The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1250 Sunday, 6 December 1998.
Date: Saturday, 05 Dec 1998 13:46:44 +0800
Subject: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare on BarnesandNoble.com
Attached below is Harold Bloom's recent appearance on BarnesandNoble.com
for a discussion of his recent book on Shakespeare. He received
questions from people on-line and gave answers. It covers good ground
and has some points (e.g. on authorship, nihilism and the Romantics,
Bloom's own politics), which some list-members may find interesting.
It was posted on another listserver and so appears below unedited and,
unfortunately, unarranged. I hope posting it here is permissable: I do
not wish to arouse the ire of B&N.
On Tuesday, December 1st, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Harold Bloom to
Moderator: Welcome, Harold Bloom! We're looking forward to our
discussion this evening. Are you ready to dive in and discuss your new
book, SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN?
Harold Bloom: Yes, I think I am always ready to discuss Shakespeare.
Megan from Williamsburg, VA: Mr. Bloom, I am very intrigued by your
theory that Shakespeare actually changed human nature, as we know it
today. What exactly do you mean by this? And do you really think that
enough people have read Shakespeare or were influenced by him for this
to be true?
HB: I don't think that it necessarily depends on people having read him
or seen him or having seen a film version. I think Shakespeare changed
the representation of human nature, that is to say the description of
language on how people feel, think, endure, and I think it is difficult
to make a distinction between the representation of thinking and
thinking itself. I think he pioneered in delineating human beings who
suffered change because their relationship to themselves changed. His
descriptions of humans have contaminated all of our representations of
thought and emotion, and these representations don't have to be written
or acted out; they are intimately involved in how we speak to others and
how we speak to ourselves. He changed us in how we speak to ourselves,
and he created the phenomenon that we overhear ourselves.
Rachel from New York City: What do you think about Helen Vendler's THE
ART OF SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS? Did her Shakespearean scholarship prove to
be insightful for THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN?
HB: I am not writing about the sonnets in this book, so even though I
have a great regard for her-we are dear old friends-I don't think any of
the sonnets had any effect in the book. Besides, Helen and I are very
different critics. She is a formalist who deals with verbal structure, I
am an experiential critic and deal with men and women, even though I am
interested in language. I excluded the sonnets and poems because I wrote
about all 32 plays, and there was no way of making the book any longer.
The publisher would not have tolerated it.
Harald Zils from Hamilton, NY: Would you consider yourself a
conservative (as many others do)?
HB: I think that is silly. I am a lifelong Democrat. I have never voted
for a Republican, nor would I ever. I am, in fact, a, and this is again
a way in which social politics distorts how things are going on. That is
to say that if you in intrinsic values then you are a conservative --
that is absolutely absurd. If we have really reached the point the
judgement that William Faulkner or
Cormac McCarthy is better than Toni Morrison and BELOVED makes
conservative, then the struggle to uphold any standards of disinterested
literature is lost. I find that question extremely offensive.
Dennis Cummings from Haverford, PA: I have a basic question that I
would love your help with. What to you is the main fallacy in the
Oxonian vs. the Shakespearean argument?
HB: There isn't any argument. You could say anything you want to about
any author as to who wrote his or her work. The Oxonians are simply
crazy; it is a harmless lunacy, but it is a lunacy. There is no more
reason for their claim than to say that Queen Elizabeth wrote
Shakespeare or anybody else you choose. The plays are still the plays.
Steven Shaviro from Seattle, WA: First, Mr. Bloom, as a long-ago former
student of yours, I would like to send you my reverent greetings.
Second, I'd like to ask you why you give such short shrift to CYMBELINE?
It seems to me that this play really does give us something like a
"postmodern" Shakespeare, not in the bad sense that you criticize when
you speak of politicized interpretations, but in what I, at least, think
of a good sense: a way in which ambivalent emotions and the dissolution
of boundaries and of logical order becomes quite haunting. So I am
wondering what else you can say about this play.
HB: I will begin by saying hello to you, for whom I have many good
memories. I hope you are well. I don't think that I have in any way
denounced it. Perhaps you might want to look at the chapter again. It is
at times an outrageous self-parody and a highly deliberate self-parody,
written at times in great disgust with himself. That does not preclude
what you are saying here. You could, by a shift in critical perspective
like the one you advocate, come up with an argument close to your own
without greatly disregarding what I was saying. I indicate what I think
are the play's great strengths. A very strange play, perhaps his
Don Tarshes from San Mateo, CA: Professor Bloom, I've greatly enjoyed
your book; it's inspired me to go back and reread most of Shakespeare's
plays. You assert that the modern human personality as such did not
exist before Shakespeare; that he in effect invented it. If that's the
case, what was the human personality like before Shakespeare? Did people
think about themselves differently? Did they relate to each other
HB: Extremely complex question. I think it slightly overstates what I
said in the book. I think there are enormous changes in human
personality that take place in the text of Shakespeare, and they are not
so much a reflection of the change in the people around him as they are
an inward vision of his own. In fact, I would emphasize the inward
aspect. When did the growing inner self in the modern sense begin? I
indicate in the book that the modern Dutch psychiatrist Jan Hendrick Van
Den Berg, who wrote THE CHANGING NATURE OF MAN, argued that the inner
self in our sense began with Martin Luther, and there is a moment in my
book when I dispute him and confess a general debt to Shakespeare that I
have always felt since I have been teaching. I can put the whole thing
this way, that if there is a kernel of truth to my argument, it would
be: People in literature change, they grow old, they despair, they die.
When they cannot accept dying their relationship to God changes, but
they don't change the way Macbeth changes or Edmund in KING LEAR or the
King himself or Edgar. They don't change because to do that they have to
reformulate their estimate or estimation of themselves-I think that is
peculiarly Shakespeare. He came out of an age that had its share of
highly introspective personalities, but the value of personality is a
unique Shakespearean value.
Robert Oventile from Pasadena, CA: How did the nihilism of
Shakespeare's characters influence the English Romantics?
HB: Very useful and fascinating question. Shelley at his most skeptical
and most despairing also deeply echoes Hamlet, particularly in "The
Triumph of Life." Keats cannot be called a nihilist; it is Keats who
credited Shakespeare with having invented negative capability-so large
and complex a matter that it creates a poetic stance. I suppose a young
Byron, Shelley, and Keats were deeply affected by that element in Hamlet
and other Shakespearean characters. I would not think that Blake or
Wordsworth were. Both of them were affected by Shakespeare, but Blake is
an original visionary and not a nihilist and Wordsworth surged into a
vision of consolation that is all his own. The three major Romantic
poets are the ones who should be discussed with regard to Shakespearean
nihilism-even though to call it that begs many questions.
Mike from Sudbury, MA: In your more than 40 years of studying literary
theory, how do you think the general perception of Shakespeare has
HB: There are two parts. I don't consider myself as a student of theory,
it is just one variety of the "French Madness." I think the general
pervasiveness of Shakespeare is greater today then it has ever been, and
nothing is going to end his importance to us. It is a peculiarity that
for two centuries, Shakespeare has been more popular here in the U.S.
than in Great Britain. Nothing, evidently, will ever change that.
Frank from Studio City, CA: How would you propose getting kids more
interested in Shakespeare?
HB: I think I would start them with a wonderful book entitled TALES FROM
SHAKESPEARE by Charles and Mary Lamb. It is a great book for kids, and
it is still one of my favorite books.
James Harmon Clinton from Baton Rouge, LA: What additions would you make
to THE WESTERN CANON if you were writing it today?
HB: I wouldn't want to list any names or any works because there would
be so many, but I now find the list highly inadequate. I think it was a
mistake to make the list. I wish that it weren't there, and as I
remarked to an interviewer the other day, "You don't need any lists, all
you need is Shakespeare."
Hattie Norman from Chattanooga, TN: Mr. Bloom, what is your favorite
Shakespearean play, and why is it your favorite?
HB: I guess I have several favorites. MACBETH is my favorite among the
tragedies; it upsets me the most-I find it really very terrifying.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE is the most fascinating and enigmatic of all the
plays. For sheer pleasure? The comedies AS YOU LIKE IT and TWELFTH
NIGHT-so upsetting and zany. I have a special passion for LOVE'S LABORS
LOST, and of course, as I say in the book, if I had to choose one play
by Shakespeare, it would be the two parts of HENRY IV, taken as one
play. I identity with Falstaff, so that big double play has to be my
Lola from New York City: Do you believe that Shakespeare wrote his
work? Because some people do not think that he wrote it!
HB: I am so baffled as to why people are interested in that. It is just
nonsense. We have overwhelming evidence that Shakespeare wrote all of
his plays, except for the collaboration towards the end. There is no
question about it at all. It is madness to say the Earl of Oxford wrote
them or Christopher Marlowe wrote them. It is one of those odd human
obsessions-perhaps a Shakespearean obsession. I guess since I am getting
old I have less patience than I should have.
E.V. from Lighthouse Point, FL: I'm fascinated by TWELFTH NIGHT. The
various performances I have seen of it have shown incredible variations
in interpretation-as a bright comedy, as a dark and eerie and somewhat
skewed reality, as a statement about sexuality.... I have also heard
people call it unbalanced and incomplete, which might account for the
variety of interpretations. What do you think of this play
HB: My book has a long chapter on TWELFTH NIGHT, which I think is his
masterpiece in comedy. I don't think it is unbalanced. It is so rich a
play that it is capable of infinite interpretations. Malvolio is the
ultimate scapegoat and does not deserve the terrible treatment he gets.
But the play is an endlessly complex work. He has two dozen
masterpieces, and TWELFTH NIGHT is one of them. It is open to many
interpretations. But that is Shakespeare-I would think that in some
sense there are more Hamlets than actors that can play him.
Harald Zils from Hamilton, NY: It seems to me that THE WESTERN CANON
and SHAKESPEARE are very different from THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE, MAP OF
MISREADING, and all your other books from the '70s. Did you redefine
your position? Where is the systematic Harold Bloom that dealt with a
map of revisionary ratios?
HB: I have not redefined my position, but I have changed the way I
write, and I have changed the audience to whom I write. I think I went
through a sea change and started to write in a more plain style,
accessible to the common reader, from 1982-1987, during which I was
editing Chelsea House volumes. I taught myself during those five years
how to write more clearly without writing down to an audience. I suppose
I have become a much more general critic than during the '70s. The
change came during the '80s, with the culmination in SHAKESPEARE. I am
trying to emulate Dr. Samuel Johnson and trying to write to the ordinary
reader. I think I am distant from doing that, and if I live long enough
I hope I can write a more clear and open style than I write now. I think
I was a very esoteric writer. I think my concerns can still be quite
esoteric, but I try to make it accessible. Shakespeare is surely the
most open and available of all writers, and I try to make him more open
and available in this book.
Joe from Evanston, IL: Any observations about the quality of
Shakespeare productions in North America today?
HB: I am not a good person to pass judgement on this, because in recent
years I have only gone to a handful of productions, and some of them I
have walked out on because I thought they were so ideological that they
were unbearable. I frequently find that I am happier with amateur
productions, like ones done at universities, than I am with a George C.
Wolfe adaptation of THE TEMPEST.
John Hasbrouck from Chicago, IL: Professor Bloom, I understand your
next book will be HOW TO READ AND WHY. Do you have a favorite guide to
reading? Do you have an opinion regarding the original edition of
Mortimer Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK?
HB: Yes. My favorite guide to reading would be the critical writing of
William Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson and Emerson, who are the critics
of the English language who have most influenced me. I don't know
anything better than THE CHARACTERS OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS, by Hazlitt.
I think they give an epitome of how to read.
Paul from Marietta, GA: When you refer to Newt Gingrich as a mere
"parody of Gratiano" and say that Shakespeare is responsible for his
"mode of consciousness coming into being," are you suggesting that the
former Speaker's personality would be different if THE MERCHANT OF
VENICE had not been written and that Shakespeare did not simply expose
the intricacies of human nature but completely invented it in the modern
sense? Do you hold a grudge against Shakespeare for "inventing" Newt
HB: Newt Gingrich is not there for us liberal Democrats to kick around
any more. If I could have predicted what would happen with Newt, I would
not have used him. In Time magazine I recently compared Kenneth Starr to
Iago and Polonius, but I may come in time to regret that, thank you.
Don Tarshes from San Mateo, CA: I find it extraordinary that
Shakespeare chose the medium of a history play, RICHARD II, to
experiment with writing a whole play which is, as you put it, "an
extended metaphysical lyric." Are there other examples of Shakespeare's
audaciously experimenting with forms that seem, on the surface, ill
suited to his content? He seems to be almost setting difficult
challenges for himself, as if writing a "normal" play would be too easy.
HB: I think that is a very suggestive remark, in the form of a question.
One reason why he has such little concern with plot is that he is
looking for a new kind of theatrical form. I think he achieves it more
times then we realize.
Robert Oventile from Pasadena, CA: Would you say the nihilism of
Shakespeare's characters influenced your notion that sublime poetry
exhibits an "achieved dearth of meaning"?
HB: Brilliant question! Yes, I think so. It was an influence that worked
upon me without my knowing it, until about six or seven years ago. I
think that my obsession all through the '70s and '80s was really founded
upon Iago and Edmund and Macbeth to an extent that I didn't myself
realize. I really commend the question. I think the question and my
answer together really take me to the central point of my book, which is
that we can never be fully aware of how much Shakespeare influences us.
It did determine my achieved dearth of meaning in the 1970s and '80s.
Scott Zimmerle from Elmhurst, IL: Dr. Bloom: irst of all, thank you for
writing so many books. I particularly enjoyed your BOOK OF J and your
writings on Gnosticism and Kabbalah. What type of person becomes or
should become a Gnostic? Is there are personality type that gnosticism
appeals to? You have mentioned that Gnosticism flourishes under
persecution or alienation. Does that explain in part your
self-identification as Gnostic?
HB: I don't think it appeals to any personality type. It is a world
religion. I also think it originally had nothing to do with being
persecuted, but as it happens at different times with Judaism,
Christianity and others have persecuted their Gnostics or at least
reviled Gnosticism with Judaism. You might want to look at THE AMERICAN
RELIGION. As I understand it is Gnostic, and I think many Americans are
Gnostic. All of our Mormons are Gnostic, many of our Southern Baptists
are Gnostic. But I think there are hundreds of thousands of people that
don't want to associate themselves with any organized status who have
deep Gnostic roots.
Sharon from Oyster Bay, NY: Mr. Bloom, I was curious about your
reluctance to believe that Emily Dickinson could have engaged in a
long-standing lesbian relationship with Susan, her sister-in-law. Why be
HB: I am not sure what being bullheaded means, but I don't think I am
being a male chauvinist in my reaction. We have great biographical
information that does indicate two prolonged relationships, neither of
which could have been consummated, with men, and a definite consummated
relationship with Lord Judge. The evidence being presented today by
lesbian or feminist critics regarding her relationship is not even
tenuous; it founds itself up on a number of the letters she sent to her
sister-in-law. They were composed, they are prose poems. They are
remarkable, contrived, and not to be taken as reliable guides to the
erotic history of Emily Dickinson. I would be delighted if we could get
proper evidence. I think that women are entitled to whatever mode of
sexual happiness they experience, but I just find very little reason to
believe in this new contention, if all they can come forward with are
these so-called letters. I don't think there is a personal or sincere
letter by Dickinson; she used her letters as expressionistic vehicles. I
think you have me wrong. I would be utterly delighted with a fully
satisfied Emily. I am not any kind of brute, and this is the first time
I have ever been called bullheaded. I have a large head but not a
Moderator: Thank you so much for spending time with us online, Harold
Bloom. It's been a fascinating conversation, and we hope you'll join us
again in the near future. Do you have any closing remarks for the online
HB: I hope that the book is as direct, as passionate, and at times as
simple as I have intended it to be. I really have had more pleasure in
this life out of reading and teaching Shakespeare than I have gotten out
of any other intellectual activity, and I hope that I have succeeded in
communicating this pleasure and made it possible for the readers to
experience something of the extraordinary diversity and
comprehensiveness of Shakespeare as a reading experience. Thank you.
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