Ben Jonson claimed of his great rival Shakespeare that his art was not of an age but for all time. While this timeless approach to Shakespeare has become deeply unfashionable in recent years, riding over the horizon to rescue the Bard from the fiendish clutches of political correctness comes Harold Bloom, fresh from defending and defining The Western Canon back in 1994.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is not simply a passionate defence of Shakespeare from what Bloom sees as the horrors of the "School of Resentment"--namely feminist, materialist and historicist accounts of the Bard. Bloom argues that Shakespeare, "by inventing what has become the most accepted mode for representing character and personality in language, thereby invented the human as we know it". So forget Marlowe or Jonson (dismissed on the first page), or even Michelangelo (although his Sistine Chapel adorns the book's dustjacket). Returning to the character analysis of his beloved Dr Johnson and A C Bradley, Bloom offers a play-by-play account of how Shakespeare defines the category of the human as we understand it, which is personified for Bloom by the characters of Hamlet and Falstaff (Bloom's self-confessed role model).
The result is at turns fascinating, controversial, provocative and downright bizarre. There are some wonderfully aphoristic insights: Rosalind (alongside Cleopatra one of the few female characters given much space in Bloom's argument) is "Jane Austen to Falstaff's Samuel Johnson", whilst Leontes in A Winter's Tale is "an Othello who is his own Iago". But the sheer scale of Bloom's central claim, reiterated again and again, leaves the book feeling repetitious and in thrall to its own verbal fireworks, which are often substituted for any sustained analysis of the originality of Shakespeare's language. This is a pity as so much space is given up throughout the book to wonderful passages from the plays.
Bloom's book should be welcomed for injecting debate and controversy into some of the prevailing orthodoxies of current Shakespeare criticism. But would a book whose author gleefully endorsed a colleague's horrified response that it would put Shakespeare studies back a hundred years have been welcomed by the visionary and forward-looking Bard? --Jerry Brotton