Prof. Harold Bloom’s Bardolatry: Shakespeare’s Omnipresence in the Western Canon

1.  Introduction

In an earlier post, I discussed Prof. Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon:  The Books and School of the Ages by comparing his unsympathetic viewpoint towards modern literary theory with the sympathetic viewpoint espoused by Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University who did some of the lectures for the Teaching Company Great Course called Great Authors of the Great Western Literary Tradition.

There were some points of agreement between the two with regards to the study of western literature, namely, that it could be used to understand the culture in which it was written, and they were both dubious about the traditional argument that the study of literature would necessarily help one improve one’s moral or ethical values.   They probably would agree that literature can take you inside a time and place and create an inner world that compels the reader.  In fact, it is that literary power of originality, to create an internal world so compelling that it changes the inner world of the reader, that is the source of where an author’s work stands in the Western Canon.

Where they would most disagree is in the politicization of the study of literature.   Many of the new theories of literature that try to downplay the role of the individual author are making it sound as if the “culture” or society itself produced them.  This view is something he is vehemently against, the idea that Paradise Lost, for example, can be reduced to an interplay of economic forces.  You can illustrate the economic relations of the various classes by analyzing poems by William Blake on the chimney sweep, but the originality and literary genius is took to create those poems are not illuminated at all by a knowledge of those relations.

2. Literary Theories and Integral Theory

To sum up, the reason why Prof. Bloom disagrees with the modern theories of literary interpretation can be shown in this diagram from Integral Theory:

Each quadrant holds a way of viewing the world. The top two quadrants are the viewpoints of an individual, the bottom two quadrants are the viewpoints of a group. The left two quadrants are the subjective viewpoints, and the right two quadrants are the objective viewpoints. So putting it all together:

  • The upper-left quadrant contains the “I” viewpoint and is the domain of aesthetics.
  • The upper-right quadrant contains the objective viewpoint of looking at “it” and is the domain of science.
  • The lower-left quadrant contains the values of the group and is the domain of culture or ethics.
  • The lower-right quadrant contains the structures of a group and is the domain of society or politics.

To sum up Prof. Bloom’s objections to the various modern interpretations of literature, he believes that interpretations should be centered in the realm of the aesthetic, the upper-left quadrant in the diagram above. However, modern literary theory interprets literature through the lens of the culture and the society, almost to the exclusion of the individual aesthetic. And in Integral Theory, assuming that you have “cornered the market” on truth because you insist it be seen from your particular perspective, is a fundamental error.

So in my own mind, whereas I grant that there may be insights derived about the culture and politics of the age in which a piece of literature is written, as Prof. Weinstein posits, I much prefer to center the experience of literature within the realm of the individual writer and reader, as Prof. Bloom does, and state that it this dialectic that is the crucial one in deciding whether a book will enter the Western Canon or not.

Prof. Bloom’s work on the Western Canon in fact rekindled my own love of literature which started back in the 1980s after I had finished my undergraduate degree as an engineer.  His work remains for me a touchstone in deepening my appreciation for literature.  I re-read his book recently on the Western Canon which analyzes the works of 26 writers besides Shakespeare.

3.  Shakespeare:  The Invention of the Human

His work made me want to go back to his work on Shakespeare, called Shakespeare:  The Invention of the Human, to discover what it was about Shakespeare that, to Prof. Harold Bloom, made him the very Center of the Western Canon.

There are several elements that come to mind when one thinks of Shakespeare, his cognitive originality, his ability to represent a wide array of characters, and his mastery of language, but the one element that Prof. Harold Bloom singles out as his singular contribution to Western Literature is his ability to represent internal change within a character by means of having that character speak his thoughts and overhear himself or herself, at which the person reflects and in some cases changes the course of what they were originally planning to do.

The best example I can think of is in Hamlet, where he is trying to ascertain whether his uncle Claudius is actually guilty of killing his father.   The arrival of a troupe of actors provides him with a means of testing this:   he has them stage a play which Hamlet changes to re-enact the circumstances of his father’s murder onstage.   Hamlet plans to watch Claudius’ reactions to the play.

When the murder scene is presented, Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room, which Hamlet sees as proof of his uncle’s guilty conscience.    He is then determined to go kill Claudius as the ghost of his father has commanded him to do. He sees his uncle Claudius who is kneeling in penitent prayer.   Hamlet says that sending his uncle to his death while he is in a state of grace because of his penitent prayer would cause his uncle to be sent to heaven.   This would be tantamount to “hire and salary not revenge” (i.e., a promotion rather than a punishment).   So Hamlet sheaths his dagger and plans to kill Claudius at a later time.

Hamlet, by overhearing him own thoughts and stepping back from them, reacting to what he has heard, and then changing his mind, gives the prototypical example of this ability to portray internal change in a character.

Other playwrights could show the dramatic tension between characters; Shakespeare invented a way to show the dramatic tension within a character.

4.  Shakespeare and Presence

I am reading the first chapter of Prof. Harold Bloom’s book after having listened to the book The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle on a recent cross-country trip.    It’s interesting that the Power of Now basically means the power that people feel when they stop identifying with the stream of thoughts in their head, and pull back into the more elemental sense of presence, the feeling of being here and now that is more fundamental than that stream of thoughts.

When I think of Shakespeare and the universal, cross-cultural acclaim that he has gathered upon himself through the ages, I think it is because people are seeing his characters stepping out of the stream of their own thoughts and overhearing themselves thinking, and thereby representing the power of presence or The Power of Now up there on stage.    Something deep within them connects with that power of presence represented on stage, and I think it is the part of themselves that experiences reality from the same deep ground.

5.  Shakespeare and Omnipresence

And this is probably the reason why he has influenced all of Western literature, because his power of representation has influenced all of subsequent Western literature.   Other writers may show cognitive originality (Emily Dickinson), inventiveness of language (James Joyce), or the ability to create a panoply of memorable but distinct characters (Charles Dickens), but Shakespeare was the one who invented a way to show us on stage how we can all be more human, by overhearing ourselves, stepping out of own stream of thoughts, and occasionally, through that powerful sense of presence, changing the direction of our lives.


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