Hamlet in Bloom - a review of Hamlet Poem Unlimited in relation to Hamlet The Invention of the Human
There are only a few academic critics who rise to popular notoriety, Stephen Greenblatt, James Shapiro, Stanley Wells, but above all, Harold Bloom. He is the one Shakespeare critic most people know when they know no other. Appropriately, I would like to take a look back at Harold Bloom's treatment of Hamlet, in his Shakespeare the Invention of the Human and more so in Hamlet Poem Unlimited.
In his preface to Hamlet Poem Unlimited (2003) Bloom himself looks back to his Hamlet chapter in Shakespeare the Invention of the Human (1998) and says "In composing that full-scale work on all of Shakespeare's plays, I found myself obsessed with the relationship of Hamlet to an earlier, missing play, the so-called Ur-Hamlet. Most scholars on inadequate grounds, ascribe that lost drama to Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy. I continue to follow the late Peter Alexander in believing that Shakespeare wrote both Hamlets, so that he is revising himself in the great play of 1600."
First, what are the inadequate grounds Bloom cites?
He mentions one, the Thomas Nashe introduction ("To the Gentlemen Students of Both Universities") to his friend Robert Greene's Menaphon (1589), where Nashe alludes to the existence of the Hamlet play:
This certainly shows there was common knowledge of a Hamlet play in 1589, but the key passage is the one about the Kid in Aesop. Since there is no appropriate parallel in Aesop, this has been taken as an allusion to the play's supposed author Thomas Kyd. A very convincing argument by V. Osterberg titled "Nashe's Kid in Aesop: A Danish Interpretation" can be found in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 18, No. 72. (Oct., 1942), pp. 385-394. I apologize that this is not publicly available on the Internet, but those with access to the JSTOR Language and Literature database can find it by clicking here.
The similarities between Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Hamlet (superficial though they be - a play within a play used to catch a murderer, a ghost provoking revenge) are also thought to point toward Kyd as the author of the Ur-Hamlet. Bloom would argue, of course, that Kyd is doing a poor imitation of the early Shakespeare play, rather than Shakespeare transforming Kyd.
There is also the reference in Henslowe's Diary of a performance of Hamlet in 1594, and Thomas Lodge's 1596 reference to "the ghost which cried so miserably at the theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!" in Wits Miserie and the Worlds Madnesse: Discovering the Devils Incarnat of This Age (see p. 62). Those are the inadequate grounds Bloom mentions.
Unfortunately, in Shakespeare the Invention of the Human Bloom posits Shakespearean authorship of the Ur-Hamlet and brooks no argument. He replaces inadequate evidence with no evidence whatsoever, and unfortunately (for anyone can have a hobby horse when it comes to the attribution of anonymous plays) he spends a good deal of the Hamlet chapter in that work undergirding his assertion so as to make it seem a certainty.
He writes things like "Shakespeare's first Hamlet must have been Marlovian...;" and "...Shakespeare was not grafting onto a Kydian melodrama but was revising his own earlier play;" and:
That casual "would seem to have" coupled with "preceded" naming established plays by Shakespeare implicitly places it squarely in the canon, upon no factual grounds whatever. Later in the essay Bloom refers to "the bad tradition that Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet" to further impugn the large number of scholars who do accept, at least on the preponderance of evidence, Kyd's likely authorship.
The second real defect of the Hamlet chapter in Shakespeare the Invention of the Human is the unwarranted reading of Shakespearean biography into a causal relationship to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Combining both errors, Bloom writes,
Well, after all, Bloom does call his large book a "personal statement" (it has no critical apparatus or even an index, sadly). And since the Ur-Hamlet is lost, does it matter? If it does not, Bloom has wasted a lot of time and ink, and more to the point, distracted his reader from the many valuable insights he has to offer on Hamlet. These were the motive for Hamlet Poem Unlimited and I will take them up in part two.
As we said, Hamlet Poem Unlimited starts with the regret that the Ur-Hamlet theory (though near-certainty would be a better way to say it, adopting the Bloomian stance) overshadowed the other points Bloom wanted to make about Hamlet in the earlier volume. It is not that he didn't make the points, most of them that are made in the later volume are actually present in the earlier. It is just that the Ur-Hamlet blunder was the 900-pound corpse flower in a room of otherwise delicate blossoms.
Hamlet Poem Unlimited is a small book, running 154 small pages with ample line spacing and a good deal of the text dedicated to ample quotes from the play. Nevertheless, it is far more engaging, and gives Bloom the room he needs, to explain many of his insights into this master work of the Western Canon. Really. He begins by describing Hamlet this way:
No faint praise here.
Bloom proceeds pretty much the same in each chapter (there are twenty five very short chapters). 1) He engages an idea from a serious critic or literary figure (it is Harold Goddard's comment that "Hamlet is his own Falstaff" in chapter one, an insight that fuels the book as a whole--and in fact, you will find parallels throughout the book with the Hamlet chapter in Goddard's The Meaning of Shakespeare); 2) he asks a crucial question (in chapter one it is "How should we begin reading Hamlet..." (7); then 3) he proposes an answer, the answer propelling his further explication ("I suggest that we try to infer just how the young man attired in black became so formidably unique an individual" (7).
He performs this cycle twice in chapter one: the second critic being D. H. Lawrence, the second question being "How did Hamlet develop into so extraordinarily ambivalent a consciousness?"; and he moves forward with his own observations: "Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother, and his uncle" (9) and moves on to make a point about Hamlet actually being a dramatist, as well as being the subject of drama.
Using this technique Bloom engages us with the greats of Western Literature as they have thought on Hamlet: Hazlitt, Hegel, Milton, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Dr. Johnson, Carlyle, Freud, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, John Updike, T. S. Eliot (who comes in for more than his share of derision), J. H. van den Berg, A. C. Bradley, G. K. Chesterton, G. W. Knight, Anthony Burgess, Cervantes, Giordano Bruno, Victor Hugo, Nietzsche (above all), Swinburne, W. H. Auden, Hume, Wittgenstein, Pirandello, Emerson, Goethe (another critical victim), Joyce, Beckett, Dostoevski, Conrad, Faulkner, Chekhov, Ibsen, Eric Bentley, Frank Kermode, and there are more. After all, one of his points (and it is scarcely possible to make a larger point about a single work of art) is that "...much of literature since the later eighteenth century emanates from strong misreadings of Hamlet. It is difficult to conceive of Goethe, Chekhov, or Joyce without Hamlet. Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and Proust turned elsewhere in Shakespeare, in search of a nihilism less ambivalent than Hamlet's... " (137); and again, "Both the play and his own sensibility confine Hamlet: he is too large for tragedy, for his own self, and weirdly too titanic for imaginative literature" (97). It is as if, throughout the book, Bloom is calling forth the lights of Western literature to bear witness that Hamlet is their source and better.
In fact, one of the delights of reading Bloom is his intimate familiarity with great works of Western art. When he says Hamlet is the source of much of the great literature of the past 400 years, he speaks of what he knows. Unfortunately he delivers his opinions with such peremptory authority, not to say bombast, that they provoke protest where a gentler delivery would lubricate admiring acceptance.
The questions he asks throughout this little book attest to his thoroughgoing engagement with this greatest of plays:
Bloom has accepted Hamlet as the transcendent work of Western art; accepted as an article of faith, but one he never stops questioning so as to certify his own judgment.
All this is fine, and he may even be mostly right, but there are passages in the book that go well beyond normal critical endeavor. For example, in the chapter dedicated to a discussion of the grave digger, Bloom says, "The Grave-digger is the Old Adam, and his work will last till doomsday. His confrontation with the New Adam, Hamlet, finds him equal in dark wit to the formidable prince..." (76). This sort of unwarranted pseudo-religiosity infects the book as a sub-theme, as if we are also to accept Bloom's identification of Hamlet with Jesus, or at least King David, in his various comparisons with one or the other. Again, consider this:
This were to consider too curiously. Bloom is reaching too far afield to pull too many elements into this be all and end all, as he sees it, of Western Art. The center does not, after all, have to have its own center. Bloom consistently tries to make Hamlet more than it ever really can be, but this may be the common error among the obsessively bookish.
In spite of this critical overreaching, there are many brave and interesting points made in Hamlet Poem Unlimited. Hamlet's theatricality, his pragmatic nihilism, his cruelty towards Ophelia and ultimately his mother, the unworthiness of his rivals Claudius and Laertes, the Falstaffian origins of Hamlet's inwardness, his recursive consciousness, his ambiguity, his self-inflicting irony, his acceptance ("Let it be") and his apotheosis in death are all themes well analyzed. The book is well worth reading, and a remarkable recovery from the less well considered essay in Shakepeare the Invention of the Human.