I grabbed a copy of Vanity Fair on Saturday during my walk through the downtown's west end. It's indisputable that Shakespeare is a cultural titan, but the reason I'm posting this piece has more to do with insight into Bloom's character and by extension how Jewish culture views (and reacts to) Shakespeare.
Professor Harold Bloom, the most renowned, and arguably the most passionate, literary critic and Shakespeare scholar in America, kindly invited me for lunch at his home in New Haven, where he still teaches at Yale University after 55 years.
“When I was a young man, I told my father I wanted to be a professor of poetry, and he was outraged,” he recalled. “He said a melamed —a schoolteacher? And I’ve been a schoolteacher now all my life.”
The great man (whose first language was Yiddish) no longer resembles his favorite Shakespearean character—that renegade free spirit and lord of misrule, plump Jack Falstaff. Professor Bloom is 80, and various illnesses have left him thin and a little frail, but magnificently undaunted. “Seven times I should have been gone,” he announced mournfully, then perked up. “But here I am!”
He leaned on a walking stick as we sat at his dining-room table, cluttered with papers and wobbly piles of books. He called me “my boy” or, better still, “son.” (“Now, tell me all about yourself, son!”) Jeanne, his wife of some 50 years, a former child psychologist, made grilled cheese sandwiches on challah bread for us, with a few French fries on the side. Tea and cookies followed.
“I hear that if there’s anyone in the world you’d love to meet,” I ventured, “it’s Sophia Loren.”
“I’ll never get to meet her! We move in different circles.”
Bloom’s 39th book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (published this month by Yale), extends his lifelong search to grasp the genius and meaning of Shakespeare. He has studied the plays so many times he knows them by heart. Bloom the Bardologist is without equal.
“If Shakespeare is not God,” he told me, “I don’t know what God is.”
“And the speculative biographies of Shakespeare,” I suggested, “fail to pluck out the heart of his mystery.”
“Let me quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, best mind ever to come out of America: ‘Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare.’ In other words, don’t look for the man in the work; look for the work in the man. And stop speculating about his life!”
“What do you think of theater directors who busily interpret Shakespeare for us?”
“All high-concept Shakespeare directors should be shot at dawn,” he replied, adding genially, “Finish your potatoes before they get cold.”
I assumed that, apart from Sophia Loren, Professor Bloom would most like to meet his hero, Falstaff (or “Bloomstaff,” as he sometimes renames him). But I was seriously mistaken.
“Remember, there are three great poets whom neither you nor I would want to have lunch or dinner with, or even a drink with—Christopher Marlowe, François Villon, and Arthur Rimbaud. At the least they would rob us and at the most they might kill us. Sir John Falstaff wouldn’t kill us, but he would certainly gore us one way or another, and perhaps pick our pockets very adeptly.”
“Yet you love him?”
“For two reasons: Because more even than Hamlet—and that’s saying something—he’s the most intelligent person in all of literature. He has the best mind, the best wit, the most beautiful laughing language. As my late friend the marvelous critic George Wilson Knight said about Hamlet, he’s the embassy of death. But Falstaff is life! Falstaff is the blessing.”
“ ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world … ’ ” Why, I asked, does noble Prince Hal, future savior of England, cruelly banish Falstaff, his old friend and teacher?
“It’s heartbreaking. But there’s nothing noble about Hal. Hazlitt said we like him in the play, but he’s an amiable monster. The ‘amiable’ is the modifier. He’s a monster through and through. He butchers prisoners, betrays everybody, and seizes the main chance. He’s his father’s son. He stops being Falstaff’s son when he doesn’t find it useful anymore.”
“Yet Falstaff sees through the all-powerful.”
“He sees through everything. He’s the best possible guide to the state of the world today. Can you think of anyone more antithetical to the Fascism of the Tea Party than Sir John Falstaff?”
“But why would anyone listen to Falstaff today when they didn’t listen to him in the play?”
“Our need is greater.”
I went on to mention that two Oscar winners, Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham, had recently played Shylock in New York, and that Abraham was the greatest Shylock I’ve ever seen. Against my better instincts, I found myself wanting him to win the trial scene and kill the weasel Antonio for his pound of flesh.
“But Deuteronomy forbids it!—as Willy Shakespeare must have known,” he protested. “And the Talmud forbids it. But let me tell you about the greatest Shylock I ever saw.”
And he told the story of going to the theater for the first time, when he was a youngster. His three older sisters had taken him to see the great Maurice Schwartz—heir to Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashefsky, idols of Eastern Europe and of New York—in a reworked The Merchant of Venice, which was playing in one of the old Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue.
“I’ve never forgotten it. There was little Herschel Bloom and his three splendid sisters, and it was the trial scene. But the playwright had re-written it! Trembling Antonio is stripped to the waist, and while all of us gasp, there’s Maurice Schwartz’s Shylock marching toward him to kill him with a big knife. And he’s coming closer and closer to him, and we’re all appalled. When, suddenly, as the whole theater seems to be shaking, Shylock flings down the knife and cries out, ‘Ikh bin dokh a yid!’ ‘I’m Jewish, after all!’ And by implication, We don’t do this sort of thing.”
He concluded happily, “The entire audience, including me, rose to its feet! It was a very Yiddish occasion, and had Shakespeare been there, I think he would have enjoyed it.”
Harold Bloom has his critics and mortal enemies, no doubt, for academe bursts with them—Marxist theorists, New Historicists, post-feminists, and on and on. But I would sooner raise a glass to him in thanks for his fantastic romance with great literature, and offer the Falstaffian toast “More life!”
“Come, my boy,” he said as I left. “We must hug!” And so we hugged, and I was glad.