Books: Is this a detractor which I see before me?

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Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

by Harold Bloom Fourth Estate pounds 25

Five years ago, in his hefty bestseller The Western Canon, Harold Bloom stepped forward as the stout defender of our greatest literature against the dark forces intent on dethroning it in the name of political correctness. is his latest broadside - a massive 750-page swipe at all who would reduce the chief glory of the canon to a mere dupe of the ideology of his day.

In the harsh light of present-day critical theory, Bloom contends, Shakespeare's drama has become either an embarrassment to be explained away or a whetstone on which to grind the axe of the latest enlightened agenda. For Bloom, the only way of saving Shakespeare from these mean- minded peddlers of disenchantment is to restore the sense of utter awe that the masterpieces he bequeathed us demand. And the chief source of that awe, he maintains, is Shakespeare's genius for forging unforgettable characters.

Professor Bloom has no qualms about adopting such a flagrantly unfashionable approach. On the contrary, the self-styled "Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater" prides himself on his pose as "an archaic survival among Shakespearean critics". Like his heroes Hazlitt and Bradley before him, he proceeds on the assumption that Shakespeare's supremacy resides in his convincing depiction of individuals, who strike us as more real and rounded than the actual people we know, including ourselves.

What has fascinated ordinary playgoers and readers down through the ages, and what will still fascinate them - Bloom is willing to bet - long after the current vogue for debunking the Bard has abated, is the extraordinary pantheon of protagonists Shakespeare created to inhabit his plays. It is the personalities of characters such as Hamlet, Falstaff, Macbeth and Cleopatra that loom largest in our memories, he believes, teasing us out of thought as we strive in vain to pluck out the heart of their mystery. It is they who are responsible for the fact that Shakespeare's art always leaps beyond our reach, defying complete interpretation. For Shakespeare blessed his most complex characters, Bloom claims, with a self-conscious capacity for change that allowed them to evolve an elusive life of their own, to dwell beyond the confines of the plays that cradled them.

The book's blanket contempt for today's Shakespeare critics as "gender and power freaks", driven to detraction by their jealousy of his genius, affords the author endless scope for amusing abuse, but finds little justification in reality. The critical "School of Resentment" Professor Bloom excoriates does indeed exist, and it deserves all his scorn for trying to turn Shakespeare into a patriarchal Bard whose plays are the wily allies of oppression. But there are also plenty of theoretically hip, politically savvy critics whose Bardolatry could give even Bloom's a hard run for its money.

The awe of these critics for the author of Hamlet is founded, however, not on vapid invocations of Shakespeare's sublimity, but on his plays' power to question the crippling divisions of his world and our own. Judged from this standpoint, Shakespeare's drama survives our questioning not because the mysteries of human nature are eternal and Shakespeare's take on them inscrutable, but because his plays imply a profound egalitarian vision, which remains almost as far ahead of our time as it was of Shakespeare's. If "the last High Romantic Bardolater" had squared up to this line of argument, he would have found himself tackling a much tougher antagonist than the cartoon dragon at which he tilts his lance, but at least he might have given his own case the genuine polemical punch it lacks.

has its virtues, but none of them springs from its central assertion that Shakespeare was solely responsible for "the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognise it". In Bloom's view, the credit for creating the modern sense of what it means to be an individual, replete with an inner life and ripe for change at every moment, should go entirely to the glovemaker's lad from Stratford. Furthermore, Bloom argues, the impact of Shakespeare's invention of identity has been universal, because there is not a person on the planet who has been left untouched by his imagination. Without Cleopatra no one would know "how impossible it is to divorce acting the part of being in love and the reality of being in love"; without Falstaff we would be bereft of "our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others"; and thanks to Hamlet alone we have learned "not to have faith either in language or ourselves".

This is plainly Bardolatry at its battiest. Over the last four centuries, in many parts of the world, millions of people have read or seen Shakespeare, and his influence on them may well have been greater than that of any other author in the history of humanity. But many more millions have never read or seen his plays and never will, and they appear to have had no problem acquiring unique personalities without the benefit of the Bard. Only a literary critic who has spent far too long in the library, and who consequently thinks literature owes nothing to life and life owes everything to literature, could seriously state: "I do not know whether God created Shakespeare, but I know that Shakespeare created us."

Fortunately the book abounds in enough brilliant insights to redeem it from the curse of its most exorbitant claims. Bloom has a chapter on every one of the extant plays that Shakespeare wrote or had a hand in, and few of them fail to provoke him to a comment that cries out to be quoted. Of his favourite Shakespearean hero and heroine, Bloom writes: "Rosalind is Jane Austen to Falstaff's Samuel Johnson; Rosalind is the apotheosis of persuasion, while Falstaff ultimately conveys the vanity of human wishes". Much Ado About Nothing he shrewdly dubs "the most amiably nihilistic play ever written", observing of Beatrice and Benedick that "with every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters, and their mutual wit does not so much defend against other selves as it defends against meaninglessness". And in the tortured soul of Othello, Bloom discerns "Shakespeare's most wounding representation of male vanity and fear of female sexuality, and so of the male equation that makes the fear of cuckoldry and the fear of mortality into a single dread".

As these quotations suggest, Bloom is at his eloquent best when he responds to the glimpses of the void he keeps catching in play after play. Shakespeare's characters repeatedly reveal to Bloom a terror of nature's indifference and an obsession with extinction that play havoc with the book's celebration of their creator's vital humanism. Buried within lie the seeds of the far darker, more disturbing study of Shakespeare that Bloom really ought to write: a study undismayed to find deep in the heart of the immortal Bard a terrible hunger for oblivion.

8 Harold Bloom is interviewed this week in the Sunday Review, page 18