The Book Club

The Quick and the Sacked

Dear Judith:

Methinks “godawful” is too violent a word for a tome that, when approached in a relaxed frame of mind, makes for an amiably perverse wallow. But I cannot dispute your point that its most grave (if not, I maintain, fatal) flaw is Professor Bloom’s refusal to “read closely,” instead opting to set out vast swatches of verse or prose and then say, in effect: “Isn’t that great!!” Well, I’m caricaturing (in the case of Falstaff, not by much). How useful it would be if Bloom were to stop effusing long enough to, for example, examine the meter in Macbeth–the unsettling irregularity of which not only says much about its characters’ state of mind, but also, I’m convinced, accounts for the bad luck that attends the play. By making his actors speak in an iambic pentameter with all the iambs messed up, Shakespeare also messes with their heads: He puts a whammy on his own play.

I haven’t read the reviews you cite, although I evidently share the sentiments of Jonathan Bate (any relation to W. Jackson?) in the Wall Street Journal. “A bar-room bore,” indeed – and very likely drinking sack – “but also alive and full of magnanimity.” OK, Bloom’s magnanimity is largely toward himself. OK, it’s hard to imagine anyone but an obsequious graduate student not throwing up his or her hands at the endless repetitions in, say, the Hamlet chapter. Whether he’s telling us for the eighth time that Marlowe was murdered and Kydd terrorized by the state, or asserting for the twelfth time the notion that Falstaff is the link between “the ur-Hamlet” (Shakespeare’s first play, Bloom is convinced, to the point that he builds much of his argument on this conjecture) and Shakespeare’s most endlessly complex protagonist, the only sane response is: Where was the editor?

Yet even in the Hamlet chapter, there are points that seem to me as trenchant as any I’ve read about the play. The reading of Hamlet that has always made the most sense is to regard its title character as a three-dimensional human being trapped in a two-dimensional revenge drama, of the kind that Kydd wrote in the dire The Spanish Tragedy and that the Jacobean Cyril Tourneur would, post-Shakespeare, spin into nihilistic near-farce in the exhilarating The Revenger’s Tragedy. Bloom says that Hamlet is “caught inside a play so that he has to perform even though he doesn’t want to”–as good an insight into “This time is out of joint” as any you’ll read. Here is a lean, swift, somewhat simpleminded revenge play bloated out of recognition by a hero who keeps making fun of his own role – and questioning his very existence. So why doesn’t Bloom go the next step and give us a f’r instance? I don’t know. How much more evocative is Kenneth Tynan, writing about Paul Scofield in 1955: “He finds plays Hamlet as a man whose skill in smelling falseness extends to himself, thereby breeding self-disgust… This Mr. Scofield does superbly, with a mighty bawl of ‘O vengeance!’ followed by a rueful stare at his own outflung arms and a decline into moans of derisive laughter.”

Tynan’s example, more than anything in Bloom, is at the heart of Bloom’s contention that it is this overhearing of the self–and the creation of a separate, internal self–that makes Shakespeare’s greatest characters so transcendant. (Do I use that word correctly? It pops up all the time here, as in: “Hamlet is the perfected experiment, the demonstration that meaning gets started not by repetition nor by fortunate accident nor error but by a new transcendentalizing of the secular, an apotheosis that is also an annihilation of all the certainties of the cultural path.”) Bloom does not believe that “this fissure exists in literature before Shakespeare,” and I haven’t read enough to argue the point, except to agree with him about his favorite whipping boys, the cartoonish Marlowe and ideogramatic Jonson. His assertion that Shakespeare had an aversion to reductionism, and his repeated citation of Hegel’s idea that Shakespeare’s characters are “free objects of themselves” holds up under scrutiny.

We come back to Falstaff, where, in Bloom’s words “meaning gets started.” This is the core of the argument, and the part where the book becomes almost private in its meanings.

I intend to take up Falstaff this afternoon, but must attend to larger duties (i.e., a screening of a movie).