POLLING GENIUS: SHAKESPEARE, DANTE AND BLOOM’S CRITIQUE
~WHAT IS GENIUS? by Harold Bloom
~SHAKESPEARE AND THE EULOGIES TO GREATNESS
~SOUL OF THE AGE [review]
~HAROLD BLOOM - SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN [review]
~SHAKESPEARE BY BLOOM [review]
An overseas poll conducted by the BBC some time ago, has concluded that Sir Isaac Newton was the "Greatest Briton" of all time, followed by Churchill and Princess Diana.
Newton's enormous scientific achievements seem to have influenced the outcome; while in the case of Churchill, it was his leadership qualities during World War II.
Ranking Diana third has destroyed the credibility of the whole exercise. Her charm, kindness and involvement in charitable causes contributed greatly to make her an icon all over the world. But that is where the admiration for her has to stop. Including her in a list of 10 Greatest Britons of all time is carrying things a little too far. To bordering on the ridiculous, that is.
This absurdity notwithstanding, I was still shocked to find Shakespeare, the greatest genius of all time, had been relegated to the status of a ‘runner-up’. There is also no justification to deny Darwin his rightful place, in as much as his contribution to biology is as significant as Newton's is to physics. For all these reasons opinion polls of this kind are unreliable, misleading and invite ridicule.
Take a look at Shakespeare's enormous vocabulary. He employed 9,360,433 words in his writings, out of which 27,780 are different words. The average person uses less than 1,000 words in writing, a little more than that in speech and has a recognition vocabulary of about 5,000 words. Some of the greatest writers may have twice this capability.
Today, English has a total vocabulary of two million words followed by German as a pathetic second with 1,860,000 words, Russian with 1,360,000 words, and French with 1,260,000 words. Thus Shakespeare in the 16th Century used five times the number of words in modern German!
Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in history. His plays have been translated into 50 languages. In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations containing about 20,000 quotations, Shakespeare alone monopolises a staggering 60 pages (10 per cent). He coined 1700 new words. Many of the phrases and terms created by him are in daily use. Some of them have been used as titles for books and movies.
The vastness of vocabulary and the ability to see the relationship between words is one of the major factors in measuring genius. Shakespeare excelled any other human being in this aspect. His encyclopaedic knowledge of science, history, mathematics, classical literature sociology, psychology, law, Latin, French politics, music and art acquired by studying books relating to almost every mental discipline and observing the habits and style of life of various sections of people all around him enabled him to draw ideas generously from all those sources for being used in his plays.
The lyrical grandeur of his language covers every known figure of speech from metaphor to simile, hyperbole to hendiadys. The alchemic process in the crucible of Shakespeare's brain transmuted emotions, like ambition, frustration, jealousy, greed, romantic love, joy, and sorrow he found all around him in people, into the rich gold of his everlasting plays. Hence there is no emotion or activity or situation in the human condition that is not found in his plays.
More people visit the place of Shakespeare's birth than that of any other human being. More books and articles have been written about him and his works than about any other individual or even any other single subject (at least till the age of computers!). Entire libraries and major sections of many famous libraries whether in Washington D.C or London are devoted to him.
Shakespeare has inspired more tributes than any other poet, scientist or painter; in fact some of the people who have showered praises on Shakespeare, like Coleridge, De Quincey and Dryden, are of such stature themselves that each would have got two Nobel Prizes for literature if they had lived in the 20th century.
Then what justification is there for any voter, whatever his profession, to place this extraordinary man who is " In judgment a Nestor/ In genius a Socrates/ In art a Virgil" in the position of a runner-up in a ranking of the greatest Briton ever.
Is it not ironical that a great poet like Coleridge had once equated Shakespeare to 500 Newtons but the voters who took part in the BBC poll have placed him far below Newton? Is it not even more ironical that Churchill, who once attributed his brilliant prose and eloquence to his having collected the quotations of Shakespeare early in life like "pennies in a slot", should be placed second in the list far above the very same man?
Any poll will only succeed in devaluing its own assessment, and lose its sanctity and credibility, if it denies this "mighty poet", to quote De Quincey, his rightful place as the greatest genius of all time.
As someone appropriately observed, "it is not only the crowning glory of England but also the crowning glory of all mankind that such a man as William Shakespeare should ever have been born".
More than all the triumphs of science and technology, and the glories of art and music, Shakespeare's poetry alone, with its great soliloquies packed with metaphors, similes, and every known figure of speech, (that reflects his flashes of genius and leaps of fantastic imagination), can be and should be regarded as the topmost achievement of man, on this planet, the fulfilment of long centuries of human civilisation and culture!
Now then, let’s see how Harold Bloom defines “Genius”...
From the Introduction of GENIUS
by Harold Bloom
In employing a Kabbalistic grid or paradigm in the arrangement of this book, I rely upon Gershom Scholem's conviction that Kabbalah is the genius of religion in the Jewish tradition. My one hundred figures, from Shakespeare through the late Ralph Ellison, represent perhaps a hundred different stances towards spirituality, covering the full range from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine to the secularism of Proust and Calvino. But Kabbalah, in my view, provides an anatomy of genius, both of women and of men; as also of their merging in Ein Sof, the endlessness of God. Here I want to use Kabbalah as a starting-point in my own personal vision of the name and nature of genius.
Scholem remarked that the work of Franz Kafka constituted a secular Kabbalah, and so he concluded that Kafka's writings possess "something of the strong light of the canonical, of that perfection which destroys." Against this, Moshe Idel has argued that the canonical, both scriptural and Kabbalistic, is "the perfection which absorbs." To confront the plenitude of Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah is to work at "absorbing perfections."
What Idel calls "the absorbing quality of the Torah" is akin to the absorbing quality of all authentic genius, which always has the capacity to absorb us. In American English, to "absorb" means several related processes: to take something in as through the pores, or to engross one's full interest or attention, or to assimilate fully.
I am aware that I transfer to genius what Scholem and Idel follow Kabbalah in attributing to God, but I merely extend the ancient Roman tradition that first established the ideas of genius and of authority. In Plutarch, Mark Antony's genius is the god Bacchus or Dionysus. Shakespeare, in his Antony and Cleopatra, has the god Hercules, as Antony's genius, abandon him. The emperor Augustus, who defeated Antony, proclaimed that the god Apollo was his genius, according to Suetonius. The cult of the emperor's genius thus became Roman ritual, displacing the two earlier meanings, of the family's fathering force and of each individual's alter ego.
Authority, another crucial Roman concept, may be more relevant for the study of genius than "genius," with its contradictory meanings, still can hope to be. Authority, which has vanished from Western culture, was convincingly traced by Hannah Arendt to Roman rather than Greek or Hebrew origins. In ancient Rome, the concept of authority was foundational. Auctoritas derived from the verb augere, "to augment," and authority always depended upon augmenting the foundation, thus carrying the past alive into the present.
Homer fought a concealed contest with the poetry of the past, and I suspect that the Redactor of the Hebrew Bible, putting together his Genesis through Kings structure in Babylon, struggled to truncate the earliest author that he wove into the text, in order to hold off the strangeness and uncanny power of the Yahwist or J writer. The Yahwist could not be excluded, because his (or her) stories possessed authority, but the disconcerting Yahweh, human-all-too-human, could be muted by other voices of the divine. What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founded authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say: "Why, none, none at all." Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.
Since my book, by presenting a mosaic of a hundred authentic geniuses, attempts to provide criteria for judgment, I will venture here upon a purely personal definition of genius, one that hopes to be useful for the early years of this new century. Whether charisma necessarily attends genius seems to me problematic. Of my hundred figures in this book, I had met three—Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz, Ralph Ellison—who died relatively recently. Farther back, I recall brief meetings with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. All of them impressive, in different ways, they lacked the flamboyance and authority of Gershom Scholem, whose genius attended him palpably, despite his irony and high good humor.
William Hazlitt wrote an essay on persons one would wish to have known. I stare at my Kabbalistic table of contents, and wonder which I would choose. The critic Sainte-Beuve advised us to ask ourselves: what would this author I read have thought of me? My particular hero among these hundred is Dr Samuel Johnson, the god of literary criticism, but I do not have the courage to face his judgment.
Genius asserts authority over me, when I recognize powers greater than my own. Emerson, the sage I attempt to follow, would disapprove of my pragmatic surrender, but Emerson's own genius was so large that he plausibly could preach Self-Reliance. I myself have taught continuously for forty-six years, and wish I could urge an Emersonian self-reliance upon my students, but I can't and don't, for the most part. I hope to nurture genius in them, but can impart only a genius for appreciation. That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the genius of appreciation in my readers, if I can.
These pages are written a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist triumph in destroying the World Trade Center and the people trapped within it. During the last week I have taught scheduled classes on Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare's early comedies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma, by freshly appreciating genius.
What is it that I, and many others, appreciate in genius? An entry in Emerson's Journals (October 27, 1831) always hovers in my memory:
Is it not all in us, how strangely! Look at this congregation of men;— the words might be spoken,—though now there be none here to speak them,—but the words might be said that would make them stagger and reel like a drunken man. Who doubts it? Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,—did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.
It still burns into me: "did they not sound to you as old as yourself?" The ancient critic Longinus called literary genius the Sublime, and saw its operation as a transfer of power from author to reader:
Touched by the true sublime your soul is naturally lifted up, she rises to a proud height, is filled with joy and vaunting, as if she had herself created this thing that she has heard.
Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self 's integrity. "Greatness" may be out of fashion, as is the transcendental, but it is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.
Meeting the extraordinary in another person is likely to be deceptive or delusionary. We call it "falling in love," and the verb is a warning. To confront the extraordinary in a book-be it the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Proust—is to benefit almost without cost. Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.
James Joyce, when asked, "Which one book on a desert island?", replied, "I would like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he is richer." The Joycean Irish edge against the English is given adequate expression, but the choice of Shakespeare is just, which is why he leads off the hundred figures in this book. Though there are a few literary geniuses who approach Shakespeare—the Yahwist, Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Moli?re, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust, Joyce— even those dozen masters of representation do not match Shakespeare's miraculous rendering of reality. Because of Shakespeare we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made different. Dante, the nearest rival, persuades us of the terrible reality of his Inferno and his Purgatorio, and almost induces us to accept his Paradiso. Yet even the fullest of the Divine Comedy's persons, Dante the Poet-Pilgrim, does not cross over from the Comedy's pages into the world we inhabit, as do Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra.
The invasion of our reality by Shakespeare's prime personages is evidence for the vitality of literary characters, when created by genius. We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces, and finally rub down into rubbish. It is worth knowing that our word "character" still possesses, as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or the mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word "character" also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.
It was fashionable, quite recently, to talk about "the death of the author," but this too has become rubbish. The dead genius is more alive than we are, just as Falstaff and Hamlet are considerably livelier than many people I know. Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and only genius can make that available to use.
What makes genius possible? There always is a Spirit of the Age, and we like to delude ourselves that what matters most about any memorable figure is what he or she shared with a particular era. In this delusion, which is both academic and popular, everyone is regarded as being determined by societal factors. Individual imagination yields to social anthropology or to mass psychology, and thus can be explained away.
I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.
By "appreciation" I mean something more than "adequate esteem." Need also enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one's own powers, whatever these may emerge as being.
Appreciation may modulate into love, even as your consciousness of a dead genius augments consciousness itself. Your solitary self 's deepest desire is for survival, whether in the here and now, or transcendentally elsewhere. To be augmented by the genius of others is to enhance the possibilities of survival, at least in the present and the near future.
We do not know how and/or why genius is possible, only that—to our massive enrichment—it has existed, and perhaps (waningly) continues to appear. Though our academic institutions abound in impostors who proclaim that genius is a capitalistic myth, I am content to cite Leon Trotsky, who urged Communist writers to read and study Dante. If genius is a mystery of the capacious consciousness, what is least mysterious about it is an intimate connection with personality rather than with character. Dante's personality is forbidding, Shakespeare's elusive, while Jesus' (like the fictive Hamlet's) seems to reveal itself differently to every reader or auditor.
What is personality? Alas, we use it now as a popular synonym for celebrity, but I would argue that we cannot give the word up to the realm of buzz. When we know enough about the biography of a particular genius, then we understand what is meant by the personality of Goethe or Byron or Freud or Oscar Wilde. Conversely, when we lack biographical inwardness, then we all agree that we are uncertain as to Shakespeare's personality, an enormous paradox since his plays may have invented personality as we now most readily comprehend it. If challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or of Jesus.
Benjamin Disraeli's father, the man of letters Isaac D'Israeli, wrote an amiable volume called The Literary Character of Men of Genius, one of the precursors to this book, Genius, together with Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Emerson's Representative Men, and Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Isaac D'Israeli remarks that "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear." Every genius has forerunners, though far enough back in time we may not know who they are. Dr. Johnson considered Homer to have been the first and most original of poets; we tend to see Homer as a relative latecomer, enriching himself with the phrases and formulas of his predecessors. Emerson, in his essay "Quotation and Originality," slyly observed, "Only an inventor knows how to borrow."
The great inventions of genius influence that genius itself in ways we are slow to appreciate. We speak of the man or woman in the work; we might better speak of the work in the person. And yet we scarcely know how to discuss the influence of a work upon its author, or of a mind upon itself. I take that to be the principal enterprise of this book. With all of the figures I depict in this mosaic, my emphasis will be on the contest they conducted with themselves.
That agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato's Socrates, Confucius's the Duke of Chou, the Buddha's earlier incarnations. Particularly the inventor of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, the Redactor of the sequence from Genesis through Kings, relies upon his own genius at reimagining the Covenant even as he honors the virtues (and failings) of the fathers. And yet, as Donald Harmon Akenson argues, the inventor-redactor or writer-editor achieved a "surpassing wonder," utterly his own. This exile in Babylon could not have thought that he was creating Scripture; as the first historian he perhaps believed only that he was forwarding the lost cause of the Kingdom of Judah. And yet he seems too cunning not to have seen that his invention of a continuity and so of a tradition was largely his own.
With the Redactor, as with Confucius or with Plato, we can sense an anxiety in the work that must have communicated itself to the man. How can one be worthy of the fathers with whom Yahweh spoke, face-to-face, or of the great Duke of Chou, who gave order to the people without imposing it upon them by violence? Is it possible to be the authentic disciple of Socrates, who suffered martyrdom without complaint, in order to affirm his truth? The ultimate anxiety of influence always may be, not that one's proper space has been usurped already, but that greatness may be unable to renew itself, that one's inspiration may be larger than one's own powers of realization.
Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have become cultural levelers quite immune from awe. Yet, with the public, the idea of genius maintains its prestige, even though the word itself can seem somewhat tarnished. We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among us. It is not necessary that we aspire after genius for ourselves, and yet, in our recesses, we remember that we had, or have, a genius. Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly, and never completely.
To say that the work is in the writer, or the religious idea is in the charismatic leader, is not a paradox. Shakespeare, we happen to know, was a usurer. So was Shylock, but did that help to keep The Merchant of Venice a comedy? We don't know. But to look for the work in the writer is to look for the influence and effect of the play upon Shakespeare's development from comedy to tragicomedy to tragedy. It is to see Shylock darkening Shakespeare. To examine the effects of his own parables upon the figure of Jesus is to conduct a parallel exploration.
There are two ancient (Roman) meanings of the word "genius," which are rather different in emphasis. One is to beget, cause to be born, that is to be a paterfamilias. The other is to be an attendant spirit for each person or place: to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who, for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else. This second meaning has been more important than the first; our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or imaginative power, not our power to beget power in others.
We all learn to distinguish, firmly and definitively, between genius and talent. A "talent" classically was a weight or sum of money, and as such, however large, was necessarily limited. But "genius," even in its linguistic origins, has no limits.
We tend now to regard genius as the creative capacity, as opposed to talent. The Victorian historian Froude observed that genius "is a spring in which there is always more behind than flows from it." The largest instances of genius that we know, aesthetically, would include Shakespeare and Dante, Bach and Mozart, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Donatello and Rodin, Alberti and Brunelleschi. A greater complexity ensues when we attempt to confront religious genius, particularly in a religion-obsessed country like the United States. To regard Jesus and Muhammad as religious geniuses (whatever else they were) makes them, in that regard only, akin not only to one another but to Zoroaster and the Buddha, and to such secular figures of ethical genius as Confucius and Socrates.
Defining genius more precisely than has yet been done is one of my objectives in this book. Another is to defend the idea of genius, currently abused by detractors and reductionists, from sociobiologists through the materialists of the genome school, and on to various historicizers. But my primary aim is both to enhance our appreciation of genius, and to show how invariably it is engendered by the stimulus of prior genius, to a much greater degree than it is by cultural and political contexts. The influence of genius upon itself, already mentioned, will be one of the book's major emphases.
My subject is universal, not so much because world-altering geniuses have existed, and will come again, but because genius, however repressed, exists in so many readers. Emerson thought that all Americans were potential poets and mystics. Genius does not teach how to read or whom to read, but rather how to think about exemplary human lives at their most creative.
It will be noted in the table of contents that I have excluded any living instances of genius, and have dealt with only three recently dead. In this book I am compelled to be brief and summary in my account of individual genius, because I believe that much is to be learned by juxtaposing many figures from varied cultures and contrasting eras. The differences between a hundred men and women, drawn from a span of twenty-five centuries, overwhelm the analogies or similarities, and to present them within a single volume may seem the enterprise of an overreacher. And yet there are common characteristics to genius, since vivid individuality of speculation, spirituality, and creativity must rely upon originality, audacity, and selfreliance.
Emerson, in his Representative Men, begins with a heartening paragraph:
It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it will not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.
Gautama, the Buddha, quests for and attains freedom, as though he were one of the first men. Emerson's twice-told tale is a touch more American than Buddhist; his first men seem American Adams, and not reincarnations of previous enlightenments. Perhaps I too can only Americanize, but that may be the paramount use of past geniuses; we have to adapt them to our place and our time, if we are to be enlightened or inspired by them.
Emerson had six great or representative men: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Four of these are in this book; Swedenborg is replaced by Blake, and Napoleon I have discarded with all other generals and politicians. Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe remain essential, as do the others I sketch. Essential for what? To know ourselves, in relation to others, for these mighty dead are among the otherness that we can know, as Emerson tells us in Representative Men:
We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.
And yet this is the conclusion of his book:-
The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know.
To realize all that we know, fictions included, is too large an enterprise for us, a wounded century and a half after Emerson. The world no longer seems young, and I do not always hear the accents of affection when the voices of genius call out to me. But then I have the disadvantage, and the advantage, of coming after Emerson. The genius of influence transcends its constituent anxieties, provided we become aware of them and then surmise where we stand in relation to their continuing prevalence.
Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion, wrote an admirable study that almost nobody reads anymore, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It contains the best remark on Shakespeare that I know:
“If called to define Shakespeare's faculty, I should say superiority of intellect, and think I had included all under that.”
Adumbrating the observation, Carlyle characteristically exploded into a very useful warning against dividing any genius into its illusory components:
“What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc. as he had hands, feet and arms.”
"Power of Insight," Carlyle continued, was the vital force in any one of us. How do we recognize that insight or force in genius? We have the works of genius, and we have the memory of their personalities. I use that last word with high deliberation, following Walter Pater, another Victorian genius, but one who defies fashion, because he is akin to Emerson and to Nietzsche. These three subtle thinkers prophesied much of the intellectual future of our century that has just passed, and are unlikely to fade as influences during the new century. Pater's preface to his major book, The Renaissance, emphasizes that the "aesthetic critic" ("aesthetic" meaning "perceptive") identifies genius in every era:
In all ages there have been some excellent workmen, and some excellent work done. The question he asks is always:-In whom did it stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of his refinement, its elevation, its taste? "The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age."
Blake, a visionary genius almost without peer, is a superb guide to the relative independence that genius manifests in regard to time: it "is always above its age." We cannot confront the twenty-first century without expecting that it too will give us a Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse, a Proust or James Joyce. To hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that enormous are very rare. Yet we want and need what will rise above the twenty-first century, whatever that turns out to be.
The use of my mosaic is that it ought to help prepare us for this new century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements of many of the most creative who have come before us. The ancient Roman made an offering to his genius on his birthday, dedicating that day to "the god of human nature," as the poet Horace called each person's tutelary spirit. Our custom of a birthday cake is in direct descent from that offering. We light the candles and might do well to remember what it is that we are celebrating.
A PERSONAL DEFINITION
I have avoided all living geniuses in this book, partly so as to evade the distractions of mere provocation. I can identify for myself certain writers of palpable genius now among us: the Portuguese novelist Jos? Saramago, the Canadian poet Anne Carson, the English poet Geoffrey Hill, and at least a halfdozen North and Latin American novelists and poets (whom I forbear naming).
Pondering my mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds, I arrive at a tentative and personal definition of literary genius. The question of genius was a perpetual concern of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the mind of America, as Walt Whitman is its poet, and Henry James its novelist (its dramatist is yet to come). For Emerson, genius was the God within, the self of "Self-Reliance." That self, in Emerson, therefore is not constituted by history, by society, by languages. It is aboriginal. I altogether agree.
Shakespeare, the supreme genius, is different in kind from his contemporaries, even from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Cervantes stands apart from Lope de Vega, and Calderon. Something in Shakespeare and Cervantes, as in Dante, Montaigne, Milton, and Proust (to give only a few instances), is clearly both of and above the age.
Fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius, but this originality itself is always canonical, in that it recognizes and comes to terms with precursors. Even Shakespeare makes an implicit covenant with Chaucer, his essential forerunner at inventing the human.
If genius is the God within, I need to seek it there, in the abyss of the aboriginal self, an entity unknown to nearly all our current Explainers, in the intellectually forlorn universities and in the media's dark Satanic mills. Emerson and ancient Gnosticism agree that what is best and oldest in each of us is no part of the Creation, no part of Nature or the Not-Me. Each of us presumably can locate what is best in herself or himself, but how do we find what is oldest?
Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? The Comedy of Errors is already a work of genius, yet who could have prophesied Twelfth Night on the basis of that early farce? Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?
The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks. I think that a materialist definition of genius is impossible, which is why the idea of genius is so discredited in an age like our own, where materialist ideologies dominate. Genius, by necessity, invokes the transcendental and the extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them. Consciousness is what defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without him.
Gnosticism, by definition, is a knowing rather than a believing. In Shakespeare, we have neither a knower nor a believer, but a consciousness so capacious that we cannot find its rival elsewhere: in Cervantes or Montaigne, in Freud or in Wittgenstein. Those who choose (or are chosen) by one of the world religions frequently posit a cosmic consciousness to which they assign supernatural origins. But Shakespearean consciousness, which transmutes matter into imagination, does not need to violate nature. Shakespeare's art is itself nature, and his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its producer.
There, at the end of the mind, we are stationed by Shakespearean genius: a consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined. He remains, presumably forever, our largest instance of the use of literature for life, which is the work of augmenting awareness.
Though Shakespeare's is the largest consciousness studied in this book, all the rest of these exemplary creative minds have contributed to the consciousness of their readers and auditors. The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best and oldest in myself has not been activated.
Copyright © 2002 by Harold Bloom
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Thirty-two eulogies were printed and published about Sir Francis Bacon when he died in 1626, ten years after Shakespeare. The death of Shakespeare was apparently marked by a resounding silence.
Sir Francis, the Baron Verulam, probably deserved every word of praise. King James’ Lord Chancellor was known throughout Europe as a great and original mind, even a genius, though posterity sees error in quite a few of his choicest ‘scientific’ reasonings.
Shakespeare, today, is renowned around the world as the great dramatic poet and a ‘playmaker’ genius whose 36 plays (created over possibly a 27 year period; several more arguably attributed to him also) are now deservedly translated into more than 40 languages. No other nation has produced such a phenomenon. He is accepted as timeless and as universal, “not for an age but for all time”. The greatness and the legacy speak for themselves: comedy and humour, tragedy and pain, history and stirring declamations, refinement and bawdiness, universality and evil, stupidity and sensitive perceptiveness ... and all played and depicted on the static, scenery-less stage. “Each play has its own universe, its own pervading atmosphere, each one different to another” is one London teacher’s insight into his Works. One theatre author of today believes that his flexibility of mind and the marvellous many-sided nature of his creative imagination is well displayed in the Canon’s 12 contrasting themes, wide divergences of mood, and the writing achievement over such a short period of time. Though in honest appraisal, the equally knowledgeable in theatre and the literary world will murmur that not every part of every play is perfect, far from it; in fact, a “Shakespeare text” today is “an unstable, contrived product” having been through many intermediaries, with many departures from the master’s original ‘first performance’ manuscript. The intriguing question is: just who might he have collaborated with, especially in the early years (say 1585 -1595).
Yet that silence, lack of public recognition at his Shakespeare’s death, irks some people enormously. However, it was not a complete silence. Nor was it unusual.
True, far from the repute given ‘poets’, the Theatre’s players and the emerging ‘dramatists’ were still widely regarded as “persons of dubious standing” and “grovellers on the stage” as the literary hierarchy had it. The talented aristocracy, close to the royal Court, could not have written and published freely - poetry as Art, yes, but not be seen among the newly-emerging play-makers, some of whom were respectably university-educated.
There were many of talent “in private chambers that encloistered are”... but to write and publish, on politics, rule, state secrets? The Secret Service which emerged also, with its supposed, hidden ‘Department of Propaganda’, would have imposed itself with control and censorship.
Progress was made in breaking down this ‘not poetry’ culture in 1616, with Ben Jonson’s rather egocentric and bold printing and publication of his own Works, a mixture of play and poetry (this initiative helped towards recognition of some kind for all those working within the newly-professional Theatre, besides countering Jonson’s non-university background).
(Some things then haven’t changed today: shout loud and the world listens – speedily after Jonson’s death in 1637, his collected poems were published and he was buried in Westminster Abbey; Shakespeare had to wait till 1740 for his statue there.)
There WERE eulogic mentions for departed playmakers, in Shakespeare’s time, but in MANUSCRIPT not printed form. Only nobility, knights and churchmen were eulogised IN PRINT during Elizabethan and Jacobean times.
However, what explanation is there for the virtual silence in eulogies on the death of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford in 1604 and for his unmarked grave in Hackney? He was said in his time to be a great poet and sometime playmaker, today as with Bacon, promoted enthusiastically as the “hidden writer of Shakespeare” himself. Shakespeare in fact was well memorialised in manuscript over the seven years until the First Folio was printed in 1623, and many times more in the next decades.
Posterity sees him, Shakspere the Stratford-upon-Avon man, as the poet inspired and playmaker supreme with little overall to criticise in his Works, the Shakespeare canon. The plays, as one scholar notes, cover a dozen different types: classical and historical dramas, revenge drama, elaborate and sophisticated, comedy-in-intent, comedy-drama, the bitter-comedies, comedy-tragedy, the openly farcical, the light fantastic, lively romantic, dramatic romances, romantic tragedy and tragedy. They were shot through with his “fathomless abundance of verbal and metaphorical invention”.
Shakspere/Shakespeare would have agreed that “a witty conceit is oftentimes a conveyor of a truth not so well (otherwise) ferried over” – Francis Bacon
Many knowledgeable assign greatness to Shakespeare’s final period, when he wrote ‘romance-resolution’ or ‘romance-reconciliation’ plays, beyond or avoiding tragedy. These are seen as unique dramatic-designs, synthesizing in masterly fashion many elements – masque, tableaux, mime and music, “full of dramatic daring”.
Outstandingly different, Tolstoy hammered the great “Lear” as a “complete absence of aesthetic feeling, “unnatural events and unnatural speeches”, “unnecessary verbose absurdities” and as “having nothing in common with art and poetry.” He praised Homer for works of artistic, poetic originality. Yet a later author found “Lear” to be a great and “a tragic vision of humanity”.
Equally notable even fascinating are Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets and the two dramatic narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. They reward reading after reading, and more is said later.
The First Folio, and the facade on “The Folger” Shakespeare Library, counsels us “His Wit can no more be hid than it could be lost – Read him therefore and again and again”. But the exact authorship of that “Wit” IS in question.
In quite a few plays, knowledgeable critics do find fault, but this is as nothing to the charge: that he did not actually write all the plays. The extreme question is: did he, Shakspere, the man of Stratford-upon-Avon, actually write any of them?
More to the point, why does the First Folio include 10,000 words never heard or known about before? They were in 15 or more plays emerging fresh into the strong sunlight of publication. They had never been ‘registered’, in the Stationer’s Register. Whose was ownership – besides the World’s? How did they apparently remain, unowned? To a company, they would have been valuable financial assets. It is a considerable Mystery in itself, in some ways as great as the leading Mystery.
The questions, the unease, about precise authorship arose because there is no undoubted proof, only circumspection and the circumstantial. “The number of official records that apparently refer to Shakspere as Shakespeare is disappointingly small”, admits one ‘Stratfordian’ (pro-Shakspere as Shakespeare). The heretics (anti-Stratfordians) go further, believing there are no documents relating Shakspere to Shakespeare.
People have found it almost impossible to believe that one man, from modest home and no documented path of universal education, could – even if a genius - have achieved what his name is given to. Shakespeare may well have written his best lines “by the dim light of Nature” as a middle-period contemporary of his said. He is also mentioned in a survey of that time as “among the most pregnant wits of our times”. He appeared blessed with a natural innate Grace. But he had a knowledge dimension to uncover, virtually unaided in his early days.
He had ‘passion’ – his passion in the plays and poetry includes “every mental condition, every tone, from indifference, familiar mirth, wildest rage, despair.”
He was also a master of words – and his use communicated meaning, and that passion. Today we all suffer from imprecicity of words; we use them, often indiscriminately; as a result we are attenuated, lost from the fineness of words, the “thorough, logical and precise explanations of things”, the actual meaning of words – word-mongering as explained in Bacon’s ‘Idols of the Tribe’. Jonson, very close to Bacon, later, agreed.
Shakspere’s potential may well have attracted support which encouraged, enhanced, sustained his progress – according to many this came from the young Earl of Southampton and the young Francis Bacon, as patrons and benefactors.
Today, a modest start in life is no insurmountable barrier to man and woman achieving great things by natural effort and will, allied to opportunity, even if they cannot attain genius. Then, Shakespeare needed that “intellectual power arising after supernatural, spiritual inspiration to produce his outcome inexplicable”, as one attempt at describing the fusion of natural genius with human will.
...some critical reviews of Bloom’s book on the Great Bard...
SOUL OF THE AGE
Harold Bloom finds that after 400 years, Shakespeare's genius is alive and well.
By JAMES SHAPIRO
Ask most scholars what accounts for Shakespeare's enduring appeal and they'll credit a number of factors besides his remarkable artistic gifts. Shakespeare was born in the right place and time: his genius flourished in the richly collaborative world of the Elizabethan theater, and his dyer's hand was steeped in the social and spiritual contradictions of an age poised between the medieval and the modern. While his rival Ben Jonson praised Shakespeare as a writer 'not of an age, but for all time,' it wasn't until the 18th century that Shakespeare's admirers promoted him as England's unrivaled national poet.
Such explanations are heretical to the noted critic Harold Bloom, a self-confessed Bardolator for whom any attempt to understand Shakespeare historically distracts from the simple fact of Shakespeare's unsurpassed, universal genius. Bloom takes as a given that 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare' is a secular scripture from which we derive much of our language, our psychology and our mythology. He is interested in illuminating why this is so, and his bold argument in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is that Shakespeare remains so popular and his most memorable characters feel so real because through them Shakespeare invented something that hadn't existed before. Bloom defines this as 'personality,' inwardness, what it means to be human. In so doing, Bloom adds, Shakespeare invented us as well.
If Shakespeare's drama is secular scripture, Bloom offers himself as its high priest. In trying to substantiate his ideas about Shakespeare's originality Bloom faces the problem confronting any proselytizer: when your object of adoration is beyond comprehension, how do you go about persuading others to believe? His solution is to steer between praise and attack (celebrating Shakespeare's originality and savaging pretty much everything and everyone else, especially those false prophets the feminists and cultural historians).
Bloom cares little for plot, genre or action. And you'd hardly know after finishing this book that Shakespeare was interested in history, politics, law, religion or a host of other concerns that have drawn generations of readers to his work. Only characters matter -- and not all characters, only those who seem to Bloom uncannily real, like Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, Edmund and Cleopatra, who "take human nature to some of its limits, without violating those limits" and through whom "new modes of consciousness come into being." Hotspur, Puck, Kent and Ariel may be terrific parts, but they are passed over in relative silence by a critical sensibility restlessly drawn to the presiding consciousness of a play.
Bloom's view of history, including literary history, is highly selective. There's no serious engagement either with the suggestion that perhaps Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Ovid or Petrarch preceded Shakespeare in creating "personality" (and not simply "character," as Bloom would have it), or with the widely accepted view that the introspective turn of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation stimulated a sense of inwardness.
You don't have to swallow Bloom's argument whole, however, to value his local insights. The most exhilarating observations -- and the best chapters are littered with them -- have the quality of aphorisms. Even lifted out of context their incisiveness and rightness compel assent: 'Who, before Iago, in literature or in life, perfected the arts of disinformation, disorientation and derangement?'; 'To be in love, and yet to see and feel the absurdity of it, one needs to go to school with Rosalind'; 'Shakespeare's plays are the wheel of all our lives, and teach us whether we are fools of time, or of love, or of fortune, or of our parents, or of ourselves.' His nuanced readings of The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra are especially strong.
As much as Shakespeare has invented us, critics reinvent him, and in their own image. Bloom is no exception. The qualities of mind and spirit that he clearly values -- the capacity to be self-dramatizing, witty, charismatic, ironic and skeptical -- turn out to be shared by the characters he considers most real. While few readers will disagree with Bloom's choice of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's two greatest creations, many may be puzzled by the other: Falstaff, "the mortal god" of Bloom's imaginings. I suspect that there's more than a little projection going on here, once we learn that both are aging, charismatic, brilliant teachers, masters of language who are "turned against all historicisms." Once this identification is established, the subsequent one, between Falstaff and Shakespeare's intellect and values, makes a lot more sense.
Focusing so exclusively on the creation of a handful of characters as the key to Shakespeare's greatness -- beginning with King John and ending 12 years later with Antony and Cleopatra -- puts Bloom in the difficult position of deciding what to do with the many plays that come before and after. Early comedies, histories and tragedies get dismissed as relative failures or faintly praised for anticipating the fully realized personalities that are to follow. Bloom is even more hard pressed when dealing with the plays written in Shakespeare's maturity, in which inwardness is largely abandoned. With Coriolanus he asks: "Had Shakespeare wearied of the labor of reinventing the human?" In Cymbeline, his Shakespeare is "alienated from his own art" and resorts to self-parody. By Henry VIII, Shakespeare "undoes most of what he had invented." Bloom never pauses to consider obvious alternatives to his Procrustean theory. Perhaps Shakespeare came to recognize the limits of character and inwardness and sought by other means -- through wonder, improbabilities and larger patterns of death and regeneration -- to render human experience more fully.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is unfortunately marred by a compulsion to denigrate. The least deserving victims are Shakespeare's fellow playwrights, who must be squashed in order to portray Shakespeare as author of himself (only Chaucer and Marlowe are recognized as influences). Lyric poets like Blake and Shelley, subjects of earlier, authoritative books by Bloom, are far better suited to his Romantic notions of autonomous genius than is a collaborative dramatist like Shakespeare. The lengths that Bloom will go to insulate Shakespeare from contaminating influence are often absurd. George Wilkins, who may have had a hand in Pericles, is described as a 'lowlife hack.' Poor Thomas Kyd, whose enormously popular Spanish Tragedy is unjustly rejected as 'hideously written and silly,' is stripped of his generally recognized authorship of an early and lost Hamlet (Bloom insists that Shakespeare must have written the earlier Hamlet too). John Webster, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson are all written off as second-raters. Bloom sees himself as one of the great defenders of the Western tradition, but he provides plenty of ammunition for revisionists eager to eliminate these major figures from the canon and the classroom.
In his youth Bloom was 'profoundly affected' by seeing Ralph Richardson play Falstaff, a haunting performance that 'a half century later was the starting point for this book,' but he would deny a similar transformative experience to today's young theatergoers, suggesting that ''we might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare.' Here again the villain is history, since performances of Shakespeare's plays -- from the staging of Richard II on the eve of Essex's rebellion to the latest Off Broadway production -- are always rooted in the here and now. Preferring to wrest Shakespeare out of time, Bloom falls back on the fantasy that Shakespeare (fewer than half of whose plays were printed in his lifetime) preferred readers to playgoers anyway, since he 'wrote also to be read, by a more select group.' While Bloom is right to take to task some of the more feeble productions he has seen in America, were he more familiar with the work of younger British directors he does not mention -- Deborah Warner's Titus Andronicus and Sam Mendes's Troilus and Cressida are obvious examples -- his estimation of contemporary productions and of these plays themselves would surely be higher.
Had Bloom, one of the most gifted of contemporary critics, stuck to the plays and characters that he deeply understands, this book would have been a third as long and far more compelling.
~James Shapiro is the author of 'Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare' and 'Shakespeare and the Jews.'
Donna R. Cheney
(Weber State University)
In The Western Canon (1994) Bloom argued that Shakespeare, along with Milton, was the center of Western thought. In The Invention of the Human he contends that Shakespeare is the center of the Universe. According to Bloom, Shakespeare "went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it." The Bard is singularly responsible for creating our personalities, not just in the Western world, but in all cultures. Falstaff and Hamlet, the central characters of Bloom's discussions, are "the greatest of charismatics" and are "the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it."
It is small wonder that critics of Bloom's book bristle in the face of such sweeping pronouncements. The general reaction is to resent Bloom's snide comments about what he terms the current critical "School of Resentment" which would turn modern readers away from "Bardolatry." Individual critical response seems to depend on the particular school of criticism the respondent adheres to, but most often the critics jump to an ad hominem attack against Bloom himself. "Just who does Harold Bloom think he is?" thunders Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. Lane denigrates the arguments of the book, but finds the work important enough to give the review five full pages. The reviewers for Newsweek focus on Bloom's celebrity rather than on his contentions, but equally grant the importance of the author and his work.
The Invention of the Human <is comprised of three major critical discussions by Bloom combined with brief discussions of each of the 37 plays. He begins by addressing "To the Reader" the overwhelming awe he feels for the master writer of the world who is able to create literary characters epitomizing the essential nature of humanity. This introduction concludes, "We need to exert ourselves and read Shakespeare as strenuously as we can, while knowing that his plays will read us more energetically still. They read us definitively." Just how a play reads a person is not clear, but the pitch to the common person is a major theme throughout the book: Shakespeare shapes all humanity, not just the elite literati. Shakespeare's influence seeps into everyone, everywhere.
In the introductory essay, "Shakespeare's Universalism," Bloom dismisses dissenters as "gender-and-power freaks." He acknowledges that there were great, creative writers before Shakespeare; indeed, "The idea of Western character" defined as "the self as a moral agent" came from many sources. But, he contends, the predecessors created "cartoons" and "ideograms" rather than developing personality. "Every other great writer may fall away, to be replaced by the anti-elitist swamp of Cultural Studies," but "Shakespeare will abide, even if he were to be expelled by the academics. . ."
At this point Bloom turns to short individual synopses of the plays (the Henry VI plays are reviewed as a unit), with each review intended to support invention of the human. He often slips from this intention, however. Most of the individual play discussions take around seven pages, with the discussions of Hamlet and Henry IV in more depth since Falstaff and Hamlet are Bloom's major focus as persons. His reviews are rife with long quotations from the plays themselves, but they are interesting to read and fairly self-contained. Shakespeare teachers will find Bloom's insights useful for work with their own classes.
Even here, however, Bloom is contentious. He suggests in his review of The Comedy of Errors that "Perhaps all farce is metaphysical." In concluding Taming of the Shrew, he pronounces, "Shakespeare, who clearly preferred his women characters to his men (always excepting Falstaff and Hamlet), enlarges the human, from the start, by subtly suggesting that women have the truer sense of reality." He sets up his own order of composition of the plays, and in the final play review, The Two Noble Kinsmen, rather than Theseus having the closing lines, Bloom exults that Shakespeare himself is speaking.
After his play reviews, Bloom concludes in an essay, "Coda: The Shakespearean Difference," that "Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection." Bloom identifies intimately with Falstaff: "What Falstaff teaches us is a comprehensiveness of humor that avoids unnecessary cruelty because it emphasizes instead the vulnerability of every ego, including that of Falstaff himself."
Bloom has taken an admirable critical stance which he supports textually, referencing ideas from many other critics, and including many divergent opinions. Yet with his grand pronouncements, his self-assurance comes through far more clearly than any vulnerability. His humor is prominent, but often scathing. No one I have discussed this book with is willing to accept all of Bloom's concepts at face value, but, equally, no one has suggested that his insights can be dismissed. One point the critics might balk at is that, in contrast to many academics, Bloom is eminently readable, thought-provoking and enjoyable.
The Invention of the Human
By Harold Bloom
In his 1994 magnum opus, 'The Western Canon,' Harold Bloom placed Shakespeare, along with Dante, at the very center of the canon, arguing that the two 'excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy and power of invention.' The rest, he argued, 'is what they absorbed and what absorbs them.'
Mr Bloom's latest book, 'Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,' is in large measure an amplification of the arguments about him set down in that earlier volume, combined with a close textual reading of his individual plays.
In these pages, Mr Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, goes so far as to assert that Shakespeare 'essentially invented human personality as we continue to know and value it.'
'Before Hamlet taught us not to have faith either in language or in ourselves, being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting,' Mr Bloom writes. 'Shakespeare, through Hamlet, has made us skeptics in our relationships with anyone, because we have learned to doubt articulateness in the realm of affection.'
He adds that 'our ability to laugh at ourselves as readily as we do at others owes much to Falstaff,' and that Shakespeare's Cleopatra has taught us 'how complex eros is, and how impossible it is to divorce acting the part of being in love and the reality of being in love.'
This eccentric notion -- that we did not know how to be human before Shakespeare came along to tell us -- gives Mr Bloom a title and thesis, but it thankfully does little to contaminate his book. Indeed, this volume is best read as an old-fashioned humanistic commentary on Shakespeare's plays that gives us a renewed appreciation of the playwright's staggering achievement, even as it points up the limitations of structuralist, feminist and neo-historicist readings of his work. It is a fiercely argued exegesis of Shakespeare's plays in the tradition of Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and A. C. Bradley, a study that is as passionate as it is erudite, as provocative as it is sometimes perverse.
While the reader may quarrel with Mr Bloom's dismissive treatment of recent productions of Shakespeare's plays, while one may disagree with his readings of individual characters and texts (his assertion that Shylock is a 'murderous villain,' for instance, is both simplistic and strangely at odds with his analysis of the moneylender's ambivalent nature), it's hard not to be impressed by his overall knowledge of and insight into his subject's work. Mr Bloom deftly illuminates the ideas and motifs animating Shakespeare's plays, succinctly shows how the playwright's life (the little that we know of it, anyway) appears to have affected his work, and astutely analyzes the development of his transcendent art.
In earlier books like 'The Anxiety of Influence,' Mr Bloom has articulated a Freudian theory of poetic influence, which suggests that writers are shaped by their Oedipal struggle to free themselves from the legacy of their literary forefathers. That theory clearly informs this volume's assessment of Shakespeare's growth and his relationship to his literary ancestors Chaucer and Christopher Marlowe.
As Mr Bloom sees it, Shakespeare's early histories were heavily indebted to Marlowe, an influence he parodied and exorcized with the bloody 'Titus Andronicus' in 1594. Once Shakespeare had emancipated himself from the author of 'Tamburlaine,' Mr Bloom continues, his characters began to evolve from two-dimensional Marlovian cartoons like Richard III into the emotionally complex heroes of his mature work. Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Othello, Macbeth and Cleopatra: such characters possessed an interior life heretofore unseen in literature, and they signified Shakespeare's maturation as an original artist, an artist who in turn would become a forerunner to writers and thinkers as disparate as Kierkegaard, Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello and Beckett.
Shakespeare apparently wrote 'King Lear,' 'Macbeth' and 'Antony and Cleopatra' in a fury of composition that spanned a mere 14 months (1605-1606), and those plays, Mr Bloom argues, 'conclude the major phase of Shakespeare's preoccupation with the inner self.' His subsequent plays, beginning with 'Coriolanus' in 1608, would contain fewer excursions into the human heart. More experimental in form, less intimate in mood, they would feature characters who are more symbols or satiric ideograms than three-dimensional human beings.
With 'Henry VIII' (one of his very last works, written in 1612-13, possibly with John Fletcher), Mr Bloom writes, Shakespeare, apparently 'weary of his own genius,' 'undoes most of what he had invented.'
Although many critics have focused on the redemptive elements in Shakespeare's plays, arguing that justice is served on the villains in 'King Lear,' say, or emphasizing the motifs of renewal and resurrection in 'The Winter's Tale,' Mr Bloom takes a bleaker view.
In fact, this volume underscores Shakespeare's dark, uncompromising vision, his unwavering examination of the consequences of time and flux and loss, his acute awareness of the contingency of love and reason.
Arguing that Shakespeare was probably unhappily married, Mr Bloom declares quite highhandedly that 'all Shakespearean marriages, comic and otherwise, are zany or grotesque, since essentially the women must marry down.' As for filial and paternal love, he writes, 'Shakespeare's greatest men and women are pragmatically doom-eager not because of their relation to state power but because their inner lives are ravaged by all the ambivalences and ambiguities of familial love and its displacements.'
In Hamlet's radical alienation, in Iago's malign will, in Lear's confrontation with the abyss, in Macbeth's apprehension that life is a tale signifying nothing, Mr Bloom suggests, are contained the seeds of 19th-century nihilism, Dostoevsky's brooding existentialism and Baudelaire's spiritual malaise.
In the end, his book may not persuade the reader that Shakespeare was somehow responsible for 'the invention of the human,' but it does remind us, powerfully, of the uncanny modernity of Shakespeare and his surpassing ability not only to limn the human condition but also to illuminate 'our latest intellectual fashions more sharply than they can illuminate him.'
And a coda on Dante, who is placed by Bloom at the centre of the Western Canon with Shakespeare......
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote “The Divine Comedy”, the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature written in a modern European vernacular.
Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city-states, particularly Florence, which was torn between rival factions. Spiritually and culturally too, there were signs of change. With the diffusion of Aristotle’s physical and metaphysical works, there came the need for harmonizing his philosophy with the truth of Christianity, and Dante’s mind was attracted to philosophical speculation. In Italy, Giotto, who had freed himself from the Byzantine tradition, was reshaping the art of painting, while the Tuscan poets were beginning to experiment with new forms of expression. Dante may be considered the greatest and last medieval poet, at least in Italy, where barely a generation later the first humanists were to spring up.
Dante was born in Florence, the son of Bellincione d’Alighiero. His family descended, he tells us, from “the noble seed” of the Roman founders of Florence and was noble also by virtue of honors bestowed on it later. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade. As was usual for the minor nobility, Dante’s family was Guelph, in opposition to the Ghibelline party of the feudal nobility which strove to dominate the communes under the protection of the emperor.
Although his family was reduced to modest circumstances, Dante was able to live as a gentleman and to pursue his studies. It is probable that he attended the Franciscan school of Santa Croce and the Dominican school of S. Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of Thomistic doctrine and of the mysticism that was to become the foundation of his philosophical culture. It is known from his own testimony that in order to perfect his literary style he also studied with Brunetto Latini, the Florentine poet and master of rhetoric. Perhaps encouraged by Brunetto in his pursuit of learning, Dante traveled to Bologna, where he probably attended the well-known schools of rhetoric.
A famous portrait of the young Dante done by Giotto hangs in the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence. We also have the following description of him left us by the author Giovanni Boccaccio: “Our poet was of medium height, and his face was long and his nose aquiline and his jaws were big, and his lower lip stood out in such a way that it somewhat protruded beyond the upper one; his shoulders were somewhat curved, and his eyes large rather than small and of brown color, and his hair and beard were curled and black, and he was always melancholy and pensive.”
Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but before 1283 his father died, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father’s previous arrangements, he married the gentlewoman Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.
Dante began early in life to compose poetry, an art, he tells us, which he taught himself as a young man ( Vita nuova, III, 9). Through his love lyrics he became known to other poets of Florence, and most important to him was his friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, which resulted from an exchange of sonnets.
Both Dante and Guido were concerned with the effects of love on the mind, particularly from a philosophical point of view; only Dante, however, began gradually to develop the idea that love could become the means of spiritual perfection. And while Guido was more interested in natural philosophy, Dante assiduously cultivated his knowledge of the Latin poets, particularly Virgil, whom he later called his guide and authority in the art of poetry.
During his youth Dante had known a young and noble Florentine woman whose grace and beauty so impressed him that in his poetry she became the idealized Beatrice, the “bringer of blessings,” who seemed “a creature come from heaven to earth, A miracle manifest in reality” (Vita nuova, XXVI). She is believed to have been Bice, the daughter of Folco Portinari, and later the wife of Simone dei Bardi. Dante had seen her for the first time when both were in their ninth year; he had named her in a ballad among the 60 fairest women of Florence. But it was only later that Beatrice became the guide of his thoughts and emotions “toward that ideal perfection which is the goal of every noble mind,” and the praise of her virtue and grace became the subject of his poetry.
When the young Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, Dante was overcome with grief but found consolation in thoughts of her glory in heaven. Although another woman succeeded briefly in winning Dante’s love through her compassion, the memory of Beatrice soon aroused in him feelings of remorse and renewed his fidelity to her. He was prompted to gather from among all his poems those which had been written in her honor or had some bearing on his love for her. This plan resulted in the small volume of poetry and prose, the Vita nuova (New Life), in which he copied from his “book of memory” only those past experiences belonging to his “new life” - a life made new through Beatrice. It follows Dante’s own youthful life through three movements or stages in love, in which Beatrice’s religious and spiritual significance becomes increasingly clear. At the same time it traces his poetic development from an early phase reminiscent of the Cavalcantian manner to a foreshadowing of The Divine Comedy. In the last prose chapter, which tells of a “miraculous vision,” the poet speaks of the major work that he intends to write and the important role Beatrice will have in it: “If it be the wish of Him in whom all things flourish that my life continue for a few years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written of any other lady.”
The Vita nuova, written between 1292 and 1294, is one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose. Its 31 poems, most of them sonnets symmetrically grouped around three canzoni, are only a small selection of Dante’s lyric production. He wrote many other lyrics inspired by Beatrice which are not included in the Vita nuova; in addition there are verses written to other women and poems composed at different times in his life, representing a variety of forms and stylistic experiences.
Dante’s literary interests did not isolate him from the events of his times. On the contrary, he was involved in the political life of Florence and deeply concerned about the state of Europe as a whole. In 1289 he had fought with the Florentine cavalry at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he inscribed himself in the guild of physicians and pharmacists (membership in a guild being a precondition for holding public office in Florence). He became a member of the people’s council and served in various other capacities. For 2 months in 1300 he was one of the six priors of Florence, and in 1301 he was a member of the Council of the One Hundred.
In October 1301 Dante was sent in a delegation from the commune to Pope Boniface VIII, whose policies he openly opposed as constituting a threat to Florentine independence. During his absence the Blacks (one of the two opposing factions within the Guelph party) gained control of Florence. In the resulting banishment of the Whites, Dante was sentenced to exile in absentia (January 1302). Despite various attempts to regain admission to Florence - at first in an alliance of other exiles whose company he soon abandoned and later through his writing - he was never to enter his native city again.
Dante led the life of an exile, taking refuge first with Bartolommeo della Scala in Verona, and, after a time of travel (to Bologna, through northern Italy, possibly also to Paris between 1307 and 1309), with Can Grande della Scala in Verona (1314). During this time his highest hopes were placed in Emperor Henry VII, who descended into Italy in 1310 to restore justice and order among the cities and to reunite church and state. When Henry VII, whose efforts proved fruitless, died in Siena in 1313, Dante lost every hope of restoring himself to an honorable position in Florence.
During these years of wandering Dante’s studies were not interrupted. Indeed, he had hoped that in acquiring fame as a poet and philosopher he might also regain the favor of his fellow citizens. His study of Boethius and Cicero in Florence had already widened his philosophical horizons. After 1290 he had turned to the study of philosophy with such fervor that “in a short time, perhaps 30 months” he had begun “to be so keenly aware of her sweetness that the love of her drove away and destroyed every other thought.” He read so much, it seems, that his eyes were weakened.
Two uncompleted treatises, De vulgari eloquentia (1303-1304) and the Convivio (1304-1307), belong to the early period of exile. At the same time, about 1306, he probably began to compose The Divine Comedy.
In De vulgari eloquentia, a theoretical treatise in Latin on the Italian vernacular, Dante intended to treat of all aspects of the spoken language, from the highest poetic expression to the most humble familiar speech. The first book is devoted to a discussion of dialects and the principles of poetic composition in the vulgar tongue; the second book treats specifically of the “illustrious” vulgar tongue used by certain excellent poets and declares that this noble form of expression is suitable only for the most elevated subjects, such as love, virtue, and war, and must be used in the form of the canzone.
The Convivio was intended to consist of 15 chapters: an introduction and 14 canzoni, with prose commentaries in Italian; but only 4 chapters were completed. The canzoni, which are the “meat” of the philosophical banquet while the prose commentaries are the “bread,” appear to be written to a beautiful woman. But the prose commentaries interpret these poems as an allegorical exaltation of philosophy, inspired by the love of wisdom. Dante wished to glorify philosophy as the “mistress of his mind” and to treat subjects of moral philosophy, such as love and virtue. The Convivio is in a sense a connecting link between the Vita nuova and The Divine Comedy. Thus in the latter work reason in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom becomes man’s sole guide on earth, except for the intervention of Divine Grace, in his striving for virtue and God. In the Convivio Dante also defends the use of the vernacular as a suitable medium for ethical and scientific subjects, as well as amorous ones.
The Latin treatise De monarchia, of uncertain date but possibly attributable to the time of Henry VII’s descent into Italy (1310-1313), is a statement of Dante’s political theories. At the same time it is intended as a practical guide toward the restoration of peace in Europe under a temporal monarch in Rome, whose authority proceeds directly from God.
During his exile Dante also wrote various Latin epistles and letters of political nature to Italian prices and cardinals. Belonging to a late period are two Latin eclogues and the scientific essay Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320). Il fiore, a long sonnet sequence, is of doubtful attribution.
In 1315 Dante twice refused pardons offered him by the citizens of Florence under humiliating conditions. He and his children were consequently condemned to death as rebels. He spent his last years in Tuscany, in Verona, and finally in Ravenna. There, under the patronage of Guido da Polenta and joined by his children (possibly also his wife), Dante was greatly esteemed and spent a happy and peaceful period until his death on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321.
The Divine Comedy
The original title of Dante’s masterpiece, which he completed shortly before his death, was Commedia; the epithet Divina was added by posterity. The purpose of this work, as Dante writes in his letter to Can Grande, is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” The Commedia is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The second and third sections contain 33 cantos apiece; the Inferno has 34, since its opening canto is an introduction to the entire work. The measure throughout the poem is terza rima, consisting of lines in sets of 3, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on.
The main action of the literal narrative centers on Dante’s journey to God through the agency of Beatrice; the moral or allegorical meaning that Dante wishes the reader to keep in mind is that God will do for everyman what he has done for one man, if everyman is willing to make this journey. Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of everyman through this life. The poet finds himself in a dark wood (sin); he tries to escape by climbing a mountain illuminated by the sun (God). Impeded by the sudden appearance of three beasts, which symbolize the major divisions of sin in the Inferno, he is about to be driven back when Virgil (human reason) appears, sent to his aid by Beatrice. Virgil becomes Dante’s guide through Hell, in a descent which is the first stage in his ascent to God in humility. The pilgrim learns all there is to know about sin and confronts the very foundation of sin, which is pride, personified in Lucifer frozen at the very center of the universe. Only now is he spiritually prepared to begin his ascent through the realm of purification.
The mountain of the Purgatorio is a place of repentance, regeneration, and conversion. The penitents endure severe punishments, but all are pilgrims directed to God, in an atmosphere of love, hope, and an eager willingness in suffering. On the mountain’s summit Beatrice (divine revelation) comes to take Virgil’s place as Dante’s guide - for the final ascent to God, human reason is insufficient.
The Paradiso depicts souls contemplating God; they are in a state of perfect happiness in the knowledge of His divine truths. The dominant image in this realm is light. God is light, and the pilgrim’s goal from the start was to reach the light. His spiritual growth toward the attainment of this end is the main theme of the entire poem.
Finally, read these two interesting in-depth appraisals of the Supreme Poet:
~DANTE THE MAN AND THE POET by Mary Bradford Whiting (1922)
which you can also download from here in various formats (pdf, flipbook, FTP, etc), and
~DANTE by Edmund Garratt Gardner (1921)
which you can also download from here in various formats (pdf, flipbook, FTP, etc).
Moreover, don’t forget to view the Dante Wikipedia entry, with lots and lots of references!