Saturday 28 January 2017

Book Review: Falstaff: Give Me Life by Harold Bloom

Title: Falstaff: Give Me Life
Author: Harold Bloom
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 2017
Pages: 130
Format: eBook - EPUB
Genre: Non-Fiction/Literary Criticism
Source: ARC via NetGalley

From Harold Bloom, one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars of our time as well as a beloved professor who has taught the Bard for over half a century, an intimate, wise, deeply compelling portrait of Falstaff—Shakespeare’s greatest enduring and complex comedic character.

Falstaff is both a comic and tragic central protagonist in Shakespeare’s three Henry plays: Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. He is companion to Prince Hal (the future Henry V), who loves him, goads, him, teases him, indulges his vast appetites, and commits all sorts of mischief with him—some innocent, some cruel. Falstaff can be lewd, funny, careless of others, a bad creditor, an unreliable friend, and in the end, devastatingly reckless in his presumption of loyalty from the new King.

Award-winning author and beloved professor Harold Bloom writes about Falstaff with the deepest compassion and sympathy and also with unerring wisdom. He uses the relationship between Falstaff and Hal to explore the devastation of severed bonds and the heartbreak of betrayal. Just as we encounter one type of Anna Karenina or Jay Gatsby when we are young adults and another when we are middle-aged, Bloom writes about his own shifting understanding of Falstaff over the course of his lifetime. Ultimately we come away with a deeper appreciation of this profoundly complex character, and the book as a whole becomes an extraordinarily moving argument for literature as a path to and a measure of our humanity.
(Goodreads Synopsis)

I have longed admired Bloom as a Shakespeare scholar, having devoured his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human at university, and was therefore interested to see what he had to say on the iconic character of Falstaff. Now, I like Falstaff; I believe I should make that clear before I go on. I have nothing against him and enjoy his witticisms. Bloom, on the other hand, idolises him. This book is essentially a homage to Falstaff, and all Bloom's assertions are skewed in that direction. As such, the writing occasionally devolved into an almost-rant against others. At different points Bloom accuses both Hal and other Shakespeare scholars of wanting to hang the man! It is true that Hal and Falstaff have a complex relationship, but never in all my frequent readings and viewings of the play have I once thought that Hal's focus is on seeing Falstaff hang right from Henry IV Part I, or even later. After all, if this were the case, he could certainly find a reason to carry out this sentence once he ascends the thrown. But he doesn't.

If you are a Falstaff-worshipper like Bloom, you will doubtless love this book. If, like me, you do not share Bloom's absolute devotion, you may find yourself questioning some of his assertions. I closed the final page in agreement with some of Bloom's theory, yet it complete disagreement with others. That's the joy of academia though: there is always a counterargument. My failure to approve of all Bloom's assertion does not, however, mean I did not enjoy reading his portrait of Falstaff, and I would recommend the book to other Shakespeare lovers as an interesting read, even if doing so leaves you with a burning desire to vindicate that sweet wag, Hal.

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