Love's labours lost;Book of the week;Books

26th February 1999 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE: The Invention of the Human. By Harold Bloom. 4th Estate pound;25.

Literary critic Harold Bloom is a little too in love with Shakespeare, argues DJTaylor. Which makes his new tome on the Bard, for all its ambitious scope and revealing insights, little more than canon fodder

Compare these three quotations about Shakespeare: "Taking the boy to be the father of the man, I see a square-built yet lithe and active fellow, with ruddy cheeks, hazel eyes, a high forehead, and auburn hair, as full of life as an egg is full of meat, impulsive, inquiring, sympathetic..."

"He looks as a real poet would look, who had worked hard all his life and known a world outside poetry: one who had roots somewhere like Warwickshire."

"If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare. Who can dispute his good eminence, to which merit alone raised him?...Perhaps indeed it is Falstaff and Hamlet, rather than Shakespeare, who are mortal gods, or perhaps the greatest of wits and the greatest of intellects between them divinized their creator."

The first was written about a century ago by the Shakespearian scholar F J Furnivall. The second comes from Peter Levi's Shakespeare: His Life and Times (1988). The third is from Harold Bloom's current 700-page offering. All are ripped from their original context, of course, and cunningly juxtaposed upon the page, but the similarities of tone and assumption - above all, the thought that there is a particular, eternal, language in which a certain type of book about ShakespeareJgets written - are perhaps a little too close for comfort.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human fits snugly into this substantial genre of middlebrow Shakespearian criticism. This is not an insult to Professor Bloom, simplyJan attempt to establish the level at which his book is pitched. Bloom is the kind of writer who doesn't mind proclaiming himself a "devoted Falstaffian" or even, in a very exalted moment, "Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater". He is struck down by such paralysing reverence for the subject that one emerges with a curious feeling that ordinary critical standards have somehow ceased to apply in a rush to acclaim this supernatural genius.

Perhaps this is Bloom's point. His thesis will be a familiar one to anyone raised on Shakespeare criticism of the FurnivallLevi school. Before Shakespeare we had character; after him we had characterisation. Not only is Shakespeare the embodiment of the Western canon, he has become the universal canon, "perhaps the only one that can survive the current debasement of our teaching institutions".

Moving grandly on, Bloom even has a line about life being a "naturalistic unreality" merely because of Shakespeare's influence. "Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?" he wonders at one stage, which is all very well provided one has circumnavigated the extremely tricky hurdle of working out who exactly "we" are (American university professors? Glasgow tenement dwellers? Bengali child labourers?).

Thus conceived, Shakespeare is simultaneously a celebrant and a scourge - on the one hand the guide and director of our notions of what being human means, on the other a useful stick with which to beat assorted post-structuralists and deconstructionists, the very mention of whose names has Bloom gnashing his teeth.

The play-by-play analysis that follows displays the strength and weakness of this approach in about equal parts. Examining Antony and Cleopatra simply as an exercise in massed character, for example, Bloom is excellent at demonstrating the effect of particular scenes and exchanges on particular personalities. Among other things, his account of the opening dialogue confirms what one had suspected of last year's National Theatre staging - that Helen Mirren knew how to deliver her lines and Alan Rickman didn't.

And yet, while scarcely a page of this colossal endeavour fails to yield up some illuminating insight, all the while one is conscious of Bloom steadfastly ignoring the contradictions that this critical approach embodies. Character, after all, proceeds out of environment, and neither of these items can be discussed without reference to a range of cultural assumptions that Bloom avoids mentioning.

Going back to Mirren and Rickman, you don't have to be a paid-up literary theorist or cultural studies merchant to feel that a discussion of Antony and Cleopatra that fails to bring in "orientalism" is failing to do its job.

As for the wider critical battle: however much one sympathises with Bloom, when he notes that "Very little is gained by reminding us that Hamlet is made up of and by words...", one wants to scream that words are all we have, and that in the last resort the basis of most human activity is linguistic.

This is not to disparage Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which will be invaluable to anyone teaching Shakespeare or, even more important, putting it on a stage. But the sense of someone trying to prove that the only bits of a tree that exist are the ones you can see is pervasive, while the lofty vagueness of some of the critical language ("range and zest", "kaleidoscopic shifting of perspectives") occasionally hinders Bloom's attack.

Reading Anthony Powell's Journals not long ago, I came across a discussion of the scene in Pericles (Powell is a great ruminator on the Bard) in which Lysimachus, meeting his future wife, Marina, in a brothel, exclaims "Faith, she would serve after a long voyage at sea." Powell observes that Lysimachus probably suffered for this remark during his later married life - a shrewd, if more modest, insight into "character" of a kind that Bloom's large and ambitious work sometimes fails to bring off.

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