Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Hamlet: Poem Unlimited" by Harold Bloom

My mind has kind of exploded.  This book is crammed with so many thoughts and ideas about Hamlet that I have never encountered before that I really feel almost addled.  It doesn't helped that I read the whole thing in one afternoon -- I think I need to read it again, a chapter at a time, to better absorb everything Bloom is saying here.  I fully intend to do so before I start a read-along of Hamlet this summer, because I know it contains many things I'll want to discuss and share then.

Actually, by the time I finished reading this book, I began to feel very unqualified to lead a read-along of such a complex, convoluted, important piece of literature.  I'm sure the feeling will pass, to some extent, but I hope I can hang on to the sense of my own insignificance so that I don't start prating about the play as if I am some sort of Hamletian authority, since I totally am not.

One thing that Bloom really brought home to me is how much I love this play, but not Hamlet himself.  Bloom says, "He does not want or need love:  that is his lonely freedom, and it provokes the audience's unreasoning affection for him" (p. 44).  Wow.  That summed up so succinctly why I love Hamlet, but don't like or truly understand him.  Brilliant.  He goes on to say, "All of us in the audience share Shakespeare's ambivalence toward Hamlet, for on some level the prince frightens us as much as he attracts us" (p. 101).  Exactly.

I don't have much else to say about this, other than that, if you've studied Hamlet before and wish you understood more of it, or if you love Hamlet and are always eager to see new angles and perspectives on it, by all means, get thee to a library or book store and find a copy.  I'll share here just a few of my favorite passages, but the whole book is both short and illuminating.  While I don't agree with all of Bloom's conclusions, he has so many excellent observations and ideas that I now find him invaluable.

Particularly Good Bits:

As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures (p. 3). is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging (p. 11).

Polonius is an old meddler, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are confidence men at best, but the fragile and lovely Ophelia is quite another matter, and Hamlet is monstrous to torment her into true madness (p. 42).

Hamlet is so exuberant, whether in irony or grief, that his rhetorical excessiveness rivals Falstaff's (p. 55).

Before Act V, Hamlet is confident of his soul's immortality, but I think he is different after his return from the sea, and I suspect he courts annihilation (p. 71).

For Hamlet himself, death is not tragic, but an apotheosis (p. 93).

The prince may not be going to join Falstaff "in Arthur's bosom," yet he is going to move us to an apprehension of value gained rather than lost by his immolation.  Though Hamlet's apotheosis is so difficult to describe, the audience's sense of it appears to be all but universal.  Even to the most secular among us, Hamlet's death has vicarious resonances, though it cannot be called an atonement....  We tend to feel augmented, rather than diminished, by Hamlet's death" (p. 97).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for discussions of death and brief references to sexual matters contained in the play.


  1. This sounds really good! And don't feel unqualified to lead a read-along at all. I don't know how many times I'd be in a lit. class and a professor would say, "Hm...I never thought about it that way." We all have different perspectives, and there's always something new to learn or consider.

    1. Thank you! I'm not cancelling the read-along, since I'm by no means an expert on any of the books I already led them for, but... I guess this kind of re-overwhelmed me with the magnificence of the play and made me feel very puny and unworthy, if that makes any sense.

  2. Bloom always makes me think...occasionally I don't agree with him, but he always makes me think.

    1. I don't think I've ever read anything by him before! I stumbled on this book in a library aisle I've never been down before that was filled with a jumble of completely random books. Would you recommend anything particular by him?

    2. Bloom books I've read are "How to Read and Why" and a collection of stories and poems called "Stories and Poems for Highly Intelligent Children of All Ages". Many times, he comes across as a literary "fuddy-duddy"; however, he has ideas worth considering. I know he has a book about Shakespeare, but I haven't read it.

    3. Yes, he did say in his intro to this that it's sort of an add-on to his book about Shakespeare because he didn't have room to say everything about Hamlet that he'd wanted to.

      I've heard of the "Stories and Poems" book, but didn't realize this was the same guy.

  3. Hamlette, you don't have anything to worry about, especially considering it's Shakespeare. He left so many his plays "open" with questions still swirling around at the end, that even the experts cannot agree or have different interpretations about certain scenes or actions of characters. When I read a modern commentary it is SOOO different from an older commentary from such writers as Oliphant-Smeaton or Hazlitt or Coleridge. I actually prefer the older commentaries because I find them more positive whereas the more modern ones can prefer to focus on anything that can be construed as negative in the plays. I haven't read this Bloom one though, so thanks for the reminder.

    I can't wait for the read-along!!

    1. Thank you! And yes, it's really fascinating to read even commentaries from 50 years ago on Hamlet and compare them to modern ones.


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