The Book Club

Falstaff Uber Alles

Dear Judith:

“Must we all stop speaking and thinking and bow down to greatness, to Hamlet and to Falstaff and to Bloom?” you ask. If we’re stuck in one of his seminars, perhaps. But you and I and everyone else have the luxury of reading him selectively.

I can’t abide the thought of ending our discussion on such a taunting note, especially as I envision myself returning to Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human again and again in coming decades, much as I return to Dr. Johnson, William Hazlitt, Harley Granville-Barker, A.C. Bradley, Harry Levin, Northrup Frye, and Kenneth Tynan (for accounts of the plays in performance with such actors as Olivier, Scofield, Gielgud, and Richardson). Professor Bloom’s book will likely benefit from being read selectively, a chapter at a time, instead of (as we have done) in one unwieldy lump: The repetitions will shrink into insignificance, and Bloom will take his place as one more brilliant commentator instead of the one who tried but failed to Put It All Together.

Obviously, I don’t buy his conviction that Falstaff’s perspective totally dominates–and obviates the perspectives of others–in the Henry plays. Beyond question, Hal’s repudiation of the fat knight marks a diminution of his “humanity” (if you define the term humanistically). But Bloom is well aware that, for Shakespeare, the virtues of kingliness and humanism could be, in some instances, antithetical, and that a king who traffics with as seductive a Lord Of Misrule as Falstaff could end up presiding over a country that makes the free-for-all dukedom of Measure for Measure seem Apollonian. For Bloom to convert the Henry plays (Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V) into the Falstaffiad, he has to render Agincourt meaningless–a perspective that has been adopted by the occasional peacenik theater director, but one that doesn’t begin to do justice to the Elizabethan playwright’s divided impulses.

You go too far, however, in proclaiming theater “the ultimate ironic genre,” in which no perspective has more weight than any other. One can make a case that, say, Chekhov regards his characters across the board with a kind of New Testament forgiveness, but none of them have anything like the titanic self-awareness of Hamlet. (Chekhov points this up by poking fun at the playwright Treplev’s Hamlet complex in The Seagull.) Shakespere can’t help but make some value judgments. Have you really shed many tears (outside of Tom Stoppard’s sophomoric musings) for the “cavalier” killing of those puny betrayers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Do you doubt that Rosalind isn’t the central consciousness of As You Like It, serving as a splendid foil for the histrionically mopey Jacques? Bloom is dead right when he writes of the grayness of the supporting characters in Macbeth, and of the effect this has intensifying our connection to its antihero. And I think his chapter on Antony and Cleopatra hits the nail on the head once more: Even if her stature doesn’t preclude the views of everyone else on stage, Cleopatra does run away with the play.

You have summed up superbly where Bloom is on more dangerous ground, where he is “too blinded by his own passionate (and charismatic) identification with [Falstaff] to see the claims made by other characters.” That Bloom is a suspect commentator on “the invention of the human” by virtue of his belief that Shakespeare’s highest-evolved humans are beyond the criticism of the likes of us (barely human) underlings strikes me as scathing but fair. It is not surprising that Bloom admits to passing the time fantasizing about his alter-ego Falstaff’s insertion in various other plays–presumably to whup the butts of lesser mortals.

Bloom says he follows Charles Lamb in feeling that Shakespeare is more profitably read than seen, yet he returns again and again to his seminal Shakespeare experience–seeing Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff a half-century ago. My own experience follows suit: David Suchet’s Shylock; both Alan Howard’s and Christopher Walken’s Coriolanus; Christopher Plummer’s Iago; Meryl Streep, Christopher Lloyd, and others in Alvin Epstein’s Yale AMidsummer Night’s Dream; Kenneth Branagh’s Edgar in his otherwise lame production of King Lear (a performance that reinforces for me Bloom’s seemingly perverse argument that Edgar is the real center of the play); Phillip Kerr’s Malvolio wriggling in agony in the stocks in a good Stratford, Connecticut Twelfth Night 25 years ago; a Kabuki-esque Macbeth at a little theater in Scotland; Peter Sellars’ undergraduate staging of Antony and Cleopatra in a frigid indoor swimming pool at Harvard … I don’t believe that you can begin to apprehend Shakespeare’s sublimity until you’ve seen great actors, directors, a designers tear into him. Although the next time I go hopefully to the theater, I’m going to prime myself with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.