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Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

Harold Bloom devotes his latest book on Shakespeare's art exclusively to the melancholy Prince of Denmark. logo
For the past four centuries, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has puzzled scholars and playgoers alike. The conundrum is how this play, the longest in Shakespeare's canon, can be profoundly flawed, even structurally clumsy, yet theatrically effective, intellectually satisfying, and, ultimately, cathartic. In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (Riverhead Books, 156 pages; $19.95), Harold Bloom considers the mysteries and pleasures of Shakespeare's masterpiece. The result is an introduction likely to be useful to theater professionals grappling with this monumental play, as well as to anyone who wants to enhance the experience of playgoing.

Bloom, turning 73 in a few weeks, is a latter-day Mortimer Adler, self-appointed as liaison between American readers and high culture. His sad-hound countenance has become familiar on dust jackets and high-end chat shows such as Charlie Rose. By virtue of mass-market publications including Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds and How to Read and Why, Bloom has become the first Yale English professor since Robert Penn Warren whose name is a household word -- though he'll never be as famous as Erich Segal, the former Yale classics professor who gave western culture the deathless phrase, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Bloom classifies the new book as a "postlude" to his highly popular Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. In that 1998 study of all the Bard's plays, Bloom presents the thesis that Shakespeare is the source of our contemporary conception of human nature. "In composing Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Bloom writes, "I found myself obsessed with the relationship of Hamlet to an earlier, missing play, the so-called Ur-Hamlet....Unfortunately, I became so concerned with matters of origin that I devoted far too much of a long chapter to them, and ruefully realized only later that most of what I thought and felt about Hamlet remained unsaid." In the new book, as throughout his recent popular criticism, Bloom ventures boldly into areas of inquiry which have been off-limits to mainstream literary critics since the advent of so-called New Criticism between the World Wars. Much of Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, for instance, is dedicated to the critic's personal feelings about the play and, especially, about its protagonist.

T.S. Eliot famously dismissed Hamlet as "an artistic failure." Eliot wrote that, "[o]f all the plays [of Shakespeare] it is...possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed." Bloom takes an antithetical view to Eliot's. Hamlet, he writes, is the "freest and wildest of plays, where anything may happen, and expectation is invoked largely to be confounded." Bloom maintains that, in Hamlet, "[p]aradoxically, what ought to have been... aesthetic failure became the most absolute of aesthetic triumph, by standards the character and the play pragmatically have invented."

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited contains almost no close reading of Shakespeare's text. Bloom dispenses with footnotes, index, and most other scholarly paraphernalia. Now and then, he acknowledges textual variations among the Folios and Quartos, and he makes occasional comments about Hamlet in performance (though never with approval). "Ransacking Hamlet is a losing process," Bloom argues. "If, as with an open box, you could turn the entire play over and empty it out, its scattered contents would defy reassembly into the spunkily coherent entity that goes on sublimely transcending the sum of its components."

Throughout his career, Bloom has held himself aloof from the fads of criticism and theory that roost, from time to time, in the English departments of American universities. Yet, in some works -- most notably The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) -- his writing has strayed into highly eccentric realms, even flirting with incomprehensibility. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited contains a few passages in which Bloom attempts to express sentiments that resist being reduced to words and sentences. In these instances, when he lets his fancy get the better of him, the result is a lyrical excess and rhetorical prettiness that puts one in mind of those flights of angels that Horatio invokes to sing Hamlet to his rest at the play's end. "For Hamlet, silence is annihilation," writes Bloom. "Hamlet's wake, his name, has not been wounded but wondrous: Ibsen and Chekhov, Pirandello and Beckett have rewritten him, and so have the novelists Goethe, Scott, Dickens, Melville, and Joyce." This kind of excursus, perched on the cusp between insight and folderol, may drive serious students of literature and philosophy to distraction. But it's likely to titillate readers -- especially actors, directors, and designers -- who approach the dramatic event with a sacral or mystic sensibility.

Harold Bloom
In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, Bloom makes no attempt to discuss Shakespeare or his play in the context of Elizabethan life and letters. It may be helpful for the reader to bear in mind that, as a young scholar in the 1950s, the author specialized in the works of Shelley and Blake. His particular concern in the new book is establishing Shakespeare through Hamlet (the character) as a precursor of the English Romantics. "I suspect," Bloom writes, "that Hamlet...was the prime origin of Romantic self-consciousness." Echoing the governing principle of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he argues "that Hamlet was a new kind of critical as he is creative, as rational as he is intuitive. He does not listen to the voice of the god, but rather to his own voice, which both mediates and expands his own consciousness of self. If Hamlet perishes of the truth, such truth is barely external. Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be."

Bloom calls Hamlet "Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy" and cites the play as one of very few works in western literature that may be categorized as "poems unlimited." He views Hamlet (the character) as an artistic creation so complex, energetic, and vital that he bursts the seams of the literary garment which envelops him. "Of all poems, Hamlet is the most unlimited," writes Bloom. "As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures....It is scarcely conceivable that Shakespeare could have anticipated how universal the play has proved to be." To Bloom, Hamlet is "our world's most advanced drama" and the work that "establishes the limits of theatricality, just as Hamlet himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed."

Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, Bloom's Hamlet: Poem Unlimited defies classification. If this slender volume must be characterized, call it a series of reflections on Shakespearean themes, with tangents addressing the impact of the Danish Prince on subsequent generations. Again and again in his 25 brief chapters, Bloom invokes Hamlet's "mystery," his "charismatic eminence," and his "genius," but he also discusses the protagonist as readily recognizable and universally comprehensible: "Hamlet's explorations in consciousness turn upon the question 'What is man?' which in him is not an Oedipal concern. Perhaps it is the invention of ambivalence, as we have come to know it. Hamlet sees himself as nothing and everything, like his creator Shakespeare, famously regarded by Jorge Luis Borges as no one and everyone. We read or attend Hamlet and bring our own ambivalences with us, but the prince alters and deepens them. When he dies, our modified ambivalences, now set upon him, ring the hero in an aura that is a kind of taboo. Hamlet has bruised the limits for all of us in carrying out his embassy of death. If we remain in a harsh world where, with Horatio, we will draw our breath in pain, it is because we are not yet ready to accept Hamlet's judgment that the obliteration of consciousness is an absolute felicity. He departs before us, unforgettable as disturbance and as icon."

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