Bloom, Harold Macbeth: Dagger of the Mind


Bloom, Harold. Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind (Shakespeare’s Personalities Book 5). Scribner (April 2, 2019). ISBN: 1501164252.

I received a digital ARC for review of Macbeth: Dagger of the Mind via Netgalley; I confess that I am somewhat astonished by the official description of the book, provided by the publisher, Scribner:

From the greatest Shakespeare scholar of our time, comes a portrait of Macbeth, one of William Shakespeare’s most complex and compelling anti-heroes—the final volume in a series of five short books about the great playwright’s most significant personalities: Falstaff, Cleopatra, Lear, Iago, Macbeth.

As the description notes, this is the fifth book in a series by Bloom wherein he examines characters in Shakespeare’s plays. The previous volumes explored the personalities of Falstaff, Cleopatra, Lear, and Iago. In this volume, Bloom works his way through Macbeth, quoting great swathes of the text, summarizing the plot and paraphrasing freely while concentrating on the personality and character of Macbeth as Bloom perceives him. Macbeth: Dagger of the Mind is not so much a critical study, or even a character analysis, as it is Bloom’s personal meditation on the character of Macbeth, with occasional asides regarding Lady Macbeth and other characters. It might have been subtitled “What Macbeth Means to Me By Harold Bloom.”

Bloom is a respected academic and the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale. He is perhaps best respected for his books regarding Romanticism, and for his popular books about the nature of the English canon and literary analysis. Bloom is not generally regarded by Shakespearean scholars as “the greatest Shakespeare scholar of our time”; he is not in fact, even cited very often. In short, Bloom isn’t someone to rely on for accurate commentary or analysis of Shakespeare, which is why a statement like this from Blooms’ Authors Note is a cautionary flag:

In some places I have restored what I believe to be Shakespeare’s language, whenever I judge traditional emendations to be in error (Author’s Note)

Bloom does tend to point out where he has “restored” Shakespeare, which is good, but his restorations are not. As an example, in Act I vii, the final scene of Act one, one of the standard passages memorized by school children and actors for tryouts, shown here from the text of the A. R. Braunmuller’s New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Macbeth: [1]Braunmuller, A. R. Ed. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambride: Cambridge University Press, 2nd. Edition 2008; reprinted 2011. ISBN: 13-978-0-521-68098. Subsequently referred to as A R. … Continue reading

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come (Act I vii).

Bloom notes:

The ‘bank and shoal’ is an emendation which I am reluctant to accept. Shakespeare’s word is ‘schoole’ and ‘this bank’ is probably a bench (Chapter 2)

The reason that shoal is a standard orthographic correction (not an emendation, a change in spelling) is that it makes sense, and it is supported by contemporary documents which also spell shoal as schoole. See for instance Braunmuller’s note 6 in his edition of Macbeth:

6 bank and shoal sand-bank (or river bank) and shallow. F’s ‘Banke and Schoole’ could also be modernised as ‘bench and school’; OED defines ‘bank’ (= bench) as referring to the seat of justice, the mountebank’s stage, or the rower’s bench (OED Bank sb2 1–3), but does not define ‘bank’ as ‘school bench’. ‘Schoole’ is a well-attested form of ‘shoal’ in the period. Although Macbeth soon mentions ‘instructions’ and ‘justice’ (which might be anticipated in ‘school’ and ‘bench’), the phrase seems more likely to be a characteristic Shakespearean near-redundancy, treating time as a river: Macbeth momentarily halts time’s flow by standing on a shoal or by grasping the bank. See Mahood, p. 24.[2] (A. R. Braunmuller. “Commentary notes for Act I, Scene vii” Note 6

One of the troubling aspects of Bloom’s preference for reading school instead of schoal is Bloom’s naïvete regarding his reference to “Shakespeare’s word.” We don’t have Shakespeare’s word; what we have is the printed edition of the 1623 First Folio; not a autograph ms. Even the various extant first folios are not identical; there are numerous small variations as each folio was typeset by hand one page at a time. Moreover, the text of Macbeth as represented in the Folio, is probably derived from a Jacobean playhouse script, not from the pen of Shakespeare (Braunmuller “Note on the Text”).

Another troubling aspect of Bloom’s reading are the personal idiosyncrasies of his interpretation of Macbeth the man. For instance, Bloom’s declaration that

There are verbal hints throughout the play that Macbeth’s ardor is so intense that he climaxes too soon, each time he carnally embraces his wife (Chapter 2)

That’s at best a personal interpretation; while there might be textual support for his assertion, Bloom doesn’t provide it. Nor does he provide an explanation regarding why an inference about premature ejaculation reflects on Macbeth’s character. This kind of declaration is typical of Bloom’s reading of the play and of the character Macbeth. He tells us how he views Macbeth, but he doesn’t support his conclusions with evidence from the play. Later, regarding Act II ii, just after Macbeth has murdered King Duncan, Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth:

I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry (II ii 14–15).

Bloom asserts, without any support, that

The crickets are familiars of the witches (Chapter 3)

This is tossed off casually, but there is no support for this in the text; while there are contemporary documents from the sixteenth century asserting that flies are familiars, there are no such references to crickets. Moreover, none of the editions I have checked suggest that the crickets are the witches’ familiars; there is no textual support, or indeed, any need or reason to make such an assumption. This is another of the many instances where Bloom offers a personal interpretation that isn’t supported by his text or that of the play, and that honestly, does nothing to enhance understanding of the Macbeth the character or Macbeth the play.

This is not a book to offer a reader who is not fairly familiar with Macbeth. I am not sure who really is the intended reader; as it stands, the book isn’t scholarly nor is it very engaging unless you are terribly interested in Bloom’s personal take on Macbeth. I wouldn’t recommend Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind to students since it is at best an idiosyncratic interpretation of Shakespeare, one which is thinly tied to the play but closely tied to Bloom’s own thoughts about the play. There are better books about Shakespeare, beginning with a good edition of the play, or even one of the many filmed performances, if live theater isn’t an available option.