Are we all just Shakespeare’s kids? Remembering Harold Bloom, who certainly thought so.
Did William Shakespeare invent the human?
That seems like a pretty audacious claim to make for any imaginative storyteller, let alone a mere playwright whom we struggle to understand, and one no longer at the peak of his popularity, to boot. But it was an assertion boldly made by Harold Bloom, the ravenous literary critic and as great a friend to Shakespeare, if that was his real name, as any writer in history.
Bloom, who died Monday at the age of 89, made a slew of similarly controversial assertions, often running counter to the rhythms of literary academia, which, during Bloom’s decades-long career, moved from an embrace of great-books universality to a critique of the privileged assumption thereof and an insistence on more cultural specificity. But even among so much intellectually dazzling material from which to chose in book after book after book, this Bloom claim is, for me, the most interesting.
Here is why.
People as art: Critics usually are trained to admire works that seem to most closely reflect the human experience: we praise movies, novels or plays that seem most able to put our frailties and insecurities on page, screen or stage. The stories we consume on Netflix or Hulu — or maybe that problematic movie known as “Joker” — are not usually assumed to invent personality but to draw from its previous existence in real life.
In fact, that is the justification most frequently used by artists if their content is attacked, say, for excessive violence. The usual defense is some version of, “hey, such people exist, what are you gonna do?” Don’t shoot the messenger of the human capacity for evil, artists say. Just read the news, or look around.
Indeed, if a writer pens a credible character, we swoon not so much over their skills of invention as their verisimilitude. “I know that person!,” we confidently say to ourselves, or, better yet, “that person could be me,” and, therefore, “give that film an Oscar!”
Writers, we invariably assume, reflect human personality; they don’t make it up as they go along. Sure, they keep inventing new stories and plots and various other rearrangements of human mythologies, otherwise you would be canceling your DirecTV subscription and your nights would be much sadder and emptier. But most of us assume that the building blocks of those stories are characters drawn from actual human experience. The idea that they should ideally be like ourselves dates back to ancient civilizations.
So what the heck was Bloom talking about? Was he really trying to ascribe some kind of Darwinian omnipotence to Shakespeare?
Building blocks: In essence, Bloom argued that Shakespeare (whose vocabulary exceeded 22,000 words) didn’t so much reflect our personalities as give us the building blocks to create them. He was asserting that our modern sense of self — I am indecisive, say, or my values tell me to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or I love with unbridled passion — actually comes from his characters, born at the very Renaissance moment when our sense of self was exploding.
What we now think of our personalities, our politics, our values, our sense of distinct identity, actually draws from long-ago fictional creations, he was saying. And Shakespeare just happened to be better than anyone else when it came to that. He went further not so much in the accuracy of his exploration of human behavior but in his provision of the necessary vocabulary and the ideas for us to establish one for ourselves. And he got there first.
You can see the counterargument.
First, in the Christopher Columbus sense of first?
And was not Shakespeare but one writer among many in his milieu and, to use the most charitable of the available words, also an enthusiastic collaborator. And his world-view — white, male, generally unwilling to rock the establishment boat — reflected a set of circumstances that you or I most likely don’t share. These days, enormous energy is being expanded to undermine Shakespeare’s singularity, not deify the dude.
Bloom was, of course, unfazed by all of that.
He claimed that we all think we’ve invented ourselves through our own decisions and as a consequence of our particular circumstance. This is the golden age of self-importance, after all. We curate everything that hits our ears. We’re very impressed with what we have created. We all deem ourselves unique.
But are we, really? Maybe we’re all just descendants of a writer’s imagination — and, for the record, I do not think it has to be Shakespeare. But it took a singular thinker to point out the possibility.