Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Today I’ll be reviewing a book I read a while back called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. The Invention of the Human is a book of Shakespeare criticism by Harold Bloom, a Yale professor.

The hardcover edition of this book has a beautiful jacket depicting the Delphic Sibyl by Michelangelo Buonarroti that’s found in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican. This book looks great on any bookshelf. You don’t get any better than artwork by Michelangelo.

Harold Bloom is an interesting human himself. They say Professor Bloom reads a book a night and he kind of speed reads through them. When he does, the book is torn up and almost useless to read again. He just devours books, but he seldom forgets a detail about what he read.

You can tell Harold Bloom has spent a lifetime reading and discussing literature with other Ivy League professors and students, because his writing is full of huge, obscure words like “procrustean”. Now you might use those words all the time, but I don’t, so I keep a dictionary next to me when I read Harold Bloom’s literary criticism. That way, I’ll know that Procrustes was a figure from Greek mythology who stretched people or cut off their legs in order to fit an iron bed, so anything procrustean is fitting properties to an arbitrary standard.

Don’t get the idea that Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is just a dry literary review, though. What really comes through in reading Harold Bloom’s criticism is his enthusiasm for the subject. His citations bring out the rich flavor of Shakespeare’s writing that should help anyone having trouble getting through the plays (he writes about all of them).

Every time I think of Coriolanus, I’ll think of Bloom’s citing the Roman general’s mother’s anecdote about the Coriolanus in childhood, where he would play in the fields, collecting a butterfly, delighting in the insect with childlike enthusiasm and wonder, let it go and then catch it again and again, then finally grow bored and tear it apiece with his teeth.

Sure, the genius in characterization is Shakespeare’s and I could get this from reading the play myself, but I guarantee that reading the chapter on Coriolanus gave me enthusiasm for reading the play itself I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Reading Harold Bloom on Shakespeare especially helps with the more obscure plays that you might have trouble getting into or might know less about. That’s where Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human really helped me.

This book of criticism has more to it than that, though. Harold Bloom’s thesis is that William Shakespeare invented the way modern human beings think.

Many professors suggest Shakespeare (like Cervantes) was a bell weather of the times, depicting the changing human attitudes during the Renaissance from the medieval to the modern mode of thinking. Harold Bloom says Shakespeare was no mere historian or journalist, but an inventor and force of influence. People ever since have read Shakespeare and become like characters in Shakespearean tragedies and comedies (depending on the person).

That’s a big claim. I suggest you read Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and come to your own conclusions. I also suggest you go in with an open mind on the subject, so your arguments in support or to the contrary aren’t procrustean.

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