Shakespeare in Bloom. When we talk about Hamlet we are talking about ourselves, says the Falstaff of Anglo-American letters. This, says his fiercest critic, is exactly how not to discuss the Bard

Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human

Harold Bloom <em>Fourth Estate, 745pp, £25</em>

Shakespeare's characters "develop". They "reconceive" themselves. They even overhear themselves talking to themselves - in fact, "self-overhearing is their royal road to individuation". It isn't just the sub-Freudian rumblings that undermine Harold Bloom's play-by-play slog through the Bard. Rather more worrying are the glimpses of another shade stalking its 700 and more pages: the spirit of A C Bradley, dread author of Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and now risen, clanking from the grave, to beckon his princely successor on.

The stubborn persistence of Bradleyan dogma, the "naturalness" of his approach that seems so obvious to so many, suggests that it may finally engage with deep-lying dimensions of our ideology. Only an attachment as fundamental as that could account for his continuing role as presiding genius of the annual "character development" jamboree that still underwrites Shakespearean criticism among O- and A-level candidates as well as far too many undergraduates. This involves treating the characters in the plays as "real" people, with lots of comfily discussable problems, neatly dissectable feelings, and eminently siftable thoughts coursing through readily penetrable minds. It's a fascinating spectacle. To a chorus of pious "but surelys" trilled from a thousand sixth-form throats, Hamlet, Falstaff, Macbeth and the rest magically acquire lives of their own, take up their personalities and walk away from the plays that contain them. And whatever else they subsequently get up to on that royal road to individuation, you can bet that they never fail to "develop". They go at it like there's no tomorrow.

Bloom's book is Bradley and water, with quite a bit of wind as well. Inevitably, it pulls the plays off balance. After all, the dominant mode of art they inherited, and to which they offered a complex response, was less representational than emblematic or symbolic. That's one reason why they were written in verse. To present such works as "realistic" studies in human character is to reduce them (L C Knights made the point over 60 years ago) to the level of second-rate novels, mere portrait galleries of interesting individuals.

A systematic Romantic prejudice that all literary texts somehow proceed from "inside" the author and ought therefore to constitute an outward expression of his or her intimate, individual, personal feelings is also chugging away. "Shakespeare found Falstaff in Shakespeare," says Bloom, rather than in the social world beyond. But mere assertion that "radical internalisation" is "Shakespeare's final strength" isn't good enough. It certainly doesn't justify the claim made in Bloom's earlier The Western Canon (1994) that the true function of the Bard is to augment the reader's "inner self".

A glance at the texts confirms that the concern of the so-called "history plays", as well as of most of the others, is as much with public as with private matters: with politics, economic and social structure, the world of governance and power, and the stresses and strains inherent in the construction of the project called "Great Britain". They constitute what Brecht called "epic" drama: its function to confront its audience with the "outer" public world and to probe the insistent demands that that makes on any "inner" private counterpart. The inward drive of character study drains away that complexity. It drains away history. It's not so much that there's no tomorrow in the enterprise; there's no yesterday, either.

Bloom's connivance in that absence can't help but trivialise his broader argument. The epic dramatist shrinks to the level of hyper-active character-monger. Mind you, the Bard always thought big. Not only did he invent Hamlet, he invented us while he was at it. Ultimately he "invented the human as we continue to know it". Forget biology, forget geography, forget politics: in the end, we are all heirs of the Melancholy Dane and the Fat Knight. When we're wholly human, "we become most like either Hamlet or Falstaff". When we talk about them, we're really talking about ourselves. You can almost hear the sighs of relief from the examination hall. Hamlet 'n' Falstaff "R" Us! An eternal present beckons. If nothing else, it's a vision that scuppers revision. Books be buggered. Out with the Nescafe and bickies. I knew there was something funny about that Ophelia the moment I eyeballed her. Stares at her dad in a strange way for a start. Where's that report from her social worker? Let the good times roll.

Meanwhile, and paradoxically, Bloom's commitment to books and the inwardness they promote encourages him to subscribe, like his idol Dr Johnson, to the idea of Shakespeare as a writer - best grasped when read. We need, he concludes, to "read Shakespeare as strenuously as we can", adding, impenetrably, that "his plays will read us more energetically still. They read us definitively." But, wringing his hands over the decline of "deep reading" in our time, what can he possibly make of Shakespeare's first audiences? Most of them would have been unable to read at all, let alone find the leisure, books, light or spectacles necessary for a fraction of the intense commitment to the printed word that Bloom recommends. Yet those non- or pre-literate men and women supported and engaged with the plays to a degree that not only fostered them, but made them possible. They had Romeo and Juliet. We, God help us, have Shakespeare in Love. "Deep reading", in short, doesn't finally give us Shakespeare. What it does give us is "Shakespeare Superwriter", that inky-fingered, golden-thighed Oscar-winning extension of ourselves, whose quill, nudge-nudge, needs a good sharpening and whose verses won't flow until his bodily fluids do.

The systematic substitution of one Shakespeare for the other might be forgivable in a lesser scholar. In Bloom's case it merely endorses an inexplicable playing to the gallery. To dismiss history as "arbitrary and ideologically imposed contextualisation, the staple of our bad time", to speak of it as the narrow interest of a "School of Resentment" or of "gender-and-power freaks" is to wheedle applause from one side in the latest campus spat, not to engage in serious debate. The first casualties are inevitably the plays. Dazzling, pungent flora from the compost of history, they dwindle rapidly into baggy overblown bouquets arranged by a Bard in Bloom. Who needs them? Too much teaching of Shakespeare is devoted to the kind of simple-minded "sameness" (how like us the Elizabethans were), which ignores history. Too little is devoted to the analysis of "difference" (how unlike us the Elizabethans were), which requires some serious knowledge of it. These are not mutually exclusive poles, but criticism is more profitably employed when it inclines towards the second, which demands a certain degree of conceptual rigour, than the first, which produces the kind of vacuous cheerleading that Bloom seeks to dignify as the "awe" we owe Stratford's "mortal god". Yes, you heard him. Only the Bible itself can stand beside the works of one who, in addition to being divine, also manages to be "a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go . . . a spirit or 'spell of light', almost too vast to apprehend". Get it said, Harold! Harold?

And what does this lordly progress through the Shakespeare canon finally tell us? Rambling, repetitive, anecdotal, it delivers its tin-eared obiter dicta (and mixed metaphors) with the fruity sententiousness of the common-room sage. "Hamlet's desires, his ideals or aspirations," we learn, "are almost absurdly out of joint with the rancid atmosphere of Elsinore"; "A double date with Goneril and Regan might faze even King Richard III or Aaron the Moor, but it is second nature to Edmund . . . ".

In the end, too much of the book consists of such apercus sonorously paraded as argument. Hobby-horses are too often groomed and galloped. Originality is too frequently pinned on the merely perverse. Could it really be that the lad from Stratford invented the modern notion of personality? The other way round seems more likely. Haven't we just foisted our notion of "private", inner experience on to Shakespeare's plays as part of the usual campaign to construct a past that looks as much like the present as possible? And isn't this just what Bloom's book is effectively up to?

Don't expect too much deep writing, then, from the deep reader. Don't expect footnotes, either. Don't expect a bibliography. Don't expect an index. Don't expect a single edition of the plays to underpin the quotations. A misleading reference to "the Oxford Edition of Gary Taylor" startles. An airy admission to the use of a "variety" of texts alarms. A lofty confession to "silently repunctuating" them harrows with fear and wonder. That it should come to this.

Terence Hawkes is professor of English at the University of Cardiff and general editor of Routledge's "Accents on Shakespeare" series

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet