Harold Bloom loves Hamlet

If T.S. Eliot performed a beat-down on Hamlet, then Harold Bloom gives it a loving massage with a happy ending.

Bloom, literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University has written dozens of books on literary criticism theory and literature, putting forth the concept of the Western Canon, of which Shakespeare is the centerpiece. In 1998, he published Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a collection of essays on all 38 of the plays. 745 pages. Weighty. Needless to say, he’s a fan.

In Hamlet, he does not find “an artistic failure” as Eliot did; instead

Hamlet is scarcely the revenge tragedy that it only pretends to be. It is theater of the world, like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost or Faust, or Ulysses, or In Search of Lost Time.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
    Bloom, Harold
    New York; Pelican/Riverhead, 1998
    page 383

He loves the play (I mean, really REALLY loves it), but I think he loves the character even more: he holds both the prince and Falstaff up as epitomes of Shakespeare’s creations. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Bloom brings his florid style to his praise of the prince: when one sees the play or reads it, “it does not take long to discover that the prince transcends the play” (385). Why? because “no single character in the plays, not even Falstaff or Cleopatra, matches Hamlet’s infinite reverberations” (384).

I’m not completely sure what that even means, but it sounds impressive. Almost superhero-like. After all, Hamlet is a man “so intellectual that he cannot be contextualized” (390), and “the great villains–Iago, Edmund, Macbeth–would be destroyed by Hamlet’s brilliant mockery” (385). Super-Hamlet needs a cape–tasteful black, of course.

Bloom argues that Shakespeare himself wrote the Ur-Hamlet, and that–even though there’s no copy in existence–when compared to that earlier version (the rough draft, if you will…or even if you won’t), “The mature Hamlet is far more complex, outrageously so” (387). Of course, maybe Bloom isn’t comparing Hamlet to Ur-Hamlet at all, maybe he’s comparing Hamlet to Hamlet.

I can imagine many of you read that sentence and went, “Huh?”

Well, maybe this will help. Bloom writes,

The Hamlet of Shakespeare’s first four acts is a young man of about twenty or less, a student at Wittenberg University, where he wishes to return… But the Hamlet of Act V (after an interval of a few weeks at most) is thirty years old (according to the gravedigger) and seems at least as old as the thirty-seven-year-old Shakespeare.
  • 393

I know, I went “huh?” too.

This is not to say that I found all of what Bloom had to say … well, let’s just say, “not to my taste.” His comparison of Falstaff and Hamlet is very apt:

The idea of play is as central to Falstaff as the idea of the play is to Hamlet. These are not the same idea: Falstaff is infinitely more playful than Hamlet, and the prince is far more theatrical than the fit knight.
  • 401

And having recently seen Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, his Falstaff epic, I so very much agree with this. Hamlet is all about the writing of the play, while Falstaff is all about the “play extempore,” making it all up–playfully–as he goes.

I do, however, find much of Bloom’s essay to be flatulent “hooey”:

But that is typical of Hamlet’s consciousness, for the prince has a mind so powerful that the most contrary attitudes, values, and judgments can co-exist within it coherently, so coherently indeed that Hamlet nearly has become all things to all men, and to some women.
  • 402

The first three quarters of the quote is bad enough–a mind so powerful he’s Professor X–but the kicker is that last phrase, so tangential it should be in parentheses: Hamlet’s all things to all men, and to SOME women? What, only the smart ones? Or just the ones with Kate Upton figures and Mother Teresa souls? What the hell?

For me, though, the apex of Bloom’s Bardolatry comes when he comes to this conclusion about our main character:

Hamlet, as a character, bewilders us because he is so endlessly suggestive. Are there any limits to him? His inwardness is his most radical originality; the ever-growing self, the dream of an infinite consciousness, has never been more fully portrayed.
  • 416

“Ever-growing self”… “dream of an infinite consciousness”… I can’t help but go back to what Eliot said about some of the critics who are drawn to Hamlet:

that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead.

Bloom fits the bull (sorry, Freudian slip) bill, no?