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Harold Bloom

Photo of Harold Bloom

Photo: © Gregory Botts

About the Author

HAROLD BLOOM lived in New Haven and was a Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. Before that, he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. His more than forty books include Possessed by Memory, The Anxiety of Influence, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Western Canon, The American Religion, and The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. He was a MacArthur Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, the Catalonia International Prize, and Mexico’s Alfonso Reyes International Prize. He lived in New Haven until his death on October 14, 2019, at the age of eighty-nine.

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Author Essay




Riverhead: What motivated you to write this book after already writing about HAMLET so thoroughly in SHAKESPEARE: The Invention Of The Human?


Bloom: That book was published five years ago. The chapter on Hamlet became so obsessed with the origins of play Hamlet, especially whether Shakespeare wrote the missing play known as the UR-Hamlet—the first Hamlet—which most scholars wrongly ascribe to Thomas Kyd. I felt on rereading my chapter a number of times that the whole heart of what I had to say about Hamlet wasn’t really there, that I had gone off on an interesting sidetrack, and I had made a number of incidental things about Hamlet very clear, but what was at the center for me—which is the rather complex and rather difficult to get at relationship between Shakespeare himself and Hamlet—was not really handled the way I wanted to see it handled. I wanted another chance. Afterward I remark, “The great enigma when you confront Shakespeare’s play is the question of Shakespeare himself, since we really do not know anything about him that matters.” So I wanted to ask, “Where did he stand implicitly in his own work and in relation to Hamlet in particular?” So as I said, I finally devoted much of the book to what I call “meditative surmises” on Shakespeare’s own involvement, and the difficulties of his final Hamlet.


Riverhead: Are there still people that believe Shakespeare didn’t really write all those plays?


Bloom: There are hordes. It’s one of the things that would drive me crazy if I took it seriously, but it’s hilarious. There are the people, headed by the charming and very wonderful actress Fiona Shaw, who believe Sir Francis Bacon wrote all of Shakespeare. That has been going on for centuries. Then there is a large contingent that thinks Christopher Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare. But the zaniest school is the Oxfordians, who insist that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare—which is sublimely ridiculous. I pointed this out in a symposium in my friend Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s magazine a few years ago where I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece, “A Salvo to Lucy Negro”—Lucy Negro being the name by which the leading East Indian whore in Shakespeare’s London was known. It was surmised by my late old acquaintance Anthony Burgess in his wonderful novel about Shakespeare, “Nothing Like the Son,” that the real identity of the “dark lady” of the sonnets was Lucy Negro—which isn’t likely, but I somehow was happy to absorb the idea.


So as I said, I wrote this highly ironic piece called “A Salvo to Lucy Negro” in which I said you could much more readily argue that Lucy Negro wrote all of Shakespeare because we had certain lyrics which are definitely written by the Earl of Oxford, and they show that he could not write his way out of a paper bag. He’s not a good poet! And the Oxfordians are so crazy that they simply shrug their shoulders when you point out that Oxford was dead before Shakespeare hit the phase of the major tragedies after Hamlet, the final comedies and the last romances. And they say, “Well, he left it all in manuscript and the ‘Man from Stratford'” (as they call Shakespeare) “stole the whole thing.” I end the piece by saying, “Lucy Negro’s claims are much better than those of Oxford because at least she slept with Shakespeare.”


This is all absolutely nonsense. We have all the external evidence we need that the bulk of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, from the poet Ben Johnson—who was Shakespeare’s friend—to the actors like Richard Burbage, to pretty much the educated Londoners of his day, all accept that the actor/manager/playwright William Shakespeare was also the author of all of these works. Another response I always make is I compare the Oxfordians to the Flat Earth Society (whose founder recently died). Also, there is an organization in Great Britain which is devoted to proving that all of the works of Lewis Carroll were written by Queen Victoria.


Riverhead: How old was Shakespeare when he wrote HAMLET?


Bloom: We don’t know what the date of the UR-Hamlet is. Shakespeare dies at 52. When he writes the definitive Hamlet—there’s a version of it in 1600—and then he clearly revised it in 1601. The definite Hamlet of 1601, which is the longest of his plays at 4,000 lines, he’s 37 years old, and had lost both his son and his father. The UR-Hamlet could have been written as early as 1589—which would make it 12 years before—and he would have been a kid just starting out. He was writing plays when he was 24 and 25.


Riverhead: This next question reflects the prejudice of having to read Shakespeare in high school, but to me Hamlet seems like a young man’s play, a rock ‘n’ roll play. It is about youth.


Bloom: It is and it isn’t. You’ll notice that I point out that the Hamlet of the first four acts is a youth. He is a young man, presumably 18 or 19, who has come back from Wittenberg University. But the Gravedigger talking about the death of Yorick in Act 5 makes it very clear that Hamlet has to be at least 30 years old. And yet no more than 7 or 8 weeks have passed between the first four acts and the Fifth Act, or indeed in the total duration of the play. In another sense, Hamlet is ageless anyway.


As I try to indicate in this little book how extraordinary complex the play is, in that it really is different than any play that Shakespeare or anyone else has ever written. It is not a play that holds a mirror up to nature. It holds the mirror up to acting and theatricalism. It is the most extraordinary self-conscious play in those terms, and that’s the real heart of what I have to say. Shakespeare puts a real gap right into the middle of the play, from Act 2, Scene 2 when the players arrive until Act 3, Scene 6 when Claudius runs screaming away from the presentation of the performance of “The Murder of Gonzago.”


No one in the audience could believe that they were watching representation of life. What they are watching is play about playing. And they know it because it is endlessly self-referential in that regard. It destroys theatrical illusions. It fact, it remains—as I remark in the book—the most experimental play ever written that I know of. It hasn’t lost its shock value in that regard.


Riverhead: Do you remember the first HAMLET that you saw?


Bloom: Oh sure. It was a very good one indeed because it was Sir John Gielgud. Ah, it must have been when I was in my early 20s, when the Old Vic came to Broadway, and I went to see Gielgud in the part. I still remember the performance. He gave a beautifully intellectual performance, and of course, it was spoken beautifully as you would expect form Gielgud, but you could not tell how murderous and complex this fellow was. But there are really more Hamlets in the play Hamlet than can be acted.


Riverhead: Are there any dramatic or cinema HAMLETs that deserve mention?


Bloom: I don’t like the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet because I didn’t like his performance, and I didn’t like him running the whole thing off as a 19th century costume drama. I don’t like the Olivier. I don’t like the Mel Gibson. Of those I’ve seen on the stage, I haven’t seen a really satisfying one since Gielgud, and that was—heavens! —fifty years ago.


Riverhead: The interesting thing about Shakespeare is that his words are absolutely satisfying on the page. It’s not like reading a movie script or something.


Bloom: My dear, this is a writer so good that in a sense he does the impossible. There ought to be only a difference in degree between one writer and another, but Shakespeare finally is so much better in degree than any other writer—even Dante. Even Homer. Even Virgil. He’s in Chaucer or Cervantes. That is to say, the best that has ever been. A difference in degree becomes a difference in kind.


Riverhead: I first saw HAMLET when I was 17 in a college production in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the director cut the lines “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” from the play. I was so incensed that those lines were cut that I stormed into the dressing room after the show and complained.


Bloom: Remember in Sir Lawrence Olivier’s much praised but very bad movie version of Hamlet, not only do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never die, they never were in it. He cut them right out of the play.


Riverhead: So how do you feel about cutting the Bard’s lines out of the play? As you say, you never see a complete HAMLET. Is it acceptable to you that lines are cut?


Bloom: Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. It’s four thousand lines. And fifteen hundred of those lines are spoken by Hamlet. It’s the longest part in Shakespeare or as far as I know anybody else. Usually you do not see an uncut Hamlet. I think Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet‘s only virtue was that at least it was absolutely uncut. But I’m not sure I have seen a completely uncut Hamlet on the stage.


Riverhead: Have you ever been asked to help cut lines for a production of the play?


Bloom: No. My only assertion with any performance of Hamlet—and I have never seen this, but I gather there is a tape of it—is that a coupe of years ago when I was touring on behalf of one of my books out in San Francisco area, my friend the Shakespearean director Karin Coonrod was directing a Hamlet. She came around, and recorded my voice as the voice of the Ghost. And then she had some sort of Darth Vader looking character in a big mask acting the part of the Ghost, but speaking with my voice. That is the closest I have come to Hamlet.


Riverhead: Shakespeare himself played the Ghost didn’t he?


Bloom: He played the Ghost and in all probability the First Player (Player King).


Riverhead: I believe in SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN, you wrote that originally the Ghost’s part in HAMLET was much longer.


Bloom: The UR-Hamlet (whoever wrote it) from the little bit of tradition we have about it (remember we have no text), the only thing that we know is that at one point the Ghost bellows out, “Hamlet, revenge! Hamlet, revenge!”


Riverhead: Are there any other lost Shakespeare plays?


Bloom: He wrote a late comedy with John Fletcher (with whom he had written ” Two Noble Kinsmen”) called “Cardenio,” a character out of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” The play definitely existed. It was put on. It is lost. We have no text of it. There is also believed to be a play called, “Love’s Labours Won”—a sort of match to “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” But it has never shown up. There may be other lost plays, we don’t know.


Riverhead: Is Falstaff still the part closest to your heart?


Bloom: Falstaff first, and Hamlet second. There is a lot about Falstaff in this book. The four greatest characters in Shakespeare according to AC Bradley—and I agree with him—are Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra. I played Falstaff at full length a couple years ago at the Repository Theatre up in Cambridge, and did briefer versions at Yale and the New York Shakespearean Society.


Riverhead: Have you ever be asked to direct a version of HAMLET?


Bloom: I’m not a director, I’m a literary critic. And as I discovered, as much as I enjoyed playing Falstaff, I’m not an actor, which is a profession in itself. There is an interesting point that I make late in my book about how I think the director and actor should approach the play. I see a war being fought out between Shakespeare and Hamlet as the play goes into the Fifth Act, in which the director I would urge to take one side and the actor the other.


Riverhead: Is it true that Shakespeare once knew a girl named Kate Hamlet?


Bloom: Hamnet. Kate Hamnet. She drowned. Whether she has any relation to Ophelia is pure speculation. And how well Shakespeare actually knew Kate, we don’t know. There must be in any given year in England, or any other country, a great many young girls who drown whether by accident or design. What is much more interesting is that Shakespeare’s only son was named Hamnet. In those days, they would not have distinguished between that N and the L, which is to say Shakespeare, would have thought of the boy alternately as Hamnet or Hamlet. Which is why James Joyce, in the library scene in Ulysses, speculates that the Hamlet of the play is Hamnet Shakespeare who has some how survived and grown up.


Riverhead: That’s quite intriguing about the spelling. Was the alphabet that random back then?


Bloom: Shakespeare on legal documents spells his name in about eight different ways. Everybody did that back then. And if you ever look at the original text that we have of the First Folio, it takes years to get used to reading it. You can’t teach students with it because they have too much trouble with the language. And the variations of spelling are amazing. There was no fixed way of spelling in the Elizabethan period.


Riverhead: What do you mean by the term “post-Shakespeare”?


Bloom: Everything is “post-Shakespearean” in the sense that all of literature western and eastern since Shakespeare is Shakespearean whether it wants to be or not. He has influenced everybody—not just the playwrights and the poets, but the novelists overwhelmingly.


Riverhead: There’s no way to transcend his influence is there?


Bloom: No. No one has managed to get beyond it.


Riverhead: Is there anything else that you want readers to know about HAMLET: POEM UNLIMITED before they pick it up?


Bloom: I think the book is very clear. That it has nothing polemic in it. I don’t argue with anybody about the interpretation of Shakespeare. It doesn’t presuppose any special knowledge what so ever except some acquaintance with Hamlet as a play. I think it is deliberately written in—what’s the right word for it?-an elegant, very open and accessible, style. In fact in some ways, and I’ve written a hell of a lot of books—this must be the 26 or 27—I realize that I probably like it more than anything else that I’ve written. It is so clear and open and accessible. It’s very much a book for the general reader, for what Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf would have called “the common reader.”

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