Lectures on Shakespeare

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2048

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.

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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.

Often his discussion of these characters sounds like gossip, and it is as suspect as gossip. He talks about Shakespeare with the same intimacy, and with such brio that the reader tends to go along with his assertions. Then Auden makes such declarations as that Hamlet “is written entirely out of spite against actors”—entirely?—and it clear that Auden’s critical approach is open to challenge. This hardly ruins the fun or value of the book, but it is good to remember that these lectures represent Auden’s mind at work, not Shakespeare’s. Still, the lectures, which cover the plays in chronological order (as accepted in the late 1940’s), provide a fascinating view of the development of the playwright, even if it is not possible to accept all of Auden’s arguments.

It is only natural that Auden’s insights on the technical side are more convincing than his interpretations, since he was both a great poet and a man well versed in Elizabethan theater and poetry. There are many interesting passages about the mechanics of poetry, which never become too complicated. There is no scansion or counting of metrical feet. Instead, Auden gives a reader insight into the way that Shakespeare mastered the literary conventions of his day and then surpassed them. The playwright took Elizabethan dramatic rhetoric and turned it into a “reflective and intellectual style.” Shakespeare moved from the bombastic conventions of the Elizabethan stage to building characters as “critics of convention.” More significantly, Shakespeare used prose unlike any dramatist of his day by having it react to the poetry, especially the lyrical poetry. “In Hamlet, Hamlet speaks prose to others, verse to himself. In Troilus and Cressida, prose is personal, verse official, in Othello, verse shows feeling, prose detachment.” Moreover, Shakespeare fit his vocabulary to the play, which gave his prose even more power, and he developed his “own use of poetic symbols and imagery” to support character, not to embellish verse.

Auden suggests that with stylistic mastery comes a certain loss of innocence, so that the histories and earlier comedies have a quality of fun that the later work lacks. Here Auden’s notions of Shakespeare’s technical development parallel his argument that the overall development of Shakespeare’s aesthetic turns on one major hinge: the problem of evil. Shakespeare created many memorable evil characters, Iago paramount, but he could not, so Auden argues, resolve the issue of evil in human terms. Auden follows this theme throughout all the plays, presenting them as an extended meditation on evil. To do so, he can use Sigmund Freud when it suits his purpose, but for the most part he places Shakespeare in the Christian tradition, bringing the writings of Saint Augustine (354-430), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) to bear on the thorny issue.

Auden’s chronology of the plays indicates Shakespeare’s movement from the earlier histories and comedies through a middle period of what might be called psychological realism, when he created a series of memorable villains. However, evil is so fundamentally inexplicable that Shakespeare gave up on his attempts to explain it in terms of individual psychology. Humans are by nature free. Whatever humans can do, good or evil, they will do, even if for no other reason than that they can. This is what Augustine referred to as the acte gratuit. Modern existentialists view this freedom as the essence of human nature. Auden considers this too isolating and turns to Kierkegaard, who delineated three postures toward existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Aesthetic here does not carry its normal meaning, but refers to any human-centered attempt to make sense of the world, from paganism to existentialism to secular humanism. This way leads to boredom and despair, Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death.” The ethical stance is more fulfilling because it connects a human to society and others with an emphasis on duty. However, it is only the religious stance, requiring a leap of faith into the absurd that can, ironically, ground humans in their own existence.

Auden notes that “Shakespeare relies on . . . ritualistic techniques in the early parts of his career, leaves them in his middle period, and returns to them in the final plays.” This apparent reversion to a simpler style actually complicates the plays in nonrealistic ways through staging and plotting that Auden likens to opera, so they have less memorable characters, on the whole, but are “more complicated, more like life, and aesthetically more satisfying.” The association of Shakespeare’s plays with opera is natural for Auden, who plays Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (1893) instead of discussing Merry Wives of Windsor (and who later cowrote the libretto of Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress ). However, Auden is also thinking of religious ritual, the need for which is central in the creation of the human connection to society, no less in modern times than Shakespeare’s.

Auden is not arguing for state religion or a program of enforced ritual. Rather, he is trying to show how Shakespeare stood in right relation to his times and his society. Times change, of course. In the aftermath of World War II, many people feared Communism might sweep away European nation states, whose bankrupt institutions had been unable to prevent fascism or maintain the individual’s connection to a healthy society. At such a juncture in history, a time of extremes, it is characteristic that Auden should reintroduce Shakespeare to a brave new world. For Auden the plays that spoke most to the times are the late comedies and problem plays, plays of reconciliation, necessitated when evil cuts the characters off from their rightful social position. In a play like The Tempest, not all characters merit or desire redemption, but reconciliation starts with forgiveness. Humankind is by nature fallen, the recognition and acceptance of which may be the only protection it has against itself.

In his concluding lecture, Auden argues, rightly, that art is not the most important aspect of life and claims, less plausibly, that Shakespeare, after spending “his life at [art], doesn’t think it’s very important.” This rather improbable statement does not reflect Shakespeare’s modesty so much as Auden’s, which pervades these lectures. They are not screeds, but marvelously wide-ranging and stimulating. Readers may not even notice the direction of the moral argument until they are halfway through the book. Never does Auden hector. He is full of so many wonderful things, not the least his own moral strength, as ragged and as enduring as the whole tradition of learning that stands behind him. Auden, who believed more strongly in the moral purpose of poetry than almost any other poet of the twentieth century, says about the late plays, “Forgiveness is not in forgetting, but in remembering.” This could only have been said in the changed moral landscape following World War II, but it is significant that Auden picked up so soon on what only now, a half century later, has become the slogan for truth commissions and memorials around world.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist 358 (March 17, 2001): 84.

National Review 53 (March 5, 2001): 58.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 11, 2001): 14.

Publishers Weekly 247 (December 18, 2000): 65.

The Spectator 286 (March 3, 2001): 47.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 2001, p. 3.

World and I 16 (June, 2001): 241.

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