Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
The most significant publication in this year’s critical archive is Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, though as a cultural event rather than a book. Its central claim – that Shakespeare’s characters furnish the self-reflexive models by which we acquire a self to reflect on – is less developed in coherent argument than asserted in a repetitive polemic. Bloom projects himself as a voice in the wilderness, warning the children of literature against the strange, resentful gods of history and politics. This amusing self-dramatization soon wears thin and detracts from the basic claim, which is neither eccentric nor new. The idea that Shakespeare invented the human was itself invented by the Romantics, whose powerful criticism contributed substantially to developing the institutional apparatus within which we still function. But simply to repeat the claims of Hazlitt, Lamb, Emerson, Herder, et al. sounds like parody (think of Bizet’s Classical Symphony). Bloom does not explain why most Shakespearian work is no longer sustained by the Romantics, just inveighs against apostasy. The invective has secured him a middlebrow celebrity, but the academic excoriation may be more worrisome. Every Shakespeare session I visited at the 1998 MLA included insouciant dismissals of Bloom, ‘not that I’ve read him’, as one speaker said, and audiences responded on cue with derisive laughter, though they probably had not read him either.