Lectures on Shakespeare (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
W. H. Auden’s lectures are not an introduction to the plays of William Shakespeare. They are commentary by one of the twentieth century’s most important poets, revealing as much about himself as about the playwright. The lectures reveal their time, too—a time of uncertainty and self-questioning that gave rise to the Beat generation no less than to the conformity of the 1950’s. The world had hardly survived the Nazis, and already the Soviets were beginning to pose another perceived threat to the very existence of Western civilization. The deaths of six million Jews and countless others were fresh in the minds of Auden’s audience, some of whom had fought in World War II. Questions of great import about good and evil and the nature of existence were debated with a seriousness that seems almost quaint in 2001, but in the 1940’s, a time when it was still daring to declare that “God is dead,” Existentialism seemed almost as threatening to values as Communism. It is against this perceived nihilism that Auden directs the overall thrust of his argument in these lectures.
Not that the lectures are harsh in any way. To the contrary, they are wonderfully eccentric. It must have been marvelous to be in attendance at the lectures, and it is unfortunate that they could not be recorded. As it is, Auden’s manuscripts of the Shakespeare lectures are completely lost. They were reconstructed by Arthur Kirsch primarily from the notes of Alan Ansen, which...
(The entire section is 2048 words.)
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