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Mrs. Ford



King Lear


SHAKESPEARE INVENTED LITERARY character as we know it, and insofar as we create ourselves in and through literature, Shakespeare has invented us. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead). It is a massive book–around 750 pages–and it discusses in more or less detail thirty-five plays, from The Comedy of Errors to The Two Noble Kinsmen. With heroic disregard for academic fashion, Bloom sets out to revive the assumption that Shakespearean drama emerges from, and has its main excellence in, profound characterizations.

In short, Bloom is attempting to bring back character criticism, an approach that rose to prominence in the last quarter of the eighteenth century but assumed its enduring contours in the Romantic criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. Aristotle had proposed that character was subordinate to action. In the Romantic view, Shakespeare created a distinctly modern drama by reversing this priority–paradigmatically in Hamlet, where action is delayed or inhibited so that the hero can secrete his famously convoluted individuality at leisure. Early in the twentieth century, this tradition flowered in A.C. Bradley’s classic Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). Periodically revived during our century, character criticism has never enjoyed widespread favor among professional Shakespeareans. And it is very much in opposition to the ruling cabal of Shakespeare professionals that Bloom has written Shakespeare.

For two decades, Shakespeare studies has been dominated by New Historicism, which has produced litters of books, articles, and anthologies, inaugurated new journals and introduced its slant into old ones, hosted countless conferences, attacked the pieties of traditional literary criticism, and even inspired a few studies of what it all means. We can begin to assess the chasm between Bloom and this critical school by remembering that the first argument brought to prominence by New Historicism was its denial of any form of natural selfhood. An individual’s belief that he is free to shape himself is, Stephen Greenblatt declared in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1981), "the ideological product of the relations of power in a society." While the specter of ambitious young academics standing up to repudiate their individuality was unquestionably amusing for a time, that first piece of mischief seems, these days, to have gone by the boards. Such extravagant claims, though sure to arouse passion, cannot be proved or disproved and rebound self-destructively on their proposers: It could just as readily be contended that Greenblatt’s own argument is an "ideological product."

Bloom would agree that our humanity is an invention, though for him the inventor is not society at large but a distinct individual, William Shakespeare, whose characters display habits of introspection and self-expression that subsequently became, as dispersed through literary tradition, the stylistic givens of real modern individuals. Bloom’s literary constructionism is no less extravagant–and no more subject to proof–than the New Historicists’ social constructionism. It is probably wise not to enter into the ultimately empty arguments supporting these two contrasting claims. They can instead be regarded as antagonistic Weltanschauungs of late-twentieth-century literary intellectuals–a particularly clear instance of the ongoing battle between those inclined to see literature largely in terms of society or politics and those inclined to see society or politics largely in terms of literature. We have heard a great deal from the first sort of intellectual in recent decades, whereas many of the second kind have absorbed the blows in silence.


EVEN if he is fighting folly with folly, it is good to see Bloom in the field. He is so old fashioned that he seems novel. By now the New Historicism has its own pieties, its own topics to be discussed in its own jargon, its own intellectual gestures and rhetorical occasions, and, though condemned by some eminent critics, it keeps right on ticking, having come to resemble what some people call a "discursive practice." Not even its inventor seems able to stop the juggernaut. Dissatisfied with his first attempt to name the movement, Greenblatt wanted to substitute "Cultural Poetics" for "New Historicism." Both names are problematic in kindred ways. The alternative seeks prestige from whatever cachet remains in the noble old word "poetics," which has affiliations as far back as Aristotle, even though New Historicist criticism prides itself on having exposed the ideological deceptions of the Aristotelian tradition. While Greenblatt himself will now and again attest to the wonder, surprise, and intimations of genius prompted by his encounter with Shakespeare, he rarely follows through on these obiter dicta. Most New Historicists programmatically ignore almost everything anybody has ever called poetics.

As for the name that took, New Historicism is certainly not a historicism on the model of Wilhelm Dilthey’s or Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (based on the idea that the questions we bring to works of art, though rooted in past readings, are open to novel answers). Sidestepping most of the traditional questions and answers, New Historicism appeals to a loosely constructed model of Elizabethan ideology–one oddly similar to Freud’s model of the mind, which New Historicism professes to regard with utmost wariness. Subversion threatens, only to be contained; anxiety circulates, only to be defused; contradictions press, only to issue in ameliorating fantasies. At the center of these percolating social energies stand the allied powers of court and church, which, rather like Freud’s ego and superego, will tolerate serious rebelliousness only when it is cloaked in deference. New Historicism’s appeal to the resonance of historical context, which might suggest that it is just a continuation of conventional scholarship by another name, usually comes down to this kind of dubious, at bottom rather banal systematizing.

Members of the sect assure us that they are, like good contemporary relativists, pursuing histories rather than History. They aim to explore, in Louis Montrose’s influential formulation, "the historicity of texts and the textuality of histories." In practice, their idea of historical context (the aforementioned model of ideological production) takes precedence over literary context. Thus Montrose’s well-known essay on the decisive role of primogeniture in As You Like It assumes that the play appeals to the grudges of disinherited younger brothers like Orlando; his social elevation through marriage to Rosalind is the ameliorating fantasy at the heart of the comedy. This might seem plausible with respect to the first two acts, though even there the dilemma of Orlando has less dramatic radiance than the remarkable friendship of Celia and Rosalind. Once the play arrives at the Forest of Arden, primogeniture becomes at best a recessive concern. It is typical of the New Historicism to use historical information to deflect attention away from, rather than direct it toward, the features of the drama that have always impressed literary minds–including in this case the absolute bond between Celia and Rosalind, able to survive the threat of marriage, and the mysterious combination of rapturous love and unblinking disillusionment in the character of Rosalind. New Historicist interpretations are not so much historical in a neutral way as tendentiously politicizing. Still, one suspects that the label stuck because, apart from its roots in German hermeneutics, "historicism" in some vague sense promises an accurate and well-organized knowledge of the past, something more solid than subjectivity or opinion or congeries of bare fact.

Bloom, by contrast, is opinion and nothing but opinion from start to finish and never claims to be anything else. Where the New Historicist disappears behind fortifications of method, Bloom beats on us with gusts of personality. The cultural materialist (a species found in the Marxist wing of New Historicism) analytically inventories the playhouse; Bloom’s Romantic consciousness is somewhere out on the heath.


NO CRITICAL movement can endure without providing for its practitioners deep sources of pleasure. Whatever our beliefs, we are at some level hedonists one and all. For hundreds of years, Shakespeare’s plays have offered commentators occasions to rise to–great occasions that take the measure not just of one’s eloquence or cleverness but also of one’s spiritual attainments. All the great Shakespearean characters are, like Falstaff, the cause of wit in others. The marriage of Kate and Petruchio, the charm of Rosalind, the rejection of Falstaff, the reflections of Hamlet, the last speeches of Othello, the death of Cordelia, and so on: These have inspired some of the best critical writing in the English language. Bloom welcomes every one of them. He has spent a lifetime training for them, and now, in Shakespeare, they are his, all of them, one after another. If he passes by in ignorance or lack of interest a number of places in Shakespeare that can be illuminated by reference to Renaissance culture, he does not miss a single one of the great rhetorical occasions. As Bloom understands his calling, they are what a critic lives for.

The greatest rhetorical achievement of Bloom’s book is his dazzling revival of Shakespeare praise–the language appropriate to his greatness–which all contemporary Shakespeare criticism, not just New Historicism, tends to dismiss as "Bardolatry," as if such praise were a historical embarrassment rather than a major genre of English prose poetry. "Wonder, gratitude, shock, amazement," Bloom maintains, "are the accurate responses out of which one has to work." Not since the morning prayers of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost has a creator been hymned more beautifully than Bloom hymns Shakespeare. As he says: "A cognitive and affective response adequate to Shakespeare must confront greatness, both in his protagonists and in their creator." A language able to register greatness is not, in other words, icing on the cake, something added on to an understanding of Shakespeare, but is part and parcel of that understanding.

"The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition: Here at last we encounter an intelligence without limits. As we read Shakespeare, we are always engaged in catching up, and our joy is that the process is never-ending: he is still out ahead of us." There can be little doubt that, for Bloom, the main precursor in the creation of this necessary praise, this expression of "our joy" in the process of trying to catch up to Shakespeare, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lives in every sinew of the passage just quoted, and who wrote of Shakespeare: "He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of doors." Indeed, the very thesis of the book is Emersonian. "Now," Emerson wrote, alluding of course to the nineteenth century, "literature, philosophy, and thought, are Shakespearized. His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see." Bloom would add psychology to this list, since he has come to believe that Freud did little more than recycle Shakespearean insights in his own system of tropes.

Though hardly alone in its disdain for Bardolatry, New Historicism has distinctive ways of looking down on it. Love, as Edward Pechter noted sometime ago, does not rank high among its guiding passions. The movement tends to regard Shakespeare praise as an ideological conspiracy, a convenience of British imperialism, a way for cultural haves to deplore the ignorance of cultural have-nots. Denying themselves one of the enduring sources of pleasure in traditional Shakespeare studies, they adopt as one of their own recurrent rhetorical occasions the new and wholly negative pleasure of maligning products of the old positive kind. They replace the idea of literary genius with what Bloom calls their own "knowingness."

Topping the numbered propositions in the dogmatic essay at the beginning of Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations we find: "There can be no appeals to genius as the sole origin of the energies of great art." This is carefully, one might say deceptively phrased; very few people indeed, not even Bloom himself, would sign on to the idea that genius is the "sole origin" of art’s energies. One might suppose from this statement that New Historicism wants to study the social side of genius. But in practice it has no truck whatsoever with genius. As Bloom shows, that would require a language dedicated to evoking greatness, and New Historicism is at best uneasy with the idea of being grateful for anything about literature, with the possible exception of its helplessness before the will of the critic. Rather than reading literature, New Historicists often interrogate it.

The movement has nothing but ridicule for the concepts of aesthetics, poetics, genius, and literary greatness. If some unique personal endowment in Shakespeare did not put the greatness into his plays, what did? "Social energies," the New Historicists answer. As Bloom suggests, their whole enterprise could be viewed as an unwitting parody of the old tradition of denying Shakespeare the authorship of his plays. That benighted gesture has mutated to meet the demands of an age that professes not to believe in individualism. The author is dead; personality is dead. In such a climate, the true author cannot be Queen Elizabeth, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford. Contemporary Shakespeare debunkers must appeal instead to the hidden hand of a conceptual entity. So Social Energies wrote the plays, perhaps with a little help from her good friend Ideological Containment.

There is no more pathetic book in modern criticism than Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare (1989), in which one of the two general editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, a scholar who has made a career on this poet, tells us that once you strip away all the layers of ideological varnish from the writer’s reputation, nothing is left of Shakespeare beyond a few conservative attitudes nowhere near as progressive as those to be found in Thomas Middleton and a few bombastic speeches about death. Should some avatar of Ambrose Bierce ever write a Devil’s Dictionary for the modern profession of literary studies, which has indeed asked for such a scourge by generating theories about its own professionalism, one might well find the following entry: "Professional, noun. One who has never been struck by genius." These critics seem to be interested in every kind of power except artistic.


I AM TOLD that a noted New Historicist begins her graduate Shakespeare classes by telling the students: "Do not fetishize the language." They might have to do some fetishizing of this language in order to figure out what "fetishize" means. Used in different senses by Marx and Freud, the word "fetish" has a titanic frisson for contemporary theorists. Simply to employ it appears to induce rapture. Greenblatt himself has an especially absurd section titled "The Fetishism of Dress" in the introductory matter to his Norton Shakespeare (published last year to wide notice and substantial, though far from unanimous, praise), where he catalogs allusions to clothes and adornments in Shakespeare’s plays as somehow exemplifying "fetishism," a usage that would have left both Freud and Marx shaking their heads. In any case, I suspect that the word "fetishize" in "Do not fetishize the language" must be theory-speak for "value" or "get excited about." What students are to get excited about, I guess, is the defiant act of not getting excited and using magic words like "fetishize" to congratulate themselves on their lack of taste and sensibility. One has to wonder if a critical school programmatically excluding literary greatness can possibly have a happy prognosis. In proportion to their success, the destructive gestures, along with the pleasures they afford, may run out of steam.

For what it’s worth, negativity in Shakespeare always winds up destroying itself. Troilus and Cressida contains an exemplary account of how a blinkered fascination with the workings of power leads ultimately to nihilism:

    Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite; And appetite, an universal wolf, So doubly seconded with will and power, Must make perforce an universal prey, And last eat up himself.

The New Historicists have expressed sharp bitterness over the fact that the old historicist E.M.W. Tillyard supposed these words to be the summit of Shakespeare’s social wisdom, and no wonder. Considered as a prophetic allegory about the fate of Nietzschean/Foucauldian theories, the passage tolls their doom.

THE HABIT of reading Shakespeare’s works as expressions not of imaginative power but of political domination persists in the face of what should count, even for historicists, as primary evidence–the poems and plays themselves. Knowingness is not enough: Today’s critics seize any opportunity to affirm their moral superiority to the literature they study. Bloom mentions a recent edition of The Taming of the Shrew that prints Renaissance passages on wife beating, although Petruchio never lands a blow. There are similar examples, less brazen but still pernicious, in the Norton Shakespeare. Walter Cohen, introducing the sonnets, knows full well that Shakespeare’s "dark lady" was almost certainly not dark skinned but dark haired and dark eyed. To concede that truth would, however, be a lost opportunity for this style of criticism. Art has to be contaminated with dire images: "Nonetheless, the sonnets to the mistress may be metaphorically related to the racialized discourse of the period." I am not sure what "racialized" means, but it probably means something not far from "racist." The sonnets surely "may be metaphorically related" to racism, since anything can be compared to anything, but Cohen’s statement treacherously leaves open the question of whether this relating is imposed by the mind of the poet or by the mind of the commentator. Shakespeare himself, a connoisseur of comic willfulness, might have enjoyed the desperate use of "Nonetheless" at the beginning of this sentence. Nonetheless: Despite the truth, that is, despite all the evidence that the dark lady was not a person of color, one nonetheless gets to think about racism in reading the last twenty-five sonnets. Those poor students almost got off the hook.

A related example of this rhetoric may be observed in Lisa Jardine’s Reading Shakespeare Historically (1996):

    The conceptual struggle between gender and nationality in Henry V did not become part of my own dialogue with the play until the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the personal tragedies of the young Bosnians who entered my classroom forced it upon me.

Not, presumably, at gunpoint. One suspects that she was not forced at all, save perhaps by the imperatives of her theoretical temperament. Here again we see politicized catastrophe being deliberately imported into the realm of literature with the aim of making any other intellectual or imaginative invitation found in that space seem by comparison indulgent and elitist–a potential diversion from the grim, yet doubtless complex, business of gender and nationality.

There are other ways to pollute the aesthetic realm. The first opinion expressed in Bloom’s Shakespeare is a word about the editions he has used:

    I recommend the Arden Shakespeare, but frequently I have followed the Riverside or other editions. I have avoided the New Oxford Shakespeare, which perversely seeks, more often than not, to print the worst possible text, poetically speaking.

It almost goes without saying that the Norton Shakespeare, produced by New Historicists to replace the well-established Riverside Shakespeare in undergraduate classrooms, adopts the poetically inferior texts of the Oxford Edition. This is a considerable favor, since, were it not for its appearance in the Norton Shakespeare, the Oxford text would have died a hasty death, never to be read at all save by a small minority of Shakespeare scholars.

Early on, the New Historicism made an alliance with a certain school of textual editors suspicious of the idealization involved in the so-called reading text. Rather than give us a definitive version to study and contemplate, they would prefer to foist on us whenever possible multiple texts, fragmenting literature at the root level of reading. The Norton Shakespeare prints on facing pages two separately annotated texts of King Lear, "so that readers can compare them easily," then prints a third, "conflated" version of the play. There is only one running text of Hamlet, that of the folio, but passages found only in the second quarto have been inserted into the folio text, indented and printed in italics: "This format enables readers to imagine more readily the version of Hamlet thought to have been revised for performance during Shakespeare’s own lifetime."

In both cases, these editorial decisions are made to sound as if they were favors done for readers. If these are favors, we must hope the New Historicists are never moved to do us an ill turn. I wonder how students, so overwhelmed by King Lear that they will do anything not to write about it and so overwhelmed by Hamlet that they habitually fall back on high-school treatments of the play, will deal with the added burden of being compelled by the very book in front of them to attend continually to three Lears and the subtle differences between the F and Q2 Hamlet. I suspect that the very best students will ignore these impositions for the sake of imaginative freedom. Such fascinating issues are better left to professional historicists and their graduate trainees.


BLOOM reminds us, as perhaps no other critic could, what a tragedy it is to have the center of the canon, the best writer of all, monopolized by a school of self-important drudges. But as with anybody, and particularly so with Bloom, one pays a price for his virtues. His chapter on King Lear is an absolute triumph. He is superb on Rosalind. He is so winningly in love with Falstaff–at one point noting that he himself might be a parody of the Eastcheap Socrates–that we should probably forgive him his distaste for Hal and be grateful for his perhaps wishful concession that "every one of us responds to the joyousness of Henry V." He does magnificently well with the first four acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then flounders with the play within a play in Act 5, in part because his admiration for Bottom does not extend to Bottom the actor.

But he butchers Measure for Measure in the usual ways. I thought that all the mud of history had already been slung at Duke Vincentio, just as all the false praise in the universe had already been heaped on the vile Lucio, but Bloom manages to come up with some new wrinkles: We can now add to Vincentio’s endless list of metaphorical crimes that of the psychoanalyst who seduces his female patient. Bloom declares, in his own spin on the conventional wisdom, that the duplicitous duke is "a kind of anarchistic precursor of Iago." My own view is that Vincentio, like Prospero in The Tempest, is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself: His manipulations are not malignancy but art. The Hamlet chapter seems to me a whole lot of hot air; outdoing Joyce with the metaphor of self-fathering, while a suggestive ambition, hardly guarantees that one has kept in touch with the tragedy. In a move also found in New Historicist criticism of Othello (as well as in the work of Stanley Cavell), Bloom takes the preposterous tack that Othello and Desdemona never consummate their marriage. The first half of his Macbeth discussion argues, via misplaced devotion to Nietzsche, that the play cannot be about guilt. Then, of course the play being what it is, fairly saturated with guilt, he finds nothing relevant to talk about.

Through most of the book we are spared Shakespeare the Gnostic, that old heretical cult being perhaps the most tiresome of Bloom’s hobbyhorses, but the theme does surface now and then toward the end of Shakespeare. Bloom’s worst tic in this book is his constant assumption of the brilliance of Nietzsche–this from a man who now thinks Freud to be sheer bunk! In particular, one wearies of his repeated invocation of the maxim from Twilight of the Idols, which he gives (in what may be his own translation) as "That for which we can find words, is already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." Are we not interested in how our opinions make way in the world? Is there no delight in another’s encounter with them? Do we not, in the act of speaking, regularly develop or change or playfully transform our thoughts? The maxim might apply pretty well to a frustrated sage, sick of repeating himself without persuading everyone, or, alternatively, to a rigid simpleton whose ideas never vary. I cannot think of a single speech in Shakespeare much illuminated by this pseudo-profundity.

But Bloom’s is a Romantic consciousness, insistent on itself. He brings to Shakespeare a mind not to be changed, or not that much, by the recoveries of good scholarship or the probabilities of sound history. He is in some ways the extreme called forth by the excesses of New Historicism. Sublime though he is, Bloom too often indulges the likes and dislikes of a defiantly self-impressed personality. As he remarked of literary interpretation in The Western Canon: "The only method is the self."

For all its aridities, New Historicism at least recognizes that our understanding of Shakespeare must take account of historical knowledge, which the self in its immediacy almost surely lacks. But the movement, so willing to indulge in political attitudinizing, is not historical enough: What is needed, now as always, is the old scholarly ideal that modern selves can be pried loose from their immediate feelings, liberated from narcissistic self-enclosure, by disciplined historical learning. "You keep both Rule and Energy in view, / Much power in each, most in the balanced two," Thom Gunn writes in his poem "To Yvor Winters, 1955"–a fine couplet with room for both method and personality. If we could take the best from Bloom and the scholarly impulses behind New Historicism, we might get something like a historically informed imagination. That, to my mind, ought to be the ideal of literary study.

William W. Kerrigan teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His second book on Shakespeare will be published next year by Johns Hopkins.

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