Macbeth in Bloom

Scott McLemee reviews Harold Bloom's Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind.

September 6, 2019
 
 

Harold Bloom -- whose latest book is Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind (Simon & Schuster) -- is the preeminent votary of what has been called "an insane worship of Shakespeare which has no rational foundation." It is a cult that ignores Shakespeare's role in perpetuating a culture of violence, domination and nakedly elitist attitudes. "The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare's fame," one critic has suggested, "was and is this: that his dramas … corresponded to the [oppressive] frame of mind of the upper classes of his time."

Typical tenured-radical political correctness! More of the endless trashing of the canon of literary masterpieces, right? Actually I'm quoting Leo Tolstoy, whose spot in the pantheon of dead white European male authors seems reasonably secure. But in his mid-seventies, after some five decades of accumulated bewilderment at Shakespeare's reputation and influence, the novelist finally exploded into print with his considered opinion.

"Several times," he wrote, "I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays" -- in the original language, mind you as well as German and Russian translations -- "and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness and bewilderment." The plots and characters were all ridiculous or disgusting, or both, with everything on stage presented in an overblown manner: "[T]he actions are exaggerated, so are their consequences, the speeches of the characters are exaggerated, and therefore at every step the possibility of artistic impression is interfered with … Shakespeare might have been whatever you like, but he was not an artist."

By this late stage in life Tolstoy himself was more sage than artist, and it is the privilege of a sage to forego tact yet still count on a respectful hearing. He proclaimed Shakespeare's vast renown to be one of the great outbreaks of mass delusion in human history, just like belief "in witches [and] in the utility of torture for the discovery of the truth, the search for the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone or the passion for tulips valued at several thousand guldens a bulb which took hold of Holland." Alas, the Shakespearean fever was more persistent than most crazes and involved something far worse than an aberration of taste. Readers and writers "discover in him non-existent merits," Tolstoy said, "thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding."

Bardolatry led people to believe that "for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient," and that art "should represent events quite independently of any judgment of good and evil." Shakespeare's work was a source of spiritual pollution, and not to see it was a matter either of succumbing to mass delirium or wallowing in the innate depravity of sinful mankind. I get the sense that Tolstoy had no expectation of changing many people's minds, but nonetheless felt morally obliged to go on the record.

Tolstoy refers to Macbeth a few times but directs most of his critical complaints at Hamlet and (especially) King Lear. They are reckoned as the Shakespearean masterpieces par excellence. But "the Scottish play" embodies most of what offends Tolstoy. In it we find prophecy-spouting witches, one or two rather preposterous "reveals" (the woods have moved!), and a string of jokes about drinking, urination and impotence; they come as a jolt, following as they do a vividly described murder. The eloquence of Macbeth and his Lady is turned solely to justifying their psychopathy or expressing their descents into madness. True art, as Tolstoy sees it, generates a kind of moral clarity through "the exhibition of a definite view of life corresponding to the highest religious understanding of a given time." But the plot of Macbeth is so driven by the imperatives of destiny that it is difficult to think of the characters as, in any sense, morally accountable, even for cold-blooded murder.

I have seen Macbeth performed a couple of times and (unrepentant sinner that I am) enjoyed it. But in revisiting the play via Bloom's recent book, I found myself occasionally granting Tolstoy's points. The witches prophesy that "none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth," who is eventually killed by a character delivered through a post-mortem C-section? That's more of a B-movie plot twist than evidence of literary genius.

Bloom has been reading and teaching Shakespeare for so long that he could probably dictate a book on Macbeth in his sleep. Given the publisher's characterization of Bloom as "the greatest Shakespeare scholar of our time" and other such hype, it is tempting to say that we now have the transcript. Bloom's method here is to quote passages of various lengths by way of a synopsis of the play while providing the occasional clarification or recalling something he remembers seeing on stage or discussing with someone. When Lady Macbeth tries to overcome her husband's hesitancy about career advancement through assassination by asking if he is going to

live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i'th' adage?

Bloom explains, that the proverbial feline "want[ed] to devour fish, but dar[ed] not get his feet wet," and notes that "'assassination' may have been a Shakespearean coinage." He remarks on the dramatic significance of certain turning points: "Macbeth, accusing himself of poor malice or inadequate slaughter, rouses himself to an apocalyptic ambition to tear apart the universe itself, destroying this world and the world to come." We learn that Bloom "lunched several times with the late critic Owen Barfield in London," though not how many times. Much of this is interesting, and some of it is useful. But Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind is hardly "an extraordinarily moving argument for literature as a path to and a measure of our humanity," the Simon and Schuster publicity department notwithstanding. It is a profoundly okay book -- of some value to people who have not yet read or seen the play, while anyone who has will find the relevant chapter of Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All far more cogent.

"Long ago," Bloom writes, "I remember characterizing the Macbeths as the happiest marriage in Shakespeare. That can seem a grim jest, yet it is veracious. Their passion for each other is absolute in every way, as much metaphysical as erotic. The lust for power fuses with mutual desire and enhances the turbulence of their ecstasy."

This is both nicely put and completely apt, though the point goes undeveloped, and such passages are too infrequent and scattered to add up to much. The book will be a commercial success (Bloomolatry is as much a fact of our cultural life as Bardolatry was of Tolstoy's) but surely was written out of contractual obligation rather than any inner prompting on the part of the author. He has already published similar titles on Lear, Hamlet, and other Shakespeare characters. Next year, Bloom will have his 90th birthday. I hope for everyone's sake that he is now able to rest from his labors.

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