I read Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited this weekend. I was a little disappointed. The problem with Harold Bloom’s book on Hamlet is that he is simply too enthralled with Hamlet’s character. Indeed, he suggests that worship is the correct response to Shakespeare. He associates Hamlet with David and Christ, and even states that Hamlet does not experience death as but rather apotheosis. Harold Bloom is simply too in awe of Shakespeare or Hamlet; reading it is not so much like reading a scholarly book of criticism. It is more like reading a book about God written by a mystic. Harold Bloom tells the reader, “Hamlet is smarter than you.” I have no doubt that Harold Bloom’s Hamlet is smarter than me, because Harold Bloom is smarter than me. But for Harold Bloom, I feel that Hamlet is more of an avatar, an incarnation of the god Shakespeare. For him, Hamlet is smarter because Hamlet is omniscient. Hamlet should not be studied as a fascinating character. Rather, we should sit at his feet and absorb his wisdom as disciples at the Sermon on the Mount.
Harold Bloom epitomizes the response parodied by one of my instructors on the first day of class, “Come students, let us prostrate ourselves before the idol of Shakespeare.” Another professor, who taught acting Shakespeare, would get frustrated at the way some of the students would approach Shakespeare. I remember one student playing Romeo in the balcony scene. It was torture. For him, he was not so much playing Romeo as he was celebrating a Mass. He had that sense of gravitas for the text. So many students had that sense. My instructor said, many times, “Shakespeare’s dead!” It was like the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams tells his students that they should tear out a section of their textbook. The students hesitate at first, then proceed with a kind of naughty gusto as Robin Williams urges them on. “This isn’t the Bible! You’re not going to go to Hell for this!” I feel that someone needs to tell Harold Bloom that Hamlet is not the Bible, Hamlet the character is not Christ, and Shakespeare is not a god.
There were a few moments in the book that I enjoyed. The first was learning about Orson Wells’ secret Hamlet fantasy. In his fantasy, Hamlet does not return to Denmark from England. Rather, he settles in England and changes his name to Sir John Falstaff. And gets fat.
Even better though, was Harold Bloom’s theory that Shakespeare played the part of the lead player as well as the ghost. I loved the image of Shakespeare giving the monologue about “the rugged Pyrrhus” “the mobled Queen” Hecuba with “tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, a broken voice, and his whole function suiting with forms to his conceit.” But even more, I loved the idea of Shakespeare standing backstage after his part, listening to Hamlet’s “O what a rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy.
That soliloquy is truly thrilling. There is so much action in the scene, and virtually all of it is in prose. Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude speak in verse, but as soon as Hamlet enters, the scene switches to prose. Hamlet never speaks in verse in this scene. Then, he dismisses the players, his friends, and then he is alone. There is silence. Then, Hamlet begins to speak in verse. It is like the silence in a storm, then the low rumble of the train in the distance, signalling a tornado has touched down.
I cannot help but imagine Shakespeare standing backstage at that moment during the silence just before Hamlet begins to speak. What it be like to write that? What would it be like to have written Hamlet? How would it feel to be standing backstage, waiting for Richard Burbage to begin to speak those lines, lines that you wrote? I love to imagine Shakespeare standing backstage with his adrenaline pumping, mouthing the lines along with Richard, and best of all, I love to think of Richard Burbage and Shakespeare meeting after that scene, smiling, and sharing a silent fist bump to celebrate.
Yes, Harold Bloom, my Shakespeare and my Richard Burbage fist bump. Deal with it. 🙂