Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom. 154 p. Riverhead Press, 2003
Shakespeare: for all time, by Stanley Wells. 442 p. Oxford University Press, 2003
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells.
539 p. Oxford University Press, 2001
Much more than a literary critic, Harold Bloom is a literary phenomenon. He is the author of twenty-eight books, many of them lengthy, on the whole range of literature – from the Biblical book of “J” to William Butler Yeats. Formerly a professor at Harvard, and now at Yale and NYU, Bloom’s brilliance and eccentricity have attracted a cult-like following.
In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, he has produced an uncharacteristically slim book, one even shorter than the play, but one full of intriguing insights and unorthodox opinions. In his preface, Bloom confesses to having devoted too much time in his earlier Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) to the relationship between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Ur-Hamlet, and consequently having omitted most of what he thought and felt about the extant play. In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, an essay of less than 25,000 words, a quarter of which are quotations, he offers to remedy that omission. He adds an observation that is not heard often from Shakespearean scholars: “The enigma in confronting Shakespeare’s plays is the question of Shakespeare him-self. Where does he stand, implicitly, in relation to his own work?” Much of his book, Bloom writes, “devotes itself to meditative surmises upon Shakespeare’s involvement in the mysteries of his final Hamlet.”
For the reader skeptical of the Stratfordian theory, this promises to be interesting. Unfor-tunately, Bloom’s surmises about Shakespeare come to little more than nothing. “Shakespeare himself,” the alleged author from Warwickshire, appears but once in the book—as does the word “Stratford”—in a throwaway sentence in the last chapter about the drinking bout with Jonson and Drayton. For all his minute examination of the play and his musings about the author, Bloom can-not find a single connection between Hamlet and Stratford-upon-Avon. This is all the more star-tling because Bloom is one of those who believe that it was Shakespeare himself, just a few years out of Stratford, who wrote the Ur-Hamlet in 1589 or so. According to this scenario, “our world’s most advanced drama,” as Bloom terms it, “which establishes the limits of theatricality” was probably gestating in the house on Henley Street when the author was in his early twenties.
Bloom is known for his obsession with Shakespeare’s characters, and for his attitude that it is only they who matter. His habit of discussing them as if they were real people exasperates many readers, especially the New Historicist critics, who see them simply as components in a poetic drama. In his discussion of the characters in Hamlet, it is as if Bloom himself were on the stage—a portly figure moving furtively among them, noting their motivations, commenting on their personalities, and speculating about what they would have thought, said, or done in different cir-cumstances. Half-a-dozen of them have their own short chapters, including Fortinbras and the Gravedigger.
Bloom calls Horatio “the straightest of straight men” but, aside from Hamlet, the most im-portant character in the play. He is the prism through which the audience sees Hamlet. Their mu-tual affection is stronger than that between any other characters. Bloom observes that Ophelia’ s death enabled her to escape a fate even worse—marriage to Hamlet. He admires Gertrude’s “amiable lustiness,” and notes that her marriage to Claudius (“a wretched shuffler”) was a happy one until Hamlet spoiled it. “Gertrude had much to endure,” says Bloom, “and little to enjoy, in her brilliant son.” Bloom’s personification of Hamlet’s characters reaches its comic acme when he speculates that since Hamlet’s father was the killer of Fortinbras’ father, had they ever met they would have had nothing to say to each other.
Hamlet himself receives the most attention, of course, and it is a mixed bag of opaque observations and gnomic comments. In one place, Bloom calls him a pragmatic nihilist, and in another he is “death’s scholar.” Not only does his “power of mind” exceed ours, he knows it. He is “a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed.” And it is the “negative power” of this conscious-ness that is the “malaise that haunts Elsinore.” Speculating on Hamlet’s probable sexual experi-ences, Bloom quotes Aldous Huxley’s phrase “high birth, low loins.”
In the end, or rather, at the beginning, Bloom answers his own question about where the author stands in relation to his work. Strangely, or perhaps typically, he concludes, contrary to the opinion of most critics, that there is little or nothing of the man Shakespeare in the man Hamlet. This appears to be an inadvertent admission that he can find no correlation between the Stratford businessman and his most deeply-realized character. Instead, Bloom sees the author in the Ghost, and in the Player King, which he claims were “roles he evidently acted.” If he has a better reason for this opinion, he does not reveal it. In fact, he sees the author and Hamlet as “mighty opposites” in “true combat.”
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited tends to confirm that, as one critic wrote, “Bloom is worth read-ing, even when he rambles.” But what a shame that the man who confesses that “Shakespeare is my model and my mortal god” cannot find him in the character in whom most readers see a bril-liant, if distressing, self-portrait.
A book-lined study at New Place
At the other end of the scale, so to speak, are two weighty volumes, each full of facts, footnotes, and photographs. Their glossy pages reflect the measured and conservative approach of another Shakespearean icon — Stanley Wells, a retired professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. In his retirement, Wells has gathered up as many jobs and titles as any man can handle – Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Vice-Chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and General Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series, and of the Oxford Complete Works. He has written or edited a book a year for the last 30 years, nearly all of them about Shakespeare. His latest work, Shakespeare, For All Time, is a conversational narra-tive of the orthodox and familiar story of Shakespeare’s life and writings — more than half the book being devoted to what Wells calls the “afterlife.” No anecdote about Stratford and the Strat-ford man is too poorly documented to be omitted, and Wells adds a few speculations of his own – that Shakespeare kept a commonplace book, wrote with a quill pen, and used only one side of the page. He guesses that at New Place there was “a comfortable book-lined study situated in the quietest part of the house”
Conversely, Wells avoids definitive statements about most of the standard Shakespear-ean riddles. He has no particular candidate for the Dark Lady or “Mr. W. H.” He doesn’t know if the Sonnets are autobiographical, but if he had to guess, he would say that most of them are. On the other hand, there are some things he is sure about, such as the nature of Shakespeare’s Ital-ian connection. “Though Italy is the setting for around half of his plays, nothing in them would have required personal knowledge of the country, and he makes errors – such as Prospero’s de-parture from the ‘gates of Milan’ in a barque (The Tempest 1.2.130-144) – which suggest that geography was not his strong suit.” Professor Wells has perhaps not kept current with the re-search into Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy. All four assertions in his sentence are false.
The book is filled with dozens of the customary photographs and color plates that appear in any decent coffee table biography, but it is Wells’ personal recollections and observations that make this one different, and a little more entertaining. For instance, he mentions a radio broad-cast during which he pointed out to A. L. Rowse, champion of Emilia Lanier as the Dark Lady, that he had misread the word “brave” as “brown” in Simon Forman’s description of her, thus sup-posedly vitiating the only evidence that she was dark.
Wells also candidly discusses his approach to his own edition of the Oxford Complete Works, stating that he “felt strongly that there was no point in a timid conservatism that shied away from the application of hypotheses which, though they might be ultimately unprovable, had the weight of rational thought behind them.” Thus he justified a variety of departures from previ-ous editions, such as substituting the name “Oldcastle” for “Falstaff” (but only in Part 1 of Henry IV), and “Ensign” for “Ancient” as Iago’s title. Other changes that had the “weight of rational thought” behind them were the replacement of several traditional play names (Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, Henry VIII, etc.) by their alleged earlier titles, and the addition of Thomas Middleton as co-author of Timon of Athens and Macbeth.
But even the innovative Wells has nothing but scorn for another proposition that has con-siderable “rational thought” behind it – that Shakespeare of Stratford never wrote anything. In his brief discussion of the authorship question, Wells resorts to the usual ad hominem assault on anti-Stratfordians, using such words as “fanaticism,” “vociferous,” “long-winded,” and “impervious to reason.” “Who knows what motivates the theorists,” he asks. Is it “snobbery”? Is it “the desire for ten minutes of fame”? Or is it “mere eccentricity, bordering even on mental instability”? Who knows, indeed, what motivates such unscholarly derision? In his only attempt to address the evi-dence for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship, Wells declares that Oxford is disqualified because of his death in 1604, and because his claim is based on an impossible “conspiracy theory.” Wells has apparently overlooked the fact that in the murky world of Elizabethan drama, the authors and titles of most of the estimated two thousand different plays are entirely lost. Most of the remaining fraction that were printed appeared without an author’s name. He thinks it “patently ludicrous” that the authorship of forty or so of them was concealed.
Oxford’s son works Texas
In The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, another glossy and outsized volume fit for the coffee table, Stanley Wells is joined by co-editor Michael Dobson, a professor of Renaissance drama at the University of Surrey. Presented in an encyclopedic format, the Companion visits every corner of the Shakespearean universe, past and present. It contains synopses and short discussions of all the Shakespeare plays (though Edward III is not treated as such), with an em-phasis on stage and screen history. There is a paragraph or two on every person with any possi-ble Shakespearean association, from Lucius Seneca and Geoffrey of Monmouth (a probable source, in Latin, for details of English legends) to Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren. Many of the so-called “stage personnel” included are still alive, but all the sixty or so twentieth century schol-ars and critics included are dead, except the octogenarian Norwegian Kristian Smidt.
It is a tribute to the vigor of anti-Stratfordian scholarship that every Shakespearean biog-rapher now finds it necessary to address the authorship question, and Dobson contributes sev-eral entries on the subject, including one on the “Defoe theory,” which he cutely attributes, “ap-propriately,” to George M. Battey. His treatment of the other claimants is a farrago of errors, in-sults, and fantasies. Here is one example that perhaps illustrates Dobson’s own frustration, as well as the carelessness of his editor at the OUP: “Since the 1980s the Oxfordian theory has been enthusiastically propagated by one of de Vere’s descendants, the Earl of Burford (some-times to the embarrassment of his father, the current Earl of Oxford), who has successfully ap-pealed in particular, to the displaced snobbery of wealthy Texans.”
Aside from its errors, omissions, and rigid adherence to Stratfordian dogma, the Compan-ion has sufficient information to be of some use to the casual grazer in the Shakespearean pas-ture. But it is far inferior to O. J. Campbell’s 1000-page The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shake-speare, and even to Charles Boyce’s Shakespeare, A to Z, either of which can be had at half the price.
Although all three books under review purport to embrace the Stratfordian Shakespeare, each in its own way avoids grasping him too firmly. Harold Bloom ignores Stratford and cannot find its famous native in any of his works. For his biography’s cover, Wells shuns the grotesque Droeshout portrait in favor of the questionable, but more presentable, Chandos. For the dust jacket of their Companion, Wells and Dobson eschew the garbled signatures on the Stratford will, and substitute an idealized handwritten name “Shakespeare” by some unknown penman. This reluctance of orthodox scholars to acknowledge the yawning disparity between the world’s fore-most dramatic genius and their village candidate is further evidence of the gulf between the truth and the Stratford fantasy.
(Note: This review is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in the Fall 2003 SOS Newsletter)