In his recent book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare’s characters provide the full measure of his continuing legacy. Shakespeare, Bloom maintains, created self-conscious characters who breathe life. Shakespeare’s characters are so alive, possess such "interiority," that they catch themselves looking at themselves. This quality is the essence of becoming human—to know we know, to be aware we are aware, to sense our own presence on the stage of life.
Prior to Shakespeare’s ascendancy on the English stage, Bloom argues, there was no concept of the individual self, just types. These types persist in Shakespeare’s plays as residual stock characters displaying humours, like Malvolio (melancholic) and Hotspur (choleric). In Shakespeare these crude concepts of personality give way to major and minor characters who evolve and grow almost within themselves. They possess a special energy that touches all other characters within the play. But it is Bloom’s provocative remark, "Shakespeare invented us," that stretches us beyond our conditioned response to the plays and invites us to define a new relationship with Shakespeare. Bloom argues that Shakespeare so interpenetrates our consciousness and our cultural existence that we do not know the boundary between him and us.
One suspects that we are receptive to Bloom’s idea because of the mysterious ambivalence of Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare’s elusive self, the stuff of Keats’s Negative Capability, may indeed be found in his 100 major characters and hundreds of minor personages dispersed through his histories, comedies, and tragedies. Bloom, however, takes Shakespeare and his characters out of dramatic con...
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...al world of Elizabethan England—essential to an understanding of Shakespeare’s history plays can easily be lost if we regard the characters as existing beyond their origins. We cannot neglect the social, intellectual, and historical context in which the histories derive their meaning. Bloom asserts that the plays’ characters transcend their origins and operate in a universe that is still being created. We can appreciate his thesis as it reverberates through our consciousness. Bloom has successfully helped us secure a new relationship with Shakespeare and his dramatic art. At the same time, we must wonder if we can separate Shakespeare—and his characters—from the plays.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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