Harold Bloom’s new book on King Lear is one in a series he is writing about Shakespeare’s personalities, including Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra. It is a short book of 160 pages, many of them taken up with long quotations from the play usually followed by rather brief comments from the critic. Those who have read Bloom on Shakespeare in previous books—Shakespeare, The Western Canon, The Anatomy of Influence—will find little here that is new except an even greater willingness on Bloom’s part to put himself front and center with utterances such as “It is pitiful that . . .” or “Who would not weep . . .” or “One wishes that . . .” as he takes us through the play. He even has sympathy for the absent Queen Lear: “How horrifying it would have been had she shared Lear’s privations, exposed out on the heath.” From his earlier books, we learn that Lear “ultimately baffles commentary”; that along with Hamlet it is “the height of literary experience”; and that the experience of reading it is (in a loaded word from Freud) “altogether uncanny.”
As in previous books, Bloom the critic operates through paraphrase and strong assertion, even as his posture has become increasingly isolated from other members of his profession. In The Anatomy of Influence, he lists those others in an exuberant way: “The usual rabblement: comma counters, ‘cultural’ materialists, new and newer historicists, gender commissars, and all the other academic impostors, mock journalists, inchoate rhapsodes, and good spellers.” Against them he has constituted himself “a department of one,” his main predecessor being, he admits modestly, Dr. Samuel Johnson. The “others” are referred to collectively as The School of Resentment, the resentment directed at literature itself which is unable to prove an effective vehicle for social change. He calls himself a “Longinian” critic (although not necessarily a bad speller?) who might have identified with the cry of Coriolanus as he banishes himself from Rome, “Alone I did it.”
The first extended passage Bloom deals with in the new book is the angry confrontation between Cordelia and her father at the outset of the play. Bloom quotes twenty-six lines, from “But now our joy,/ Although our last and least . . . ” down to Lear’s offended question—“So young and so untender?”—and Cordelia’s touching response, “So young, my lord, and true.” Bloom says that Lear’s line from that sequence “Nothing will come of nothing” means he will withdraw Cordelia’s dowry: “He cannot know that he has prophesied the final emptiness that will afflict his world.” Bloom then proceeds to quote the next twelve lines of Lear’s violent swearing by “the sacred radiance of the sun,/ The mysteries of Hecate and the night” as he disclaims all paternal care. Bloom’s question to the whole sequence is “How can we account for the uncontrolled wrath of a great king previously known for his loving-kindness?” (But was Lear known for this?) He invokes Freud, Joyce, and Nietzsche and compares Lear with Yahweh, none of whom provide an answer. So the question “How can we account for this uncontrolled wrath?” goes unanswered, as necessarily it must, since the only “answer” lies in the dramatic shock and power of the Lear–Cordelia encounter. We could “account” for it by noting that it was a brilliant invention of Shakespeare’s, an exciting way of getting the play going. But Bloom would not find that an adequate answer to the question.
In his fine essay on Lear in Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode uses the word “cruelty” more than once in describing that play’s moving impulse. The word attaches easily enough to Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall, and probably to Edmund as well, though his cruelty is seasoned with dark humor. Could the word also be applied to Shakespeare’s art in its relentless disposal of his characters? (Dr. Johnson couldn’t bear the death of Cordelia and Lear, and in the seventeenth century the play was rewritten so as to contrive a happy ending.) In The Anatomy of Influence, Bloom announced that in teaching Shakespeare you teach “the range of love, of suffering, of the tragedy of the familial”; in the new book he seems from time to time to be wishing the play had gone other than the way it goes. For example, after Lear’s dismissal of Kent in the first scene (he has already dismissed Cordelia), Bloom confides in us, “One wishes that this were Lear’s nadir.” Much later, in the fourth act, when Albany finally realizes how horrible his wife is, Bloom opines “One could wish that Albany had yielded to his proper instinct and torn Goneril apart, then and there.” Well, maybe “one” could, but Shakespeare didn’t want it that way and there may be no getting around the fact that the play reveals the dramatist at his cruelest, finally dispatching Lear and Cordelia, in all their renewed love, as fully as the evil characters are dispatched.
Put simply, a reader can approach Shakespearean drama in two ways: the first is to treat character (or “personality” as Bloom has it in this book) as arising out of motives that often require some rational justification on the reader’s part. So when Edmund dies at the play’s end, Bloom stays alive, wondering; “I always wonder who he thought he was, as he lay dying. Did he feel vindicated at having stood up for his bastardy?” Or, even more grandly at the book’s very end, “I write the final sentences . . . wondering if all of us, like Lear, should cry that we are come unto this great stage of fools.” (I was reminded of a song from the 1940s, “I wonder, I wonder, can’t help it if I wonder.”) The other approach is by way of Shakespeare rather than one of his characters. In Hamlet if one “wonders” why the prince delays in enacting his revenge, an answer might be that Shakespeare wanted it that way—that it provided a continuing way of keeping the audience listening. Is it demeaning to Shakespeare to imagine him seeing how far he can go in the desolation of loss that fills Lear? Can we think that for a moment he hesitated as to whether the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes were a fit subject for representation on stage? In addressing that scene Bloom declares himself: “I have seen several stage performances of King Lear. The gouging of Gloucester’s eyes is not to be borne. Why did Shakespeare inflict this scene upon us, and indeed, on himself?” Another unanswerable question, though one might note incidentally that Bloom was able to bear it, since he attended several performances of the play.
This is another of the many moments in which Bloom wonders about a character’s or about Shakespeare’s motive. Kermode, mentioned above, finds that:
Much of the effect of King Lear seems to me to arise from its own unsparing cruelty, which can sometimes seem to be an almost sadistic attitude to the spectator, an attitude enhanced by the coolness with which we are manipulated, forced to deal with a pain that does not hinder the poet from playing his terrible games.
Elsewhere Kermode uses the term “authorial savagery” and declares, “There is a cruelty in the writing that echoes the cruelty of the story, a terrible calculatedness that puts one in mind of Cornwall’s and Regan’s. Suffering has to be protracted and intensified, as it were, without end.” This is a fuller and more convincing way of saying what I crudely said above, that Shakespeare wanted it that way, and it seems to me in touch with the “terrible” spirit of the play overall.
Any critic who reads this play and others of Shakespeare’s (Othello, Macbeth) in Kermode’s spirit has plenty left to occupy himself with: in a word, Shakespeare’s poetry. But Bloom has always been in a peculiar relation to the language of poetry in that he seems to pay little attention to it. In reviewing The Western Canon, Denis Donoghue noted saliently that Bloom writes of Shakespeare’s plays “as if they contained nothing but characters [personalities] and of those as if their supreme form of communication was the soliloquy.” Bloom himself, Donoghue continued, “shows no interest in literary form, structure, questions of narrative, style or tone, the fellowship of word and word, syllable and syllable.” An elegant way to put it, but I suspect Bloom would not be impressed by the stricture. His vigorous assertions show him rather to be on a main line with the character’s thoughts and feelings, without the necessity of bothering about the particular form or style or voice in which they are expressed. I’m reminded of a moment in T. S. Eliot’s “The Perfect Critic” (from The Sacred Wood) wherein he quotes some words of Arthur Symons’s comments on Cleopatra: “In her last days Cleopatra touches a certain elevation . . . she would die a thousand times, rather than live to be a mockery and scorn in men’s mouths . . . she is a woman to the last . . . the play ends with a touch of grave pity . . . ” “What, we ask, is this for?” asks Eliot and decides that it was an instance of “Mr. Symons . . . living through the play as one might live it through in the theater; recounting, commenting.” For Eliot, the result was less than satisfactory, and it would be of interest to hear what he might say about Bloom’s way of living through the play. Of course Bloom is on record as calling Eliot “one of the worst critics of the twentieth century.”
Bloom’s most original and radical assertions have to do with his championing of Edgar as eventually the play’s central consciousness: except for Lear, he says, “It is Edgar’s play after all.” Since my own disaffection with Edgar as a heroic figure began when I first read the play as an undergraduate, I was surprised that he should figure so largely in Bloom’s account. In his Shakespeare book, he tells us that Edgar becomes “wise” as the play ends, and if we question “the depth and prolongation of his self-abasement” we are assured that “Edgar would not have been Edgar without it”: “His survival at the play’s end is a fate darker than all the others,” even as he sustains a “savage wound in his psychic horror of female sexuality.” The new book continues the heroicizing of him as “one of Shakespeare’s most powerful and enigmatic inventions.” Bloom feels that Edgar’s character has been interpreted by Shakespeare’s critics “feebly and indeed maliciously” and has been judged to be “unsympathetic and even perverse.” Bloom is accurate here, since beginning at least with A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy critics have been less than overwhelmed by either Edgar’s poetry or his goodness. Bradley noted mildly that of the four good characters in the play—Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, and the Fool—“Edgar excites the least enthusiasm.” In a more aggressive manner, D. J. Enright, in his excellent if forgotten book Shakespeare and the Students, pronounces Edgar to be “a dreary and heartless moralizer, with a pronounced inclination to priggishness.” (Enright even confesses that he is “waiting for someone to come along and wring Edgar’s neck.”) These sentiments are especially provoked by Edgar’s saying to the bastard Edmund—their father, the blinded Gloucester, having expired—“The dark and vicious place where thee he got/ Cost him his eyes.” In support of his own view of Edgar as admirable and heroic, Bloom can only come up with “my late friend William Elton,” whom he mentions three times but who scarcely ranks among premier critics of the play like Bradley, Maynard Mack (King Lear in our Time), Enright, and Kermode.
Bloom has admitted previously that Edgar lacks a sense of humor but that he also may be “Shakespeare’s personal representative in the play.” I don’t see that these two aspects of the character fit together at all. As for a sense of humor, Bloom has conducted a lively interview in which he gives us a run through of the canon of humor in Western literature. But whatever sense of humor he has on his own is absent from the new book, since he must spend so much time solemnly wondering what the characters are wondering about. One of his favorite words is “affect,” and he tells us that Lear is all affect while Edmund is wholly devoid of it. If “affect” may roughly be translated as “feeling” or “emotion,” then Bloom, like Lear, is all affect, a full-time job. When he stops once in awhile to make a humorous remark, a joke, it turns out to be the same one over again. In The Anatomy of Influence he suggested that “It takes a Marlovian overreacher to make a double date with Goneril and Regan.” Since then he has become charmed by the double- date figure, and we now have “A double date with two monsters of the deep”; or “We can be daunted by the prospect of a double date with Goneril and Regan, but we are not Edmund.” This conceit may be Bloom’s primary contribution to the canon of Western humor.
While writing this review, I received in the mail an Infobase pamphlet titled “Bloom’s Literature for Academic Institutions,” featuring “complete, yet curated coverage of the most studied authors and their works,” with “9,000+ exclusive, thought-provoking questions providing research and writing suggestions.” Taking charge of literature teaching in the academy seems wholly appropriate to Bloom, a department of one who, as William Deresiewicz put it in reviewing The Anatomy of Influence, not only “talks only to himself” but also “talks only of himself”: “Harold fills up everything with Harold. He speaks of Shakespeare . . . but it always is of Harold that he speaks.” If the charge by Deresiewicz seems excessive, Bloom is worthy of it. On the basis of this short book about one of Shakespeare’s personalities (Falstaff and Cleopatra may be joining Lear even as I write), the charge doesn’t seem amiss after all.
1Lear: The Great Image of Authority, by Harold Bloom; Scribner, 176 pages, $24.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 4
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