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 were “exceptionally detailed” though not verbatim. “They can sometimes be fragmentary and elliptical, but from time to time quotation marks indicate Auden’s exact phrasing.” This is important because one of the main purposes of this book is to re-create the poet’s voice. Auden, who called criticism “live conversation,” was famed as a talker and gives the impression here of following the sound of his voice, from thought to thought and subject to subject. However, the abruptness of many of these shifts, while in the nature of lectures, is surely a result of their being reconstituted from notes. He himself did not lecture from notes, but did often consult his personal copy of the complete plays, edited by George Kittredge (1860-1941), so that quotations sometimes cascade down the page. The poet’s Kittredge was one source, in fact, that guided Kirsh in his reconstruction of these lectures a half century after their delivery. (A list of Auden’s markings in his Kittredge, along with two other appendixes, textual notes, and an index, is supplied at the end of the book.)
The lectures do not serve as an introduction to the plays because that was not Auden’s intent. He covers all but two of the thirty-seven plays, along with a lecture on the sonnets, but over the course of the series, the reader often gets the impression that Auden has taken on Shakespeare because he is the only writer whose work provides space ample enough for Auden’s mind to unfold. A man of vast and varied learning, Auden seems to carry the whole literary canon (back when there was a literary canon) in his head. Moreover, he is not afraid of religious matters; in fact, he is deeply, even primarily, concerned with religious and moral questions.
Though the lectures are not essays, they are often as dense as essays because of Auden’s inordinately methodical intellect. The fact that these reconstituted lectures are based on notes, not transcripts, deepens this effect. Auden constantly, almost obsessively, categorizes, whether enumerating the six uses of “nature” in King Lear or Shakespeare’s “three kinds of rhetoric of love.” His mind contains so much knowledge that this seems the only way he can keep from bursting with it. As it is, he loves nothing so much as to give a mini-lecture on music or murder—with “three classes of crime”—Plato or Neoplatonism, paganism or Christianity.
Maybe it is just the way the lectures were reconstituted from the notes, but they have the flavor of many years’ experience and reading, especially about art and love, distilled into condensed, if not dense, statements: “You can’t suggest that the world is destructive without showing it in all its seductiveness.” This talent for aphorism and definition in a man who was seldom contradicted makes for confident pronouncements that delight more often than not, but there are times when readers will shake their heads in disagreement or even offense. Speaking of Twelfth Night, for instance, Auden says, “The women are the only people left who have any will, which is the sign of a decadent society.”
Perhaps he meant to tease his audience, perhaps not, but he seems casually dismissive of Shakespeare’s heroines—Ophelia, Juliet, Desdemona, Viola—if not of women in general. No surprise then that Auden has little use for romantic notions of love, which he finds silly when not self-centered. He takes passion quite seriously, but the unruly passions of human frailty, not the love of posture and playacting....
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