Afew dates, a few documents, a scattering of contemporary references-in an age of tell-all biography, Shakespeare seems to offer slim pickings.
Park Honan's method in Shakespeare: A Life is to work from what we know of the bard's society: put the man in his world, construct his inner life by inferring his reactions to known events. The result, if not the definitive Shakespeare, is a possible, even plausible Shakespeare, a creature of his family and his society, whose ordered and traditional world was slowly falling apart, and whose own convictions cracked and divided along with it.
Disease is an important aspect of this context. Shakespeare was born at a time of the plague, which Honan vividly evokes, and around the time of his death, hot weather and fetid streams were breeding a new disease: typhoid. The legend that Shakespeare died after a drinking bout with fellow writers Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton has always seemed too picturesque to be true; Honan's inference that he yielded to typhoid is rather more prosaic, but believable.
More important though was the settled, traditional way of life in Stratford. We might think that a bright, imaginative young man would find the workaday routine of a small town boring (Honan's word for it is "consoling"). Stratford's traditional gild system embodied a sense of community, of mutual responsibility, that Honan contrasts with the aggressive opportunism of London, arguing that country boy Shakespeare would find the latter inimical. He thereby traces the conservative social thinking in Shakespeare's work, not to a government party line Shakespeare felt obliged to follow, but to his memories of the town where he grew up.
But that town was changing. When the Stratford bailiff, Richard Quiney, was killed by a man serving the local magnate, Sir Edward Greville, the image of social breakdown, Honan speculates, must have affected Shakespeare and found its way into Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens. On the subject of community, there were internal divisions in Shakespeare himself. At a time when his fellow townsmen were starving, he hoarded malt and bought himself a large and expensive house. His ability to get into the minds of the anti-social outcasts, Shylock and Malvolio, shows that he could place himself imaginatively against society.
Other biographers have seen the financial setback Shakespeare's father suffered as a key event in the son's life. Honan downplays the importance of John Shakespeare in favour of the playwright's mother, Mary Arden. Named as one of her father's executors when she was in her late teens, she must have been a person of real ability. Honan infers that, having borne young Will in plague-time, she would have been a particularly watchful and attentive mother, a source of stability in his early years, and a model for the resourceful heroines of his plays. Yet here, too, there are self-divisions: Honan notes the misogyny in Shakespeare's later work, concluding that "[h]is troubled attitudes to women are too deep to be of anything but early origin", and that his relations with his mother must have been "tangled and contradictory".
As to the other woman in his life, Anne Hathaway, the shotgun wedding of a teenager with an older woman could suggest a link with Venus and Adonis, where the sweating goddess tries to coerce a reluctant boy into his first sexual experience. But Honan does not go that route. For him, the poem reflects, not sex in the fields near Shottery, but the seamy side of London life, with Venus as "a Shoreditch bordello-madam on the rampage". Honan's Shakespeare was "evidently in love" with Anne, and owed to her an experience of courtship that made his romantic comedies the most confident of his early plays. Anne in her turn was ready for him, made lonely by a family breakup. The fact that they stopped having children early in the marriage Honan attributes, plausibly, not to personal estrangement, but to the likelihood that Anne's reproductive system was damaged by giving birth to twins.
Honan writes guardedly about the couple's relations while Shakespeare was making his career in London, and those relations in turn come out sounding guarded. He is equally cautious about the notorious clause in Shakespeare's will giving Anne the second-best bed. While the effect might have been to deny her any other rights in the estate, this may indicate, not Shakespeare's hostility to her, but his trust in his daughter, Susanna (his main beneficiary), and her husband, John Hall: "He knew the Halls would look after her."
How much of Shakespeare's family life went into his art? Shakespeare left us no Long Day's Journey into Night, and Honan, like the rest of us, can only speculate in what must necessarily be a hit-and-miss fashion-without knowing which are the hits and which the misses.
When Shakespeare left for London, "[h]is departure was likely to be trying for his family, to judge from his mockery of sentimental farewells in The Two Gentlemen of Verona." The Comedy of Errors features a father short of money and in trouble with the law, and a wife complaining of neglect. Are there Stratford memories here? We can give a definite maybe, and that is all Honan asks for. Shakespeare's tragic period follows the death of his only son, and Honan points to the concern for shattered domesticity in Hamlet and Macbeth's obsession with the failure of his line. The concern with fathers and daughters in the late plays, and the touch of incest in Pericles in particular, imply for Honan that Shakespeare's love for Susanna Hall was "complex and intense".
He also suggests links with the larger social world: the street violence of Romeo and Juliet may owe something to the food riots of 1595; the real Forest of Arden was afflicted by enclosures and clear-cutting, which had a devastating effect on the poor, including a high infant mortality rate, while As You Like It shows Arden as it should have been, but with just a hint of what it has become.
Honan takes his view of Shakespeare's conservatism into his literary style, his early fondness for patterned and old-fashioned writing. His Shakespeare is also a practical theatre man, falling back as an actor would on tricks and shifts "to get by", trusting the audience not to notice inconsistencies. What he does not do is simply pour his life into his work; Honan backs away, quite some distance, from an autobiographical reading of the sonnets, and refuses to be drawn into the game of identifying the Young Man and the Dark Lady. It is characteristic of Honan's Shakespeare not to be confessional: he is a man in society, a family man, a working writer, with a surface of courtesy and a detachment that allows him to see different points of view.
Harold Bloom's Shakespeare is a figure beyond history, even beyond mortality. While Honan constructs his Shakespeare by imaginative inference from the evidence, letting the reader follow and judge his train of thought, Bloom works by ex cathedra pronouncements.
The religous analogy is inescapable: "Bardolatry," Bloom declares, "ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is." And the gist of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is that there is no god but Shakespeare, and Harold Bloom is his prophet. The religion has its mysteries: the correct attitude to the playwright is "awe"; the plays "abide beyond the end of the mind's reach". It even has its creation myth: "Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us." Bloom's persistent misuse of the word "apotheosis" (as when he calls Macbeth's dagger soliloquy "an apotheosis of Shakespeare's art") may be not an ordinary error but a Freudian slip.
Bloom's method is not argument but proclamation. He is naggingly repetitive, and once he gets hold of a word he likes ("rancid" is a favourite), he will not let it go. When he declares that his desire in reading King Lear is "to track the tragedy of this most tragic of all tragedies", he seems to be constructing, not an English sentence, but a mantra. Readers who may have different views are not debated with but denounced: of the scene in which Petruchio demands a kiss in the street and Kate, after some hesitation, agrees, he writes, "[o]ne would have to be tone deaf (or ideologically crazed) not to hear in this a subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest." An important part of Bloom's method is to give long, very long quotations without much analysis. All we have to do is read the passage, and we will see it his way.
Describing himself as "the last High Romantic Bardolater" and "Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater, an archaic survival among Shakespearean critics", Bloom admits, in case we hadn't noticed, that this is a very personal book. It is addressed to the general reader, academe having fallen into the hands of feminists, Marxists, and resenters. But while Honan, also addressing the general reader, does us the courtesy of providing footnotes, bibliography, and index, Bloom dispenses with all of that. There are critics he admires, ancient and modern, from Samuel Johnson to A.D. Nuttall, but Bloom quotes them generally by name only, usually not naming the book and never giving a page reference. A reader whose curiosity is captured and who wants to read more is out of luck. Bloom has told us all we need to know.
He has a mixed relation to the theatre. He expresses a general disdain for directors, and was unimpressed by such famous productions as the Brook-Olivier Titus and the Brook Dream; but there are some acting performances he has admired, among them John Gielgud's Leontes, Ian McKellen's Macbeth, and the young Helen Mirren's Cleopatra. His seminal experience, "the starting point for this book", came at the age of sixteen when he saw Ralph Richardson play Falstaff. (My personal response to this personal book is a mixed one; here, my feeling is of pure envy.)
It is characteristic of Bloom to admire single performances, not productions, and to single out one great star performer. In his reading of Shakespeare, character matters above all else. Shakespeare's plays are a series of star turns, and the great characters break free of their contexts: Bloom enjoys imagining Falstaff strolling into the Forest of Arden for a chat with Rosalind, or setting the Vienna of Measure for Measure to rights by mockery. Often the character outshines the play: Launce, the Bastard Faulconbridge, and Imogen are in plays unworthy of them, and only Beatrice (not even Benedick) matters in Much Ado About Nothing.
Bloom's claim that Shakespeare invented the human rests on his claim that his are the first characters who "develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves." This is offered as the central argument of the book; but Bloom's readings of the characters he most admires are too static and generalized to sustain it. His chapter on As You Like It is a love letter to Rosalind couched in the third person, but he is too dazzled by her to get close and tell us what she is like. We are left with a general blur of admiration, as we are in his equally generalized tribute to Iago's villainy.
Bloom's great heroes are Falstaff and Hamlet, who cast their shadows everywhere in the book; but the chapters that concern them directly, though among the longest, are among the thinnest. Falstaff, "the mortal god of my imaginings", teaches us freedom from society, "from censoriousness, from the superego, from guilt." This Falstaff is mostly the Falstaff of Part One; but Shakespeare's Falstaff (or do I mean my Falstaff?) is also a con man who exploits other people, and he is subject to sickness and decay; above all he is a character in a series of actions involving other characters. Not wanting such considerations to touch his Falstaff, Bloom gives us a drifting hot-air balloon, not a nuanced, dynamic character, and the total effect of his chapter is paradoxical: nagged and bullied into enjoying freedom, we get heartily sick of Falstaff, as we never do in the plays.
Hamlet is similarly expanded, or reduced, to a mighty consciousness that transcends his play, keeping company not with Claudius, Gertrude or Ophelia, but with "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr. Pickwick". Transcending our own ability to grasp him, he is "a prophet of a sensibility still out ahead of us, in an era to come." Here Bloom does allow some of the particularity of the character, a mercurial figure touched by death. But by insisting that, within the play, Hamlet's is the only consciousness that matters, Bloom disables his reading both of the play and of the character.
It would be easy to list other readings that seem to me eccentric (Twelfth Night as a zany romp) or dismissive (Isabella as a nut case); but amid all the frustration, disagreement, and disappointment this book provokes, there are signs that Bloom should not be underestimated as a critic. If he is at his worst when dazzled by admiration, he is at his best when troubled.
His chapter on The Merchant of Venice is an acute sounding of the disturbance the play provokes: for all the power of Shylock's mind, he does not see the force of his own best arguments, and remains trapped in the role in which the anti-Semitic storyline cast him. In the context of Bloom's self-description as a Bardolater, his insistence on the play's role in encouraging anti-Semitism carries a charge of pain and honesty. His description of Shylock as an Arthur Miller character trapped in a Cole Porter musical is not just a gag; it captures the split between the play's greatest character and the self-satisfied frivolity of its comedy. Bloom's central insight into King Lear-namely, that it presents love as a disaster-is likewise an honest confrontation with trouble, this time in a far greater work.
Bloom is shrewd on Macbeth-"A great killing machine,... endowed by Shakespeare with something less than ordinary intelligence, but with a power of fantasy so enormous that pragmatically it seems to be Shakespeare's own"-and on Cleopatra-"the world's first celebrity" who unlike her lovers "has and needs no achievements" but "forever is known best for being well known." In both cases he reads the play as well as the character, writing well of the imaginative terror of Macbeth, the comedy, vitality, and underlying weariness of Antony and Cleopatra. Even in the sketchiest of his discussions, there are details that arrest attention: he notices the lack of affect in the reunion of the Antipholus brothers in The Comedy of Errors, in contrast to the touching dialogue between the Dromios; whatever we may think of his view of Kate and Petruchio as a happy marriage in the making, he is surely right to note how far they are at odds with the rest of the world. And he writes suggestively of the dark, difficult language of Shakespeare's contribution to The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Bloom's Bardolatry is not unqualified: he is well this side idolatry in his disdain for The Two Gentlemen of Verona, his dissatisfaction with Richard III, and his outright contempt for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Even The Tempest leaves him a little cold. Artifice and stylization lie outside his sympathies: he insists that Titus Andronicus can only be read as a parody of Marlowe, Cymbeline as Shakespeare's parody of himself, neither of which play he can take seriously. Discussing The Winter's Tale, he writes warmly of Autolycus and Perdita but backs away from the statue scene. These blind spots actually increase the value of the book, turning it from a nagging and empty assertion of Shakespeare's greatness, to the encounter of a particular sensibility with a writer who inspires occasional frustration and bewilderment, not just awe.
Even in the extravagance of the book-its shameless self-consciousness, its wild exaggerations, its insistence on playing the same stylistic tricks over and over-there is a disarming playfulness. Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater is a self-professed comic character as well as a prophet. And if inside every fat man, even Falstaff, there is a thin man struggling to get out, so beneath the overstuffed garments of the prophet we catch, just occasionally, glimpes of an alert and sensitive critic.
Alexander Leggatt is Professor of English at University College, University of Toronto. He is the author of a number of books on Shakespeare and on English drama, most recently English Stage Comedy 1490-1990.