Edelstein and Shulevitz

Edelstein and Shulevitz

New books dissected over email.
Nov. 23 1998 5:51 PM

Edelstein and Shulevitz

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The beauty part of Shakespeare is that his plays contain everything. That does not mean that anything you project on them is accurate--although it often is. What I'm saying is: If it's true, it's a fair bet that Shakespeare has thought of it first, and has also thought of its antithesis, and has, ultimately, gone beyond both propositions--not to create a synthesis (which would be impossible), but to find a framework so that both truths can sit, often uneasily, side by side. That is called drama, and if Shakespeare didn't invent it, he gave it dimensions that no one before or since has approached. (Those dimensions are both outward, to encompass the ways in which societies die and are reborn, and inward, to show humans in a tug of war with themselves.) It is no surprise that Laurence Olivier used Henry V to whip the battered English into a patriotic frenzy; nor is it surprising that, a few years after the Falklands war, Kenneth Branagh used the same play to show war at its most ugly and wasteful and soul-killing. Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, regards the same play the way one might a party after which the most colorful and entertaining guest--in this instance, Sir John Falstaff--has gone home. How poorer for the kingdom of Hal that Falstaff has no place in it! What Shakespeare thought we do not know, but it surely encompasses the perspectives of Olivier, Branagh, and Bloom.

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When they write about Shakespeare, the most passionate critics find ways of writing about themselves. I'd say that, among other things, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, affords a tantalizing glimpse of Harold Bloom, and one on which I'll enjoy speculating in the coming days. What is the thesis of this book? That Shakespeare invented "the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in the language" and "thereby invented the human as we know it." Does Bloom make his case? Yes, but it is an easy case to make, and so Bloom is forever losing the point and drifting off into byways of irrelevance--much as Shakespeare, according to Dr. Johnson, would drop everything for "a quibble." He clearly did not sit down and spin his argument from scratch, but assembled his lectures on the individual plays and amended them--which explains all the redundancies, as well as the way in which Bloom tends to circle a point several times before managing to make it.

Having more of a bias against academic criticism than you do, Judith, I was prepared to dispute Bloom's terminology with a vengeance. I can't, though, since he writes in a broadly humanist, impressionistic style that is, if anything, less rigorous than I'd have wished. For example, he is glancingly critical of many modern productions of Shakespeare, but does not deign to treat any of them in detail. I agree with him in dismissing Peter Brook's sordid, Kottian Midsummer and disagree violently on Alvin Epstein's anti-Mendelssohn Yale production, but I'm not sure where exactly we agree and disagree: Surely it would be valid in a book this comprehensive to treat Shakespeare as a writer of theater in some depth. Bloom makes an amusing case that Titus Andronicus is a blood-soaked parody of Marlowe, but it's just as plausible that the fledgling dramatist was exploring the limits of Senecan cruelty (and violence) on the stage--to see how far he could push it before it became absurd and provoked laughter.

I wasn't around before Shakespeare wrote and so I can't really say whether he changed the consciousnesses of mankind forever. Bloom certainly makes the case that he transcended Marlowe's reductionist fiends and Ben Jonson's humor-driven ideograms. But Shakespeare's focus never stopped at the individual. To elevate Falstaff, Bloom must reduce the stature and importance of Hal. Yet we know that Shakespeare was vitally concerned with the impact of a bad monarch on the whole of society: Even if we share Bloom's view of Falstaff's immense stature (I do), the question of whether he could ever hold a place in the court of Henry V is more open than Bloom seems to think.

In the coming days, I look forward to considering Bloom's Bottom and Falstaff before arriving at the tragic hero who also contains so many elements of these nihilist clowns: Hamlet.

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I also want to say--since I haven't made it clear--that I'm devouring this fat, marvelous book with enormous pleasure. I'm having a blast reliving the productions of the plays I've seen, and wrestling with Professor Bloom on matters of interpretation large and small.

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David Edelstein is Slate's movie critic and author (with Christine Vachon) of
Shooting to Kill. Judith Shulevitz is Slate's New York editor. This week they discuss Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom (Riverhead; 745 pages; $35).