And So, in Conclusion
Harold Bloom, who charmingly calls himself “Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater”, argues that Shakespeare created characters that develop rather than unfold, often by overhearing themselves talking. In doing so, Shakespeare created more than modes of expression, patterns of words and language, or typologies — he invented the modern human character. Bloom sees archetypally human characters in the indeterminate vigour of Rosalind, Falstaff, Hamlet, lago, Lear and Cleopatra.
THE PLAYS REMAIN THE OUTWARD LIMIT OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT: AESTHETICALLY, COGNITIVELY, IN CERTAIN WAYS MORALLY, EVEN SPIRITUALLY. THEY ABIDE BEYOND THE END OF THE MIND’S REACH; WE CANNOT CATCH UP TO THEM.
Bloom’s response is to Cultural Materialists like Terence Hawkes, who argues that there is no essential meaning to Shakespeare’s texts (or, it seems, to anything), just complexes of signs: “[T]he plays have the same function as, and work like, the words of which they are made … Shakespeare doesn’t mean: we mean by Shakespeare.”
In a sense these two critics agree, except that for Bloom, this situation suffices because it challenges and stretches and liberates the critical imagination. It creates readers who are alive and alert.
The contemporary critic Frank Kermode is such a reader. He reads Shakespeare closely, as poetry, but is also alive to the poetry of stagecraft. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy noticed one effect that Kermode finds so uncanny in Shakespeare’s lines:
SHAKESPEARE’S CHARACTERS … IN MOMENTS OF GREAT AGITATION, REPEAT A QUESTION SEVERAL TIMES, OR SEVERAL TIMES DEMAND THE REPETITION OF A WORD WHICH HAS PARTICULARLY STRUCK THEM, AS DO OTHELLO, MACDUFF, CLEOPATRA, AND OTHERS.
This repetition and doubling does what Ben Jonson admired in Shakespeare’s verse four centuries ago — the lively turning of familiar material: “turne the same, And himselfe with it”, and us with it too — turning us into human beings …