Thursday, May 21, 2015

Harold Bloom's Shakespeare


Sometime around '86 or '87, I remember the local library getting their first selection of VHS tapes to lend. On their own shelf, made available by a local grant, were the complete series of PBS/BBC Shakespeare performances from the 1970s. I wasn't yet old enough to check out movies, and the librarian scowled at me for even looking over the selection. A few years later however, after being gifted a VCR, I went right to it.

I found myself watching Shakespeare surreptitiously late at night. My parents are not at all the bookish types, and wouldn't understand a burning need to watch The Tempest, much less Peter Greenaway's weird, but brilliant adaptation, Prospero's Books. By this point it had become too uncomfortable to watch even generic Hollywood movies with them, anyway. A viewing of Batman Returns or The Blues Brothers would be punctuated with remarks made against "the jews" and "the blacks." An attempt to watch anything theatrical would probably just raise their fears against the possibility of having a gay son.

Being heterosexual, however, I can't even use the outdated stereotype to explain my literary tastes. Somehow, I just needed to voraciously search out and read books of a certain quality. Being alone in my quest for ideas in a conservative world of pre-digested media, my search was fairly hap-hazard at this point. I certainly didn't have a guide as good as Harold Bloom, the self-proclaimed Bardolator, to point me towards Hazlett or Bradley on my path through the Bard's works.

Bloom wrote this book at the tail-end of the '90s, the great age of Political Correctness. It's amazing in retrospect, to think on how much more repressed the Clinton years were than the supposed conservative times that came before. Some commentators see this as the obvious result of applying various modern -isms to American culture and education. David Denby's Great Books, which I read last year, interpreted this shift as a mis-guided attack on the "core" Western texts. Jacques Barzun, in his masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence, saw it as an error in historical interpretation, reminding the reader that every current identified as a historic trend has a smaller, but identifiable counter-current.

Bloom is also pained by what he describes as the interpretation of a text as a collection of words, rather than as the work of an author. However, he is fairly self-deprecating about his romantic views of how to read a book, admitting that he is an old-fashioned professor now, perhaps a bit of a Falstaff. Every now and then he'll start to go down the road of his "rivals," perhaps speculating a bit too much about how much of Shakespeare is in the play, and recognize his borderline hypocrisy as he does so.

Most of the time, though, he sticks to what is in the text, and how the plays relate to each other. The theme of the book is the great line of character drawn from the early comedies to the late romances. To Bloom's point of view, this peaks in the creations of Falstaff, Hamlet and Cleopatra. He does go a bit into the possible influences, primarily Marlowe's ever-hovering shadow, but is more interested in how the plays influence us. It's almost a chicken-or-the-egg feedback loop, this seeking out of quality in Shakespeare, who is seen as creating the quality of personality in modern literature (if not our very selves by Bloom's Falstaffian fanboy thesis.) He pulls it off however, as all great magicians do, through great charm and leading of the eyes.

Of course, some would call this mis-direction rather than display of skill. Bloom would remind us, however, that we are living in a time of visual domination when reading Shakespeare takes instead, a great auditory skill. Instead of admiring the tricks of a great writer, we should be paying attention to what is actually being emoted through the words of our inner actors as we "hear" the play. I would apply this lesson to our teacher as well as to our subject, and recommend the reader to listen to Bloom's humanity instead of reacting automatically to his arguments.

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