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HAMLET: POEM UNLIMITED by Harold Bloom Kirkus Star


by Harold Bloom

Pub Date: March 10th, 2003
ISBN: 1-57322-233-X
Publisher: Riverhead

Bloom says that in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), other matters kept him from saying “most of what [he] thought and felt” about Hamlet. A lucky thing, since now the great-hearted critic offers this little gem—deftly snatching Hamlet away from its legions of minor readers and reclaiming it for its major ones.

On the stateliest of notes, Bloom announces that Hamlet is so “unlimited” as to be “of no genre,” its greatness such that “it competes only with the world’s scriptures.” Such extraordinary significance can’t rise from a work that’s “about” the things that its commonly tendentious or politicized readers think—“mourning for the dead father,” say, or “outrage at [the] mother’s sexuality”—and Bloom discards the very notion that “the double shock of his father’s sudden death and his mother’s remarriage has brought about a radial change in” Hamlet. The infinitely greater and more interesting truth is that “Something in Hamlet dies before the play opens” and that the play’s real subject “is Hamlet’s consciousness of his own consciousness, unlimited yet at war with itself.” Only from so enormous a subject, the meaning of self-consciousness itself, and only through so prodigious a character as Hamlet (“he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous”), does the play achieve its height, depth, and significance. Bloom asks questions that he may not, in so many words, answer—why does Hamlet come back to Elsinore after England? why does Shakespeare “so cheerfully” risk the very “dramatic continuity” of the play? why does he provide for the towering Hamlet so meager, paltry, and “mere” an opponent as Claudius? In every case: because the play, “a cosmological drama,” is so big that it’s bursting its own seams; because it serves simply as an excuse for the demonstration of its own enormity; because Hamlet is a character wrestling with “his desire to come to an end of playacting.”

Shakespeare criticism that’s big, alive, towering, deep, passionate—in an age that so industriously miniaturizes and demeans its literature.