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