Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Summary

Harold Bloom


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN suggests that a surprising amount of what the modern world understands about human nature began with William Shakespeare. Harold Bloom concludes that, even if Shakespeare did not expand the range of human emotions, the playwright’s presentation of those emotions improved the modern world’s understanding of them. Bloom does not mean Shakespeare invented mere archetypes. One of Shakespeare’s virtues was his ability to develop complex individuals with many layers of personality. His characters “seem real” because they respond to situations with a complete range of human emotions.

Bloom traces the development of these characters from Shakespeare’s earliest plays to his last. He regards the greatest characters ever created by Shakespeare as Hamlet and Falstaff. Both of these figures are highly charismatic, though in completely different ways. For Hamlet, the self is an abyss. For Falstaff, the self is everything. Bloom illustrates that Shakespeare’s genius was his ability, not only to imagine such highly different characters, but also to imbue them with fully developed personalities.

Bloom makes it clear that Shakespeare’s plays tell nothing about their author’s politics, religion, or sexual orientation. Shakespeare created characters, not mouthpieces. Their statements express the speaker’s own opinions. Their relationships indicate nothing about the author’s private life. Shakespeare “invented the human” by providing the world with well-rounded, believable characters of every description—good and evil, male and female, tyrants and liberators, heroes and buffoons—all of whom see the world from their own perspective, not Shakespeare’s. It is ridiculous to assume that, merely because Shakespeare created an interesting character, that figure embodied the author’s feelings or beliefs. It is too easy to find examples to the contrary.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXV, November, 1998, p. 20.

Library Journal. CXXIII, October 1, 1998, p. 84.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 22, 1998, p. 8.

National Review. L, November 23, 1998, p. 51.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 1, 1998, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, October 19, 1998, p. 82.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, September 14, 1998, p. 56.

Time. CLII, November 16, 1998, p. 122.

The Wall Street Journal. October 23, 1998, p. W8.

The Washington Post Book World. November 15, 1998, p. 6.