Cover image for Hamlet : poem unlimited
Hamlet : poem unlimited
Bloom, Harold.
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Publication Information:
New York : Riverhead Books, 2003.
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154 pages ; 20 cm
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PR2807 .B617 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PR2807 .B617 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In his New York Times bestseller Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom showed us how Shakespeare shaped human consciousness and addressed the question of authorship in Hamlet. In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, our most celebrated critic turns his attention to a reading of the play itself and to Shakespeare's most enigmatic and memorable character. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited is Bloom's attempt to uncover the mystery of both Prince Hamlet and the play itself, how both prince and drama are able to break through the conventions of theatrical mimesis and the representation of character, making us question the very nature of theatrical illusion. In twenty-five brief chapters, Bloom takes us through the major soliloquies, scenes, characters, and action of the play, to explore the enigma at the heart of the drama, that is central to its universal appeal. Every reader of Shakespeare will delight in this step-by-step analysis by our most beloved critic.

Author Notes

Harold Bloom was born on July 11, 1930 in New York City. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Cornell in 1951 and his Doctorate from Yale in 1955.

After graduating from Yale, Bloom remained there as a teacher, and was made Sterling Professor of Humanities in 1983. Bloom's theories have changed the way that critics think of literary tradition and has also focused his attentions on history and the Bible. He has written over twenty books and edited countless others. He is one of the most famous critics in the world and considered an expert in many fields. In 2010 he became a founding patron of Ralston College, a new institution in Savannah, Georgia, that focuses on primary texts.

His works include Fallen Angels, Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life and The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hard on the heels of his grand artistic survey, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds [BKL S 1 02], Bloom returns to what he does best, the art of close reading, and offers a heartfelt and expert interpretation of Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest and most enigmatic play. Bloom, who unabashedly describes Shakespeare as his "mortal god," became dissatisfied with his treatment of Hamlet in his best-selling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), hence this follow-up treatise devoted entirely to a work Bloom describes thusly: "Of all poems it is the most unlimited. As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures." A provocative and extravagant claim to be sure, one Bloom energetically and entertainingly substantiates in his lucid explication of the curious structure of this "overtly audience-aware" work and in his analysis of Hamlet himself, his oceanic consciousness, profound ambivalence, keen irony, and terrible psychic isolation. As Bloom parses this indelible creation, icon and "disturbance," he shares his exaltation, once again, over Shakespeare's genius and timeless vision. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Prince of Denmark, argues the eminent Bloom, was not much loved by his father the warrior king or by his mother, Queen Gertrude. Developing themes from his Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, Bloom adds that Hamlet was instead rather detached, moving through life rather like the lead in his own personal drama, giving a theatrical flair to moments such as the death of Polonius and aptly choosing a play to "catch the conscience of the king." The closest thing he ever had to a parent was Yorick the Jester, and his confrontation with Yorick's skull followed shortly by his attending Ophelia's funeral dealt a serious double blow to his indifference. It was then that he moves grimly toward the climax and his own death. Bloom generates any number of provocative themes, such as Hamlet's notions about plays and acting as reflecting Shakespeare's own rivalries with Ben Jonson, and that the prince never loved Ophelia. Some of the chapters are really too short to do justice to their topics, raising more questions than answers. Nor is the last third of the book, on the play's place in our cultural heritage, up to the parts that focus on its contents, though it features fewer off-putting attacks on political correctness than Bloom's more polemical works. Still, this is not a tyro's book; Bloom makes no concessions to readers who lack a deep familiarity with the play. Nor is it for any reader with a thin skin about Bloom's assumptions about the Anglo-European literary legacy. Short, sophisticated and opinionated, this is a thorny goodie for Bardolators and Bloomians. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

One of our great Shakespeare scholars investigates one the Bard's greatest characters. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



INFERRING HAMLET Hamlet is part of Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy, and is of no genre. Of all poems, it is the most unlimited. As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures. Contrary, doubtless, to Shakespeare's intention, Hamlet has become the center of a secular scripture. It is scarcely conceivable that Shakespeare could have anticipated how universal the play has proved to be. Ringed round it are summits of Western literature: the Iliad , the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Macbeth, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time , among others. Except for Shakespeare's, no dramas are included. Aeschylus and Sophocles, Calderón and Racine are not secular, while I suggest the paradox that Dante, Milton, and Dostoevsky are secular, despite their professions of piety. Hamlet's obsessions are not necessarily Shakespeare's, though playwright and prince share an intense theatricality and a distrust of motives. Shakespeare is in the play not as Hamlet, but as the Ghost and as the First Player (Player King), roles he evidently acted. Of the Ghost, we are certain from the start that he indeed is King Hamlet's spirit, escaped from the afterlife to enlist his son to revenge: If thou didst ever thy dear father love- [I.v.23] The spirit does not speak of any love for his son, who would appear to have been rather a neglected child. When not bashing enemies, the late warrior-king kept his hands upon Queen Gertrude, a sexual magnet. The graveyard scene (V.i) allows us to infer that the prince found father and mother in Yorick, the royal jester: He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now-how abhorred in my imagination it is-my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. [V.i.185-89] Hamlet is his own Falstaff (as Harold Goddard remarked) because Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," raised him until the prince was seven. The Grave-digger, the only personage in the play witty enough to hold his own with Hamlet, tells us that Yorick's skull has been in the earth twenty-three years, and that it is thirty years since Hamlet's birth. Yet who would take the prince of the first four acts, a student at the University of Wittenberg (a German Protestant institution, famous for Martin Luther), as having reached thirty? Like his college chums, the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet can be no older than about twenty at the start, and the lapsed time represented in the tragedy cannot be more than eight weeks, at the most. Shakespeare, wonderfully careless on matters of time and space, wanted a preternaturally matured Hamlet for Act V. Though we speak of act and scene divisions, and later in this little book I will center upon the final act, these are not Shakespeare's divisions, since all his plays were performed straight through, without intermissions, at the Globe Theatre. The uncut Hamlet , in our modern editions, which brings together all verified texts, runs to nearly four thousand lines, twice the length of Macbeth. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, and the prince's role (at about fifteen hundred lines) is similarly unique. Only if you run the two parts of Henry IV together (as we should) can you find a Shakespearean equivalent, with Falstaff's role as massive, though unlike Hamlet my sublime prototype speaks prose only-the best prose in the language, except perhaps for Hamlet's. The Tragical Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke stands apart among Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, quite aside from its universal fame. Its length and variety are matched by its experimentalism. After four centuries, Hamlet remains our world's most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet , which establishes the limits of theatricality, just as Hamlet himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed. I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do. I have been willing to call such a stance Bardolatry, which seems to me only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare. How should we begin reading Hamlet , or how attend it in performance, in the unlikely event of finding the play responsibly directed? I suggest that we try to infer just how the young man attired in black became so formidably unique an individual. Claudius addresses the prince as "my son," meaning he has adopted his nephew as royal heir, but also gallingly reminding Hamlet that he is a stepson by marriage. The first line spoken by Hamlet is, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," while the next concludes punningly, "I am too much in the sun." Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually may be Claudius's son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude? His notorious hesitations at hacking down Claudius stem partly from the sheer magnitude of his consciousness, but they may also indicate a realistic doubt as to his paternity. We are left alone with Hamlet for the first of his seven soliloquies. Its opening lines carry us a long way into the labyrinths of his spirit: O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew ... [I.ii.129-30] The First Folio gives us "solid flesh," while the Second Quarto reads "sallied flesh." While "sallied" could mean "assailed," it is probably a variant for "sullied." Hamlet's recoil from sullied flesh justifies D. H. Lawrence's dark observation that "a sense of corruption in the flesh makes Hamlet frenzied, for he will never admit that it is his own flesh." Lawrence's aversion remains very striking: "A creeping, unclean thing he seems.... His nasty poking and sniffling at his mother, his traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable." Though Lawrence's perspective is disputable, we need not contest it, because Lawrence himself did: "For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go ... and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence." We can sympathize with Lawrence's ambivalence: that "a creeping, unclean thing" should also be "as sincere as the Holy Spirit" is the essence of Hamlet's view of humankind, and of himself in particular. The central question then becomes: How did Hamlet develop into so extraordinarily ambivalent a consciousness? I think we may discount any notion that the double shock of his father's sudden death and his mother's remarriage has brought about a radical change in him. Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother, and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling, nurtured by Yorick, yet fathered by himself, an actor-playwright from the start, though it would not be helpful to identify him with his author. Shakespeare distances Hamlet from himself, partly by appearing on stage at his side , as paternal ghost and as Player King, but primarily by endowing the prince with an authorial consciousness of his own, as well as with an actor's proclivities. Hamlet, his own Falstaff, is also his own Shakescene, endlessly interested in theater. Indeed, his first speech that goes beyond a single line is also his first meditation upon acting: These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show ... [I.ii.83-85] In some sense, Hamlet's instructions to the actors go on throughout the play, which is probably the best of all textbooks on the purposes of playing. Hamlet is neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but an enthusiastic and remarkably informed amateur of the theater. He certainly seems to have spent more time playing truant at the Globe in London than studying at Wittenberg. The Ghost exits, murmuring, "Remember me," and we hear Hamlet reminding the Globe audience that he is one of them: Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe. [I.v.95-97] Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack My Heart with Words , for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something . For Hamlet, the play's the thing, and not just to mousetrap Claudius. At the very close, Hamlet fears a wounded name. I suggest that his anxiety pertains not to being a belated avenger, but to his obsessions as a dramatist. Chapter Two HORATIO With Horatio and Marcellus as his initial audience, Hamlet starts playing the antic, and will not cease until he abandons the graveyard scene, to act instead the apotheosis of his dying. Marcellus fades quickly away, but Horatio abides to tell Hamlet's story. William Hazlitt, a great critic, observed, "It is we who are Hamlet," but actually we are Horatio, Hamlet's perpetual audience, which is why Horatio is in the play. Though without visible means of support, and without either status or function at the Court of Elsinore, Horatio is omnipresent. Horatio is a fellow student of Hamlet's at Wittenberg, and his age is even more ambiguous than Hamlet's, since he tells Marcellus in the play's first scene that he saw King Hamlet battle against both Norway and Poland, at the time of what turns out to have been Prince Hamlet's birth. If Horatio is still at Wittenberg at forty-seven or so (at the least), he disturbs our credulity, but Shakespeare doesn't care, and would have been amused at our arithmetic. Hamlet, who shows little enough evidence of affection for either Ophelia or Gertrude, manifests astonishing esteem for the startled Horatio: Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, And could of men distinguish her election, Sh'ath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing, A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee. [III.ii.64-74] Only the audience, in suffering all, suffers nothing at a tragedy, and Horatio suffers so much when Hamlet is dying that he shocks us by attempting suicide. Hamlet's tribute is enigmatic, since the play permits Horatio only to be Hamlet's adoring straight man, and we simply are shown nothing of Horatio's supposed freedom from the slavery of passion. All that we know of Horatio is that Claudius does not even try to suborn him, which renders him unique at Elsinore. What matters is that Horatio loves Hamlet, and desires no existence apart from the prince. Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they plainly are mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of. And yet there is no one else in all Shakespeare who resembles Horatio, whose gracious receptivity lingers on in our memories of the drama. Though many fight against idolatry of Hamlet, Shakespeare makes it difficult for us not to identify with Horatio, who is idolatrous. Horatio is Shakespeare's instrument for suborning the audience even as Claudius manipulates Elsinore: without Horatio, we are too distanced from the bewildering Hamlet for Shakespeare to work his guile upon us. Critics keep coming forward to protest that actually Hamlet is cold, brutal, a hero-villain at best. But such critics work against their own grain and ours, because they work against Shakespeare's subtle art. Horatio precisely is not Antony's freedman, Eros, who kills himself to "escape the sorrow / Of Antony's death." Eros is no more than a grace-note in Antony and Cleopatra ; Horatio pragmatically is the most important figure in the tragedy except for Hamlet himself. Through Horatio we the audience contaminate the play. That contamination is unique in Shakespeare, and is one of the elements that render Hamlet a class of one among Shakespeare's high tragedies. No other drama ever is so overtly audience-aware, or makes us so complicit in its procedures. In a curious sense, Shakespeare writes with Horatio and ourselves, rather as Iago composed with Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio, or Edmund with Edgar and Gloucester. Hamlet seems to write himself, and the other characters as well, except for Horatio. Lest this seem my own madness, consider Horatio's one mild protest against Hamlet's imaginative extravagances in the graveyard: Hamlet To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole? Horatio 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so. [V.i.202-206] "Curiously" means something like "oddly," over-ingenious and on the wrong scale. Undeterred, Hamlet rushes on to clinch his point: No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? [V.i.206-212] Highest and lowest are one in the Hamlet-world. But they aren't for us, and our representative in that world is Horatio. Where theatricalism governs all, and Hamlet is master of the revels, we hold fast to Horatio, who is too drab to be theatrical. We hope we are not drab, but we cannot keep up with Hamlet who is always out ahead of himself. We may wonder, Where does Horatio find the eloquence that responds so beautifully to Hamlet's final "The rest is silence"? Horatio utters a hope-not a certainty-for an angelic chorus: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. [V.II.3 Continues... Excerpted from HAMLET by HAROLD BLOOM Copyright © 2003 by Harold Bloom Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 1
1 Inferring Hamletp. 3
2 Horatiop. 13
3 Plays Within Plays Within Playsp. 19
4 Two Soliloquiesp. 29
5 Opheliap. 37
6 Shakespeare to the Playersp. 45
7 The Mousetrap: Contrary Willp. 51
8 Gertrudep. 57
9 Claudiusp. 61
10 The Impostumep. 67
11 The Grave - Diggerp. 73
12 Wonder - Wounded Hearersp. 79
13 In My Heart There Was a Kind of Fightingp. 83
14 We Defy Auguryp. 87
15 Let It Bep. 91
16 Apotheosis and Tragedyp. 95
17 Hamlet and the High Placesp. 101
18 Fortinbrasp. 107
19 Had I But Time--O, I Could Tell Youp. 111
20 Annihilation: Hamlet's Wakep. 119
21 The Fusion of High and Popular Artp. 125
22 Hamlet as the Limit of Stage Dramap. 131
23 The End of Our Timep. 139
24 The Hero of Consciousnessp. 145
25 Hamlet and No Endp. 151