The Book Club

The Sacking of Harold

Dear Judith,

I’m back, having just seen and enjoyed A Simple Plan, a new psychological thriller with Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda that in places carries distinct echoes of Macbeth. Oddly, as I was reading about the Scottish play on my subway ride home, I dropped Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human on my toe, which continues to throb. That could serve as Professor Bloom’s rejoinder to my earlier irreverence. Be forewarned, the book is a brick.

Judith: Do you not enjoy tussling with your old teacher over these plays? I enjoy it. By all means let him take on the feminists and the structuralists and the Marxists, most of whom spread disinformation. Let him thumb his nose at the appalling Jan Kott. His macabre view of Measure for Measure strikes me as spot-on–and recalls for me a bad production I once saw where the only memorable thing was the final scene, in which the clearly certifiable Duke dragged out his final speech to the point where he was unmistakably a bad comic dramatist attempting to tie up loose ends by marrying everyone inappositely off. While Bloom’s view of Shylock is often incoherent, he makes a salient point when he concludes that the Jewish moneylender “become[s] what he beheld in Antonio”–a bigoted jerk. Bloom’s view of Shylock might have been enhanced by a production I saw nearly two decades ago with David Suchet: Suchet gave a magnificent rendition of a man who, battered by insults for years, finally gets a bit of power and abuses it, thereby turning himself into the very monster he has all along been likened to.

I cite all the above because they’re places where I agree with Bloom. It’s only where we disagree that I search in vain to see where we part company, only to discover that the evidence is wanting. Bloom tosses aside the maltreatment of the innocent bride-to-be, Hero, in Much Ado About Nothing as if it weren’t–as I have always believed–a dry-run, in comic form, for the tragedy of Othello. I’ve always considered Theseus’s pronouncement on plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–“the best of their kind are but shadows, and the worst no worse if imagination amend them”–to be among the most profound I’ve heard, yet, for Bloom, Theseus is a stiff and the central consciousness of the play belongs to Hippolyta.

Which brings me to Bottom, with Falstaff one of Shakespeare’s finest comic creations. He is a braggart, a credit-hog, a bad actor, and an intellectual simpleton who is wholly oblivious to the extraordinary goings-on around him, yet for Bloom he constitutes–along with Falstaff–some kind of ideal. Both Bottom and Falstaff have no shame–not even the healthy shame that provokes change and leads to empathy. Bloom comes right out and says that his fellow professors who do not appreciate Falstaff have not lived lives rich enough to pass judgment on him. He is the freest human ever invented, and Bloom’s embrace of him makes me think not of a scholar but of an aging, fatted, drunken, seducer who’d like to believe that he exists on a higher moral plane by virtue of his “vitalism.”