Kenneth Starr is a cross between Polonius and Iago, while Bill Clinton is pure Richard II - or so says the Shakespearean scholar and idolator Harold Bloom. Rebecca Mead met him
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HAROLD BLOOM does not rise when, this Saturday afternoon, I push open the front door of his apartment and enter his living-room. There he is, prone on an overstuffed, dun-coloured leather Barcalounger. Like his chair, Bloom is also overstuffed and dun- coloured: he is wearing a baggy brown shirt and baggy brown trousers, and, in this reclining posture, his bulbous stomach rises high above sea level, dwarfing the lesser corporeal peaks of knee and brow. He beckons me to him with a gesture and a sonorous greeting - "Here you are, child!" - in which he manages to combine fond enthusiasm and infinite weariness.

Bloom, a Professor of English Literature at both Yale and New York Universities, is the author of 19 books of criticism, the most recent of which is entitled Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (published in Britain next month by Fourth Estate). This book - which immediately made the New York Times bestseller list, almost unheard of for a work of literary criticism - is a play-by-play analysis of Shakespearean character, a rapturous gambol through the Complete Works (except for the sonnets), intended for the common reader and theatre-goer. Most unfashionably, Bloom treats Hamlet and Rosalind and Cleopatra and Falstaff as if they were real people to be reckoned with, and he writes of Shakespeare as a superlative genius, in the face of whose intelligence and accomplishment the only proper attitude is awe. "Bardolatry" is recommended, and contemporary Shakespearean criticism - in which Shakespearean texts are examined with reference to the social and political contexts of the time - is shunned. Bloom rather grandly styles himself as "The Last Shakespearean", and in conversation he speaks contemptuously of the "School of Resentment, the feministas, the Foucauldists, the Historicists, other Frenchy types, and the huzzarai in general", and says, "I don't want a single academic to read this book." Shakespearean criticism, he says, is on its last legs - and there in his living-room, an enormous collapsed tent of a man, he appeared to be in no better shape than his subject.

Fortunately, Bloom is as dramatic as his subject: his health is good, he assures me, as I sit on the sofa opposite him. Bloom and I have been friendly for several years, and his modus operandi, with me as with all his friends and acquaintances, is one of shameless flirtation. Bloom delivers the most astonishing compliments ("You have the most marvellous eyes, and one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century," he sighed to me, apropos nothing, in a recent phone call), while simultaneously defusing any suggestion of an overture by mentioning his advanced years and the licence they grant him. Bloom litters his conversation with endearments - one is either "child" or "uncle" to him - and baby talk. (Once he told me of his fondness for teddy bears and the such: "I like stuffed animals, because, you see, I am a stuffed animal," he explained.) Bloom is 68, though the way he talks about himself you would think him a generation older: it's hard to imagine that he was ever a young man, so weary and full of last things is he.

I ask how his American book tour has gone, and he launches into an animated description of the demands of the American publicity machine, "I just got back from a trip to San Francisco and what was surely the ghastliest day of my life," he says. "My old body gets up very slowly in the morning; large quantities of black coffee have to be poured into it if the tired old man's system is to work. So I had to get up, if you can believe it, at 3am in the Clift Hotel in San Francisco on a Friday morning, to be led, rather tearfully on my part, out of the lobby at 6am in order to get to the airport to be on a flight at 7.25am, in order to land in Chicago, Illinois, where it was rush hour - Chicago seems to have the most peculiar rush hours - and they took another hour to drive me to my hotel. They gave me 10 minutes to rest there, so I did not even have time to lie down on the bed, though I sort of sneaked one quick brandy from the minibar. Then I performed in a bookstore for an hour in a suburb of Chicago, and then we drove down Michigan Avenue at great speed, and I was on the radio with one Milton Rosenberg to discuss Shakespeare with him. I think they got me back to my hotel just past midnight, and I was too tired even to lie down. I just stood in the corner shaking with indignation at the whole thing."

That a literary critic should even be making a nation-wide book tour is remarkable, but Bloom is that very rare thing, a popular critical writer - one whose book, in this case, serendipitously coincides with a wider Shakespeare vogue. "I secretly suspect that part of my sales comes from a curious non-link to Shakespeare in Love," he says, referring to the film starring Joseph Fiennes as the young Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as his muse. Bloom is not aloof from the less academic concerns of his audience. "I read a sad item in the newspaper yesterday, saying that Miss Paltrow and her young man had just ended their relationship of one year, and have decided to be friends," he announces, with high seriousness - perhaps wondering to himself whether Miss Paltrow might now be available for showering with Bloomian compliments.

Bloom has a genuinely popular touch - part of his charm is that he is not lost in the world of texts, but is a wise spectator of the dramas of the day. My visit to him comes in the midst of the Senate's impeachment trial of President Clinton, and the subject, of course, is unavoidable. Kenneth Starr, he says, devastatingly and incontrovertibly, "is a marvellous blend of Polonius on the outside and Iago on the inside". Of the President, he says, "I think the nearest Shakespearean analogue for our Slick Willy is Richard II. Richard II is always making everything worse for himself by talking so much, and I frequently feel that Willy is about to break into a chorus of `Come let us sit us down and tell sad stories of the death of presidents'."

Bloom's book, like his conversation, is irresistibly delighted and fascinated by Shakespeare, and it seems likely that it has found an audience among readers who are not too sophisticated to ask questions about the kind of person Shakespeare was, and how he managed to pull off what he did. The book has received mixed reviews - critics have complained that Bloom spends too much time on peculiar hobbyhorses, such as his belief that Shakespeare was the author of a lost earlier version of Hamlet. And even the favourable reviews have cast Bloom as an incantatory fan rather than a hard-headed critic, a depiction which he resents, but which has indisputable relevance. Bloom says that his favourite endorsement for the book came from a friend, fellow Yale professor John Hollander. "Uncle Hollander read it for me, and he said, `This book will set Shakespearean criticism back a hundred years,'" Bloom says gleefully. "And that is of course its purpose: back to the days of AC Bradley, and to hell with this garbage." Bloom is immodest about this book, which he regards as the crowning achievement of his career, and which he insists is the final word in a particular kind of criticism. Literary criticism, he says, "is a field which has betrayed itself, which has politicised and destroyed itself, particularly in the study of Shake- speare. I think these matters are not to be healed, and that in time there will not be departments of English, there will just be cultural studies. And it is probably better that way. Let the study of literature die in the universities; it will not die among sensitive people."

Bloom is no more tolerant of most of the stage or film versions of Shakespeare which he comes across. The superlative performance of his life was Ralph Richardson as Falstaff, whom he saw as an adolescent and has never seen surpassed; though there have been other pleasures. "I saw the splendid and sexy British actress Ann Todd do a good Macbeth with Michael Redgrave several decades ago," he recalls. "She quite thrilled and captivated me, and I think sublimely upset every other man in the audience too, by doubling over and clutching herself in the central region while crying out, `Unsex me here.'" But he cannot abide Kenneth Branagh - "I think he is a disaster: a bad director and a bad actor, a mindless fellow" - and he walked out of Ralph Fiennes's attempt on Hamlet. The living Shakespearean actor he most admires is Sir Ian McKellen, though he hated his 1930s-era production of Richard III: "I would like to hang Richard Eyre for that," he says. He couldn't sit through a New-Historicist-influenced production of The Tempest by the much-admired New York director George C Wolfe, in which Prospero was portrayed as a colonialist ruler and Caliban was "an heroic black liberator, Huey Newton meets Fidel Castro. I left before the intermission. I was tearing my hair and moaning and groaning, and people were saying, `Shush, how dare you?' I said, `What do you mean, how dare you? How dare he?'"

When it come to Shakespeare the man, Bloom speaks of a person who is infinitely unknowable but also infinitely irresistible. His attitude is explicitly one of worship; but it is also one of love. "I am obviously a personaliser," Bloom says. "But I don't see why one shouldn't be. I belong to no critical school whatsoever. I am a kind of intuitionist and experiential critic, and have been from the time I was a little bear. And Shakespeare somehow makes me more so than ever." His view of Shakespeare, he says, is similar to that of Anthony Burgess in his fictionalised account of Shakespeare's life, Nothing Like the Sun, in which "there is a tremendous descent into hell, which is syphilitic. Besides, there is a mystical pact between me and Tony. I met him only two or three times in New York, and he introduced me to his favourite drink, Fundador, Barcelona cognac. One morning I had bought a bottle, and was walking home, and suddenly like an apparition in front of me, blinking in the sunlight, is Mr Anthony Burgess, with his shirt open to his navel, and wearing carpet-slippers and no socks and clearly not having slept the night before. He said, `Bloom, Bloom, is that you? What have you got in that paper bag?' I said, `Improbable as it may seem, it is a bottle of Fundador.' He said, `My God, there is a God, this proves it, hand it over immediately.' I watched with wonder as he took one of the longest drinks I had ever seen, and shuddered after each draw. He handed it back, and I said, `No, you owe me a bottle.' He said, `It is a sacred obligation, and if it should happen that we do not meet in this life again, when you reach the other shore I will be waiting for you, be it purgatory or heaven, and there I shall stand on the other shore with a bottle of Fundador.' Well, I have not yet reached the other shore, but I frequently think he will be waiting for me with the Fundador."

Bloom has no Fundador in the house on the afternoon of my visit, and so we settle for two large glasses of sherry, as he speaks not just of the plays but of the playwright. Bloom's relationship with Shakespeare and his characters is deeply personal: he refers to himself as "Sir John Bloomstaff", and he calls Rosalind in As You Like It the "best and most fascinating of all women", as if she were the greatest unrequited love of his life. Such fondness and playfulness can result in literary-critical no-nos, like indulging in a game of "what if?". "The single scene in Shakespeare which exasperates me to the point where I scream in reading it is the rejection of Falstaff," he tells me. "I have always blamed Shakespeare for that. He should have had the fat knight walk right out of the play and into the Forest of Arden. I like the vision of Sir John sitting on a tree stump while Rosalind darts around him, doing his best to keep up with her. What wonderful conversations they could have had! But Shakespeare did not want to do that. Shakespeare, in a strange way, is terribly just. He does not want to show us sorrow and the ending of sorrow. He wants to show us sorrow and the sorrow that does not end at all."

For all Bloom's playfulness, sorrow keeps rising to the surface as we talk. Bloom, so concerned with last years, dwells moodily upon the last years of Shakespeare. "Here's someone who not only writes 39 plays in 24 years, and at least 25 of them are masterpieces, but - and this is something that I will never be able to understand, it is beyond anything that one thinks of that Mozart or Michelangelo did - I cannot imagine writing King Lear, and Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in 14 consecutive months. He did it non-stop. And so he burns himself out. He has burned through his own passion for the representation of character. And then there is Coriolanus, which is a fascinating experimental tragedy, in which there seems to be no interest in inwardness or personality whatsoever. And in the late plays, he goes back to the origins of drama as he understood them: formal patterns, the origins of humour, how to portray moods almost as if they could exist apart from the human beings who exemplified them: how to work upon the audience perhaps more radically than he had worked upon the audience by breaking their hearts."

Like Burgess, Bloom theorises that at some point in his life Shakespeare became infected with syphilis, and that his last years were lived under the shadow of the illness. "One sees in the last plays what one had begun to see in the so-called `problem plays': how horribly rancid human sexuality has become to him," Bloom says. "I deeply suspect - as I hint in one point in the book and was whacked over the head for it by some silly reviewer - there is an obsession in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and before that much more strongly in Troilus and Cressida, with venereal infection. And the sonnet sequence ends with two sonnets about Cupid which are palpably about venereal infection. His view of himself as an erotic being goes very sour indeed, and I think in general his view of himself becomes haunted by the exasperated feeling that he has violated himself - that he has humiliated himself or allowed himself to be humiliated."

The great mystery for Bloom is what Shakespeare was up to in the final two years of his life, when he returned to Stratford from London. "Here is much the best writer that we know of, and in the last two and a half years of his life, he writes nothing. He writes a piece of doggerel for his grave, and he writes a will. But you would have thought that the greatest poet of any language that I am able to read would have gone on to some extraordinary final phase. But I suppose that he felt he had done that in The Two Noble Kinsmen and no one seemed to care. I think his health was bad, and his head was full of echoes. His son Hamnet was dead, but his wife was still there - a wife whom I don't believe he had touched for 20-odd years.

"I wonder what he would have written," Bloom continues, mistily. "It is hard to know how drama gets beyond The Two Noble Kinsmen. I am fascinated by the way it ends, those last two beautiful lines. It does seem to me that he is saying goodbye." Bloom reaches for a copy of his book, and read Shakespeare's words aloud:

O you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh; for what we have we are sorry; still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave dispute

That are above our question. Let's go off,

And bear us like the time.

"He has learnt to laugh for what he lacks," says Bloom. "I can't say I have reached that point. I ran into my old friend, the poet Richard Howard, and I recited those lines to him, and told him that those were the last lines that Shakespeare ever wrote. He said, `Where shall I find them?' and I told him they were in your basic Shakespeare. He called me a couple of hours later, and said, it is unbearably moving.

"They have a strange music, don't they? Let's just be whatever is at that particular moment." Bloom looks towards me over his still horizontal bulk, as the afternoon light dims through the blinds. "What an enigma Shakespeare is," he says. "I can imagine any other author, but I cannot imagine Shakespeare. The only proper attitude towards Shakespeare is stunned awe. How is it possible that one person could be not just so much more gifted than the rest of us put together, but so much more intelligent than the rest of us put together? It is so strange. He really could think more largely, and comprehensively, and accurately, and creatively, and perceptively than, somehow, all the rest of mankind and womankind has ever been able to do. And that is a scandal, and one sees why the School of Resentment cannot take it - it is a permanent scandal. It is, in fact, total knowledge, or the totality of knowledge. What is one to say about him finally?"

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for the New Yorker