrous results. However in many other instances he winds up in all sorts of interesting places that are worth going to.

    Take his invention of the human idea. It is way over exaggerated. As you point out characters have been evolving before a reader for thousands of years before Shakespeare. Yet I concur with Shakespeare developed and immensely improved on this technique. I think that there is something important to the idea that Shakespeare played an immensely important part in developing the modern fictional character and that Bloom is on to something here. Like yourself I am far from going all the way with Bloom on this, but I find that his hypothesis here is well worth exploring and takes us to worthwhile places.

    So yes, he sometimes overboard with his ideas. Yes, he sometimes does not supply enough evidence to support his contentions (He may have written a 1400 page book if he did!) . I do find these things to be also true of many of the world’s great and not so great thinkers.

    Finally, If I may be so bold, I thing that you just had to give this book a try at least ☺


    • I think there may well be much to many of the ideas in this book. But unless arguments are provided, how am I to know? If arguments are provided, then even a conclusion with which I disagree can be useful, for I would have been able to consider how the conclusion had been arrived at, and think out to myself which point I disagree with and why; and if I cannot fault any of the steps of the argument, I would be forced to reconsider my own stance. But if opinions are stated without argument, then, even if it is a good opinion, I cannot see how it can be of any use to me.

      I have recently been reading Leavis on Othello, and Leavis puts forward a fascinating reading of the play (I must write a post about this once I have got my head around it!) that is very much at variance with my own. But either I must find flaws in Leavis’ argument, or I must change my own view. Either way, it increases my understanding of the play. But what possible point can there be merely to unargued assertions? So little inclined is Bloom to discuss his thoughts, and I don’t even understand what he means by “invention of the human”. reading it, I found myself muttering to myself “Explain your terms, dear boy!”


  7. “If Shakespeare’s Shylock is indeed something other than what Shakespeare intended, in what way is the achieved figure different from the intended figure? And how can anyone – even the oracular Bloom – know or even guess at what Shakespeare intended if the end result, which is all we have to go on, is something other than the intended result?”

    Brilliant! Because when I read the passage you refer to, I did not understand it and thought that was just me, but your analysis/refutation shows that it is not just me, AND it also made me laugh. So, thank you!


    • Hello Morelle,

      The problem with Bloom’s book is that there is nothing to refute! One can only refute an argument if an argument is presented in the first place … and here, there’s no argument presented at all! Even the unargued assertions Bloom makes don’t make sense half the time, because he doesn’t bother explaining clearly what he means. I wouldn’t expect writing of such poor quality from any professional writer, let alone one who is a renowned critic.

      Sadly, because of Bloom’s prominence, thisis likely to be the only exposure many people will get to Shakespearean criticism. But there really is some very good writing on Shakespeare out there. Even if you are looking for a play-by-play account, something like, say, Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to shakespeare is far more recommendable. And A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays by Stphen Unwin and Kenneth Mcleish is very basic, but seems to me an excellent introduction for the novice.

      All the best,


  8. Posted by Dave Johnson on May 28, 2015 at 6:50 pm


    I do enjoy Bloom’s book, and several of my students like him. In an age when so many English critics have descended into sociology, politically correct fads, and abstruse topics with indecipherable titles, Bloom says what he thinks about issues in the plays that matter. In my view, he has many good insights and many misses. There is not space in one book to document all his claims, and I’m not sure documentation would change much for me.
    I read Bloom for ideas that matter. Whether I accept them or not is my job, but I am glad to see them..

    Dave Johnson


    • Hello Dave, and welcome to this blog. It’s good to see you here.

      I am fully with you in deploring those various modern trends in criticism of literature you identify, and yes, it is indeed good that Bloom rejects those trends. But praise is given for what one is rather than for what one isn’t.

      Perhaps I went a bit over the top in my criticism, but given the reputation Bloom had come with, I did find this book a terrible disappointment, to say the least. I do feel it is a given that any criticism of a work of literature has to base its arguments on the text of the work. Opinions aren’t really of any great interest to me, even when the opinions are those I agree with: literary criticism should focus on argument – i.e. explanation of why the critic holds these opinions. Without these explanations, opinions, even sound ones, seem to me to be of little value. I would have been very interested if Bloom, say, had argued his point against Leavis. Leavis, when writing on Othello, had argued against Bradley, a previous distinguished commentator; but Leavis had based his own arguments clearly on Shakespeare’s text, so readers can judge for themselves how well or otherwise his arguments hold water. But when Bloom takes sides against Leavis, he puts forward no argument at all, and doesn’t even refer to the text; so readers don’t have the opportunity to judge the validity of Bloom’s argument. I honestly cannot see what such unargued assertions have to offer to a reader.

      Anyway, I do hope you find other things on this blog that ar emore congenial than this post is!

      Best wishes, Himadri


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