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By Richard Swan

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This paper is a personal response to Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: the invention of the human. I found the book profoundly annoying, partly because it is not what it purports to be, partly because its central thesis is nonsensical, and finally because he fails to offer a coherent interpretation of Hamlet. Given that this play, or rather its title character, is at the heart of Bloom’s thesis, this is disappointing. I make no apology for the personal style of this paper, including some of the more frivolous asides, because it reflects what I wish to say. The underlying argument is, however, completely serious. This paper is divided into an introduction, a critique (of pure reason), and an approach to Hamlet.


Note that Bloom’s central arguments are set out in the opening sections, “To the reader,” pp.xvii-xx, and “Shakespeare’s universalism,” pp.1-17. It might be said that it is unnecessary to read the rest of the book to understand his thesis, or indeed at all. His basic premise |is balderdash, of a sort which is so fundamentally wrong-headed as to be hard to argue.”(1)

My objections to Harold Bloom are threefold: his argument is (a) self-contradictory, (b) muddled, and (c) mystical. This last objection is the most severe. Bloom seeks to perpetrate a massive fraud on his readership. Shakespeare: the invention of the human, looks as if it belongs to the realm of literary criticism, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. It is a personal statement of belief, a kind of spiritual manifesto. That might justify a 5000-word opinion piece, but should hardly have been allowed to extend to 700 pages. Presumably, like J.K. Rowling in the third and subsequent Harry Potter books, Harold Bloom was so eminent that he was beyond the reach or influence of an editor. I will deal with my objections in reverse order, in order to lead logically into my second section.

(c) mysticism. “The more one reads … Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe” (p.xvii). This is a bizarre statement to make at the beginning of a work by a reputed literary critic. The critic’s task is to analyze rationally; awe must be set aside. He continues: “High Romantic Bardolatry … is merely the most normative of the faiths that worship him” (p.3) and “If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare” (p.3). This is alarming, mystical, and fatal to his argument. We cannot analyze Shakespeare if we are merely meant to worship him. It leads Bloom to make nonsensical statements like: “Something in and about Hamlet strikes us as demanding (and providing) evidence from some sphere beyond the scope of our senses” (p.385). The invocation of divine status leads Bloom to claim that Shakespeare’s intellect is greater than that of any other writer, including “the principal philosophers, the religious sages, and the psychologists from Montaigne through Nietzsche to Freud” (p.2). I offer the suggestion that Bloom may be overstating his case here. Worse, in the process of assigning Shakespeare with divinity, Bloom decouples him from his rightful place in the history of literature and art.

(b) muddle. Bloom’s mystical tendencies lead him towards grandiloquent statements to which it is difficult to attach any clear meaning, a cardinal sin for a critic. Examples abound, so I will cite only a couple. On p.xix he says that “the enigma of Hamlet is emblematic of the greater enigma of Shakespeare himself: a vision that is everything and nothing, … an art so infinite that it contains us.” This sounds good, but what can it possibly mean? Whether applied to Shakespeare or Hamlet (the distinction should be absolute, but Bloom conflates the two), can either be said to have a vision that is ‘everything?’ And if it is ‘nothing,’ how should we regard them? And did Shakespeare (or Hamlet?) really possess an art ‘so infinite?’ This is mysticism incarnate. Or take this example: “We are convinced of Hamlet’s superior reality because Shakespeare has made Hamlet free …” (p.7). What can be meant by the ‘reality’ of Hamlet, let alone the ‘superior reality?’ Bloom does not explain. We are expected to accede to the assertion through bardolatry. Bloom ends his introduction with another rhetorical flourish about Shakespeare’s plays which must have appealed to him, but from which it is impossible to derive lucid meaning: “They read us definitively” (p.xx).

(a) self-contradiction. This is the simplest error, but is pernicious because it allows Bloom to embark on a journey the basis for which he has disproved. At its heart is Bloom’s statement on p.xviii: “No world author rivals Shakespeare in the apparent creation of personality, and I employ “apparently” here with some reluctance.” I will ignore the initial claim that Shakespeare has no rivals. In this sentence, Bloom accepts that the creation of literary ‘personality’ is an illusion, an artifice. However, from here on, he ignores his own rider, and assumes that Shakespeare creates true personalities, or rather people. Only in such a way could he write on the next page: “Hamlet, Freud’s mentor” (p.xix), or worse: “we never are quite certain whether Shakespeare or Hamlet composes more of Shakespeare and Hamlet’s play” (p.386). I will deal with the distinction between ‘personality’ and ‘character’ in the next section. Suffice it here to demonstrate the contradictions that arise from Bloom’s imprecise handling of his own terms. In his opening sentence, he has asserted that “literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging” (p.xvii), but on p.xix he compares Hamlet to the ‘literary characters’ of Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, saying that “Hamlet is the only secular rival to his greatest precursors in personality. Like them, he seems not to be just a literary or dramatic character.” Through such confusions and imprecision in the use of the words ‘personality’ and ‘character,’ Bloom enables himself to move to his central, and entirely unproven, thesis, that “Falstaff and Hamlet are the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it” (p.4). Leaving aside the glissando which now permits Bloom to talk about “personalities (in our sense),” when at best he means personalities in his sense only, it is time to unpick the issues about literary character and attempt to create a lucid understanding of issues that Bloom has muddied.

A Critique, of Pure Reason

In order to create some clear water, I will distinguish between the terms ‘personality’ and ‘character,’ because as we have seen Bloom’s failure to do so, leads to confusion.

Personality—”the integrated organization of all the psychological, intellectual, emotional, and physical characteristics, especially as they are presented to other people.” (2)

Character: a figure in literature who is “interpreted by the reader as being endowed with moral, dispositional, and emotional qualities that are expressed in what they say—the dialogue—and what they do—the action.”(3)

In the senses given here, ‘personality’ applies to real people, and ‘character’ to literature. The latter is a representation of the former. Hence the invaluable word ‘mimesis’: ‘imitation or representation in art’ (4). While Bloom theoretically accepts that what Shakespeare creates are ‘characters’ in the definition given here, i.e. imitations or representations, he in fact treats them as if they were true ‘personalities’ in the sense given here. On page 6, he asks: “Why do his personages seem so real to us, and how could he contrive that illusion so persuasively?” in accordance with the proper understanding of mimesis, but after that he simply accepts the illusion and treats Shakespeare’s characters as “men and women” (p.16). This leads him to the absurdity of: “we are not here to make moral judgments concerning Falstaff” (p.15). This seems to be mistaken on two counts. Firstly, there is an underlying implication that Falstaff is ‘real’; secondly, it is precisely the task of the reader (and critic) to make moral judgments about characters in literature.

All art is mimetic. It acts through shaping, through selection, through metaphor and image, in order to represent aspects of the real world that the artist wishes to bring to the audience’s attention. We look to art to explain what it means to be human, and to give us the opportunity to explore the range of human experience vicariously. We do not go to art for a mere copy of the world—in Rosamond Tuve’s wonderful phrase, “one of the damned thing is ample.” The nearest we get is ‘reality TV,’ in which the most noticeable missing ingredient is reality: Big Brother, Escape to the Country, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, and so on. Television is deceptive because they look like real people in there. But they are not. Even the real people are not. Look again at those interminable Facebook posts of drunken partygoers with cameras held at arm’s length. They are selective—they shape reality in order to present a desired image.

The imitation of reality ≠ reality. Reality is unshaped, messy, unlimited. Art is shaped, defined, bounded. From the beginning of history, we have imposed shape on reality—storytelling is a primeval urge, as is the visual representation of the world around us. We make our lives into stories. Hence the obsession with biographies and autobiographies, from saints’ lives to the ghastly ghost-writings of unknown celebrities (sic), all of which are highly selective with ‘the truth.’

Real people are unshaped, messy, unlimited. Literary characters are shaped, defined, bounded. Consider any list of major characters throughout history: Abraham, Achilles, Gawain, Don Quixote, Faust, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Kurtz, Yossarian (or your own selection). They are all representations, aspects of character or ideas that the authors want to focus on. They are not complete personalities, they are not real people. They cannot step outside the pages of their works and maintain an independent existence, they cannot act of their own volition; the idea does not make sense (5). They are ultimately 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional, in the same way that every figure in every painting is 2-dimensional. We may peer at Van Gogh’s self-portrait and feel we understand something about the man, but what we are looking at is a representation through a medium, in this case, oil paint. Every artist ever works in this way—Dido Powell, Mervyn Peake, Picasso, Leonardo, the Master of Rohan, Apelles. The situation is no different if we do go 3-dimensional and look at sculptors—Hepworth, Rodin, Michelangelo, Praxiteles.

This all used to be obvious. In the Middle Ages, the representational nature of art was clear. Significance or ‘meaning’ was conveyed through clearly understood symbolism. Consider the following Romanesque image (6):


This carefully formal composition is unmistakable. The Virgin and Christ are identified by their halos (Christ additionally contains his cross); the mother gestures towards her son, whose hand is raised in blessing. Both figures face the reader; the gold background thrusts the predominantly blue and red central image forward and also emphasizes their royalty. Mary is dressed in blue because that is the color most traditionally associated with her (7). There are suggestions of naturalistic features—the architectural setting, the throne and footstool, the robes—but these are stylized so that they do not detract from the symbolic meaning.

In later Gothic art, greater realism was used, but the significance remained clear (8):


In this image, there is evidently a more realistic approach to the depiction. Mary sits on a chair rather than a throne, Jesus is held more naturalistically balancing on her knee. The figures are posed at an angle, not looking out at the reader, and the folds of the robes are carefully drawn and shaded, with gold paint suggesting the effect of sunlight striking from behind them. At the same time, there is no doubt about the subject. Mary and Jesus, both dressed in blue, retain their halos, and Mary has a crown. Both are in the same shade of blue and even seem to merge into each other, emphasizing their unity. The gold sunlight is strongly suggestive of God standing behind them. The spiritual significance of the scene remains undiminished.

With the ending of the Middle Ages, concern for realistic detail became dominant, and the clarity of meaning was lost (9):

ugly infant

Here the devotion to realistic detail tends to overwhelm the spiritual significance completely. The frankly ugly infant regards the viewer sulkily, the carefully arranged hair and the folds of his chubby legs meticulously depicted. The artist has obviously taken considerable pleasure in his rendition of the Madonna’s hands, and in the detail of her costume. Behind them, fruit and landscape are presented with great attention to naturalistic qualities. Most tellingly of all, the halos of the Mother and Child are rendered almost as if they were headdresses rather than sacred symbols. It is easy to lose sight of the significance of the image; a tipping point has been reached where realism obscures symbolism. In terms of metaphor, the ‘vehicle’ or container for the meaning has assumed greater importance than the ‘tenor’ or meaning that is being conveyed (10).

After the Middle Ages, art went through a bit of a lean period for the next few hundred years (11), but by the end of the nineteenth century, the representational nature of art had become manifestly clear again (12):

screamThis is almost Romanesque in style, and there is no danger of mistaking the medium for the message. We are encouraged to understand an aspect of humanity, to not believe that we are looking at a real human being. Yes, we are invited to consider the interior, psychological state of the figure, but every aspect of the image serves to externalize the interior state, comparable to the psychomachia mentioned below: the flaming sky, the heaving water, the indifferent figures diminished from the protagonist by the strong perspective of the bridge. The protagonist’s own condition is depicted through stylization of the open mouth and the placing of the hands.

The same can be perceived in literature. Freud did not invent psychology, and nor (despite Bloom’s phrase) did Hamlet or Shakespeare. For a thousand years, before Shakespeare, western literature had developed an allegorical mode for the representation of reality which allowed spiritual meanings to be clearly conveyed and understood, whether in interpretation of the Bible (13) or in the creation of original works. Most relevant to us is the tradition of the psychomachia (‘mind war’), deriving principally from the eponymous work by Prudentius (c.400AD), where elements of the internal struggle of the mind were externalized as warring characters. In the Middle Ages, this was developed in dramas like The Castle of Perseverance, whose central character is Humanus Genus, and most famously in Everyman.

I will later be suggesting that Hamlet can be seen as an everyman figure in this tradition. There is no doubt that what is being represented is the internal or psychological struggle that takes place within each of us, but also complete clarity because the characters of the drama are correlated plainly to single aspects of experience. In a poem like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century), the procedure is more complex. Sir Gawain is simultaneously a fallible human being, and the idealization of a Christian knight. It is the tension between the two that gives the poem both its dramatic power and its moral significance. Sir Gawain represents a number of human qualities, including courage, faith and duty, but his experiences are mediated through an often wonderfully realistic depiction of the world in which he moves. For anyone wanting ‘true’ internalization of ‘personality,’ I recommend Jonah in the Gawain-poet’s marvelous poem Patience, which manages to combine a faithful rendition of the events of the Book of Jonah from the Old Testament with an uproarious portrayal of a whining and complaining man who continually seeks to evade his responsibilities.

Again, the twentieth century has rediscovered the advantages of clear separation of vehicle and tenor. This is particularly noticeable in the theatrical technique of alienation, in Brecht, and most strikingly in Pirandello. The latter’s Enrico Quarto is his masterpiece, but for our purposes the seminal work is Sei Personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six characters in search of an author), where the interrelationship of author and created characters is specifically examined.

Equally, a novel like Catch-22 for example, abounds with symbolic figures. Among them we might single out Colonel Cathcart, whose interior state is instantly recognizable to any of us: “He believed all the news he heard and had faith in none. He was on the alert constantly for every signal, shrewdly sensitive to relationships and situations that did not exist. He was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on” (p.241). In fact, even the apparent psychological realism of 19th century novels can be demonstrated to be purely representational; Raskolnoikov’s responses to his situation, for example, vary widely depending on the author’s intentions at any given moment. By contrast, Bloom falls into the trap of assuming that characters have lives outside the works in which they appear. Assertions like: “Clearly Falstaff had once looked truly into the essence of things, long before we ever meet him” (p.394) put him dangerously in the camp of writers like Mary Cowden Clarke and her notorious work, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines.

The purpose of this section has been two-fold. Firstly, it is to assert that all art is representational, and that to talk of Hamlet and Falstaff as if they were real is nonsense; secondly, it is to suggest that Harold Bloom tends to approach his subject with a distorted perspective, looking only backwards from a modern sensibility and our ‘cult of personality.’ His references are to Freud, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Dickens; tellingly, the only medieval authors he mentions at all are Dante and Chaucer. He ignores the two thousand-year traditions to which Shakespeare was heir and within which he operated. Because he seeks to elevate Shakespeare above all other literary artists (14), indeed all other men, he deprives him of any context. It is only in this way that he can derive his absurd proposition that “all of us were, to a shocking degree, pragmatically reinvented by Shakespeare” (p.17).

Before finishing this section, I want to mention some books that help to place Bloom’s own work in perspective. A text of which he would doubtless have approved is EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, best known for his description (in Chapter 3) of what he called ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters in literature. Against this should be placed Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (as formidably hard to read as Forster is easy), which argues the case that all literary characters are ultimately types. Most of all, however, I would cite Erich Auerbach’s seminal work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a masterpiece that surveys the sweep of western literature from Homer to Proust. Tellingly, he emphasizes the psychological aspects and complex personalities in the Old Testament: “the Jewish writers are able to express the simultaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them” (p.13). These are features that Bloom would have us believe are the invention of Shakespeare.

Although there is much in Auerbach’s analysis of Shakespeare and Hamlet (Chapter 13) of which Bloom would approve, the difference is that Auerbach’s discussion is conducted in the context of Shakespeare’s place in the historical development of literature, and makes no egregious claims.

An Approach to Hamlet

Harold Bloom, in his section on Hamlet (pp. 383-431) commits two grave errors for a literary critic. The first, already noted, is his mysticism. The second is his reliance on speculation, that Shakespeare was the author of an earlier version of Hamlet. The text of that play is not extant, but Bloom believes he knows what it must have looked like, so he then builds an argument based on complete surmise. The combination of the two errors results in inexcusable flights of fancy such as: “Self-revision is Hamlet’s mode; was it imposed on him by Shakespeare’s highly self-conscious confrontation with his own botched beginning as a tragic dramatist?” (p.408). I will not deconstruct the whole business here, but suffice it to say that anyone who can soberly write the following is not the most measured and reliable guide to Shakespeare: “Hamlet is also Shakespeare’s death, his dead son and his dead father” (p.406).

It is a relief to turn from such fanciful pronouncements to examine the text itself. There are three main issues with the character Hamlet: why is there so much dispute about him, was he mad, and most famously, why does he delay?

It is interesting that Bloom does not even discuss the issue of Hamlet’s possible madness, except in one aside where he refers to his “insane moments” (p.420). Presumably this is because a mad Hamlet could not possibly fulfill the role Bloom requires of him. It is quite clear that Hamlet’s behavior borders on the deranged at moments, and he is under almost intolerable stress throughout the play. I would argue strongly, however, that he is never mad. The justification for this view is that the play contains a clear depiction of real madness in the character of Ophelia. Her speech is defined by the fact that although what she says is often pertinent and poignant, she herself has no grasp of what she is saying: “There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.” (IV/v/181-3) (15). She is not in active command of her language. Hamlet, by contrast, is always in control of his language, even when he is emotionally disturbed:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! (III/iv/91-4)

Even here where he is hardly in control of himself, his language is graphic and precise, drawing on the imagery of corruption that he has used throughout the play. Similarly, when he is almost ‘beside himself’ with rage against Claudius, his choice of adjectives is deliberate and exact:

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! (II/ii/577)

At this extremity, his language still echoes the pun contained in his first ever speech:

A little more than kin, and less than kind. (I/ii/65)

Having disposed of the issue of Hamlet’s possible insanity, let us turn to the problem of his delay. It is feasible to construct a legitimate argument that he does not in fact delay, that he acts only as he is able to do at any given moment and that he could not have killed Claudius any earlier (except in the prayer scene). However, Hamlet accuses himself of delay, so I will work with the assumption that he does.

The answer, I think, lies in his situation, which needs to be clearly understood. At the start of the play, Hamlet is melancholic and in deep mourning, and there are good reasons for this. His beloved father has died, his loathed uncle has assumed the throne, and worst of all his mother has betrayed him and sided with his uncle. Claudius’ coronation means that the court is also arrayed against him, especially in the person of Polonius, the key adviser. What happens in the play is that every single character turns against him, until he is utterly isolated. The worst betrayal of course is that of Ophelia; like his mother, the woman he loves sides with his opponents.

How deeply he feels these personal betrayals is clearly instanced by the passage when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Elsinore (II/ii). For thirty seconds, he is overjoyed—here are two friends, outsiders like Horatio, people whom he can think are unaffected by the corruption of the Danish court. He engages in bawdy banter with them like any student, but his mind is already working. He realizes that their arrival is not an accident, and within fifty lines he is already asking them directly: “Were you not sent for?” (II/ii/274). His joy turns to bitter contempt as they confirm his belief that the whole world has been corrupted. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says Marcellus (I/iv/90), but he understates the case. Everything is rotten in the state of Denmark; Claudius’ poison has infected everything and everybody within its walls. The betrayals of Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, Laertes, and Osric all simply confirm what Hamlet stated right back at the start:

‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (where ‘merely’ = ‘completely’) (I/ii/135-7)

It is Hamlet contra mundum (16) and no surprise that he cannot act. Every single person is against him. The only exception is Horatio, who is nobody. He is an outsider; he has no position, influence, or even existence in the Danish set-up. He exists only as Hamlet’s confidant (as in Racine). Hamlet can be honest with him because he is the only uncorrupted figure in the world, and he is uncorrupted only because he is not in the world. So Hamlet is like the rest of us, having to create his own destiny single-handed. He has no support, no back-up.

Added to this is the problem that Hamlet is by nature melancholic. This is a traditional literary type, leading us from the specific ‘humor’ of the Middle Ages, through Hamlet himself to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and on and on until he emerges in the late twentieth century in the Moody Blues’ ‘Melancholy Man’ (17), and most strikingly in Marvin, the paranoid android in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (18). This melancholia manifests itself in his world-weariness, questioning the value not only of action but even of existence:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of the world! (I/ii/133-4)

The combination of this attitude, the evidence of total corruption in the world around him, and betrayal by everyone he trusts, is lethal. Many people would sink under the weight of any one of these, and it would not be surprising to see Hamlet reduced to immobility. It is a miracle he ever acts at all. Yet he does. He never loses sight of his need to revenge himself against Claudius, and his requirement that the revenge should be of an appropriate kind. He is able to resist killing Claudius in the prayer scene (III/iii) because, as he says:

… am I then revenged
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for the passage?(19) (III/iii/84-6)

He is aided by the salutary distancing that takes place when he is shipped to England, which fortuitously frees him from the snares of the court (apart from the trivial threat of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which he disposes of off-handedly). He returns in Act V with clear sight and clear attitudes, ready to accept his future:

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. (V/ii/216-8)

Although there are trials still ahead of him and he has to deal with Laertes, his last betrayer, there is no doubt about the final outcome. Hamlet’s death is the necessary price for the cleansing of Denmark, but he leaves the world a cleaner place for those who follow him.

So why is the character of Hamlet such a problem, and why does he provoke such diverse interpretations? Because he is like the rest of us. He is, as has often been pointed out, the rest of us. He is Everyman, he is humanus genus, he is our representative in an appalling predicament. He is a prince rather than a hay-trusser because of the conventions of Elizabethan theater, but that is about it. The reason there are so many Hamlets is because we each view Hamlet in the way that fits our needs. Far from being an individual ‘personality’ in his own right, he is a protean literary character who speaks for all of us, because he addresses the central concerns of all our lives in language that we cannot hope to emulate.

Above all, he confronts the central human problem of mortality. The classic visual image of Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull, a very medieval memento mori, is entirely appropriate. We are all going to die, and we all have to come to terms with the fact. Hamlet assists us because his language gives us words that we can use, whether we view humankind as “noble in reason, … infinite in faculties” (II/ii/ 304) or as a “quintessence of dust” (II/ii/308). Both are true; through Hamlet, Shakespeare allows us to map out our own understanding of humanity. Hamlet’s death is a tragedy, but it is also an inevitability.


It is a pity Harold Bloom allowed himself to be carried away by his own mystic yearnings and a thesis that does not stand up to the weight he asks it to bear. It distorts his (and our) understanding, and means that he fails to offer a cogent reading of Hamlet. This is doubly a pity, because when he does engage in literary criticism he has much of value to say, for example about Antony and Cleopatra where he has some illuminating comments.

References and Further Reading

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach
A magisterial, measured, and balanced survey of western literature from Homer and the Old Testament onward. Always illuminating, because for each writer there is close analysis of a passage from their work. Chapter 1 (Homer and the Old Testament) and Chapter 13 (Shakespeare) are particularly relevant.

The Elizabethan World Picture, by E.M.W. Tillyard.
Essential reading to understand the worldview that Shakespeare possessed and which was almost entirely a medieval and biblical creation; vital for appreciating many of the commonplace beliefs that underlie the plays, and a useful corrective to the idea that the Shakespearean period was radically new.

Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem? by C. S. Lewis
Lewis is always lucid and cogent.

The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive, by Ernest Jones
A fascinating approach to Hamlet, originally published in 1910. Often derided, but the central section is worth a look.

The Living World of Shakespeare: A Playgoer’s Guide, by John Wain
A useful counterbalance to Bloom, because it approaches Shakespeare entirely from the perspective of the theatregoer, rather than as a literary text to be read.

Some Shakespearean Themes and an Approach to ‘Hamlet’, by LC Knights
Knights references both Greek tragedy and Boethius in his thoughtful approach. Knights is also the critic who mischievously put the question “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” to a conference in 1932.

Aspects of the Novel, by EM Forster
Famous for its distinction between ‘flat’ and round’ characters.

Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye
Formidably difficult, but formidable.

Recommended listening

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The original radio series is the best. I am not sure what Harold Bloom would make of the fact that Marvin has been endowed by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation with one of its GPPs—‘Genuine People Personalities.’

A Question of Balance, by The Moody Blues
This album, which features “Melancholy Man,” is arguably one of their best.


  1. The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway, p.63.
  2. The Chambers Dictionary, 2003.
  3. A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H.Abrams.
  4. The Chambers Dictionary, 2003.
  5. Yet this is precisely what Bloom asserts with Hamlet.
  6. MS Royal 2 A XXII c.1200.
  7. This tradition may partly be because Mary was known as the Queen of Heaven, for whom blue would have been appropriate. Also, the blue pigment used in manuscripts was made from lapis lazuli, and was more expensive than the gold leaf in the background; hence a suitable royal color.
  8. Jean Fouquet c.1420.
  9. Carlo Crivelli 1480.
  10. cf I.A.Richards, The Principles of Literary Criticism.
  11. I realize that this opinion runs counter to prevailing orthodoxy, but it is not original. It echoes a distinction made by Ruskin between medieval and ‘modern’ art in Modern Painters (1904); he identifies the same loss of symbolic clarity in art after 1400.
  12. Skrik, Edvard Munch, 1893 version.
  13. The four-fold allegorical interpretation of the Bible is too large a topic to discuss here, but highly instructive.
  14. The traditional European trinity is Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe (or in Joyce’s charming version, Daunty, Gouty, Shopkeeper).
  15. Line references are to the Arden edition.
  16. The comparison is to Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, whose Horatio is Charles Ryder.
  17. “I’m a very lonely man, doing what I can.” Hamlet redux.
  18. Marvin is Hamlet’s literary descendant, just as witty but more terse. He might have made Hamlet’s speeches more pithily—for example, Hamlet to his mother (I/ii): “I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” and the “To be or not to be” soliloquy: “Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”
  19. I can see no reason to doubt Hamlet’s sincerity here. The play takes place, whatever Bloom may say, within a Christian context, and the audience would have understood the difference between dying sinfully, which is what Hamlet intends for Claudius, and dying in a state of grace. This adds, of course, to the audience’s appreciation of the irony that Claudius is in fact unable to pray, and Hamlet could have killed him at this moment and been successfully revenged.


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