Book Review: Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom

I picked this book up from the library on a bit of a whim, but as many of these whims go, it was a pretty inspired one, not least because when one reads the writings of Harold Bloom [1], one can generally count on a good read even where one does not always agree with the author’s conclusions.  One of the unfortunate truths of the literature of criticism, whether that criticism is literary, musical, artistic, or about any other genre, is that criticism reveals more about the critic than about the work itself.  This is definitely Grade A criticism to be sure, but in reading a book like this one wants to know what the author thinks and to participate in the conversation about great literature that this book represents.  To be sure, reading about Hamlet is not as good as reading Hamlet, but when one is familiar with Shakespeare’s works, or the works of any other worthwhile writer, it is also good to know what others say about them, for works are great to the extent that they can be interpreted many different ways and possess many worthwhile layers where insight can be drawn from them.

This book is a short one of about 150 pages and consists of twenty-five short chapters about Hamlet that serve as a revision and an extension to a previous book the author wrote on Hamlet where he focused on the question of the authorship of the Ur-Hamlet text, which he does mention here.  The author certainly has a wide-ranging view of Hamlet, looking at Horatio as a stand-in for the prosaic audience (2), the plays within plays that are characteristic of Hamlet’s plot (3), and Hamlet’s unpardonable cruelty towards Ophelia (5).  He writes about the problems that Gertude (8) and Claudius (9) represent in terms of their character, about the wit and humor of the gravedigger (11), and about the troubling question of Fortinbras (18).  Not only does the author talk about the plot and characterization of Hamlet itself, but also about the way that Hamlet serves as a hero of ineffectuality and annihilation (20) and the way that it serves as a fitting discussion of the fusion of high and popular art that one finds so winningly in Shakespeare’s plays (21), the limits of stage drama (22), and even the way that Hamlet serves as a warning for our time about the destructiveness of intellectual ironists (23) and how being a hero of the consciousness (24) means that one’s values as a study has no end (25).

But while the study of Hamlet has no end, this book ends efficiently, an example of someone having a lot to say who does not feel it necessary to belabor his point(s).  Hamlet is the smartest person in the room, and yet he is ineffectual in avenging his father, alienates the woman who loves him, and leaves Denmark under the rule of an adventuresome young Danish prince, for all of his cleverness.  When one looks at Hamlet through the perspective of this work, one wonders if Harold Bloom did not have in mind Hamlet as a cautionary tale for bright young Millennials, pointing out that more than four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote about a woke Danish prince who led his nation into disaster even if his only effectual enemy was himself and even if no one could match his wit and consciousness.  Let that be a lesson to all of us, as this book reminds us that Hamlet is all the more tragic because of having such wasted potential, for all of his talents and abilities cannot ensure that he leaves his country off better off than he found it.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Bloom’s Notes: Homer’s Iliad | Edge Induced Cohesion

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