Book Review: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

In his play-by-play commentary on the works of Shakespeare, Bloom avers that William Shakespeare is the one who invented us. Not that he is the created of the human race, but something close to it; he is, says Bloom, the one who introduced to us the idea of effecting change within ourselves by self-overhearing. In addition, he argues that the most remarkable representatives of this invention of the human are Sir John Falstaff and Hamlet, the melancholy prince of Denmark. Both of them, he says, represent a sort of world-denial, but that of the latter is in a jolliness that sees through the facades and the other in a kind of weariness.

I do not find Bloom’s argument entirely convincing. I also do not entirely agree with his choice of Shakespearean characters to emphasize. For my part, for example, I would choose Henry V well above Falstaff, though Bloom allows his solid preference for the latter, probably as a type of himself, to lead him to despise the former. That said, in this work Bloom does contribute substantially to our understanding of where we, the modern man, comes from. The marks of St. Augustine’s self-reflection and Martin Luther’s internal struggles have both been duly documented; Shakespeare’s contribution of self-overhearing deserves its due place in that chain of ideas that made modern man.

In addition that addition to the anthropology of modern man, this book is also to be praised for its consistent stance of an honest dialogue with Shakespeare. Bloom spurns the works of modern critics and directors who attempt to manipulate Shakespeare to make him fit the modern agendas of feminism, Marxism, queer theory, environmentalism, post-colonialism, etc. Instead, he allows the man to speak for himself and grants him, in return, the respect of speaking back to him. More than that, he allows Shakespeare to speak to and so through him, Shakespeare being far the superior mind not only to Bloom but to all of his interpreters.

Although his book comes in at 745 pages, I was left wishing for more. Not that Bloom’s argument was incomplete; far from it, a chapter dedicated to each of Shakespeare’s plays and an in depth analysis of each is more than sufficient to demonstrate Bloom’s point to satisfaction. It was, however, such a joy to read that I would have read on for another 745 pages or more. In particular, I think a commentary with the same emphasis (the invention of the human) on the Sonnets would have made for excellent and insightful reading.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in Shakespeare, in literature, in modern philosophy, and/or in the idea of the human being.

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One comment

  1. I think it might be worth noting that one should actually read some Shakespeare themselves before reading this as Bloom might spoil some of the works for the reader. Another interesting exercise would be to read one of the Bard’s plays, then perhaps read what Bloom says about it and see if the two of you agree, or disagree.

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