Shakespeare's Freud


From an interview with Harold Bloom in the Spring 1991 issue of The Paris Review. Bloom is the author of numerous works of criticism, including The Anxiety of Influence, The Visionary Company, and, most recently, The Book of J. He currently holds appointments at both Yale Uni versity and New York University.

INTERVIEWER: You teach Freud and Shakespeare.

BLOOM: Oh, yes, increasingly. I keep telling my students that I'm not interested in a Freudian reading of Shakespeare but a kind of Shakespearean reading of Freud. In some sense, Freud has to be seen as a prose version of Shakespeare, the Freudian map of the mind being in fact Shakespearean. There's a lot of resentment about this on Freud's part because I think he recognizes it. What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention, and, for the most part, Freud is merely codifying it. This shouldn't be too surprising. Freud himself says, "The poets were here before me," and the poet in particular is necessarily Shakespeare.

But I think it runs even deeper than that. Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean than a biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or jungian invention. It's not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I'm not so sure he doesn't largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare, and one of them got very indignant and said, "You are confusing Shakespeare with God." I don't see why one shouldn't, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare.

The principal insight I've had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn't anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, on what they themselves have said. And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change-becoming a different kind of character or personality, and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn't exist before Shakespeare. It doesn't happen in the Bible. It doesn't happen in Homer or Dante- it doesn't even happen in Euripides. It's pretty clear that Shakespeare s true precursor- where he took the hint from is Chaucer. But Chaucer only does it in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It's his common stock. The ability to do that, and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation, is purely Shakespearean. We are now so contained by it that we can't see its originality anymore. But the originality of it is bewildering.