After transplanting himself from England to the United States in 1939, W.H. Auden immediately became a kind of academic knight-errant, teaching at five different schools in as many years. Little evidence survives of most of these gigs. But in 1946, Auden gave a course on Shakespeare at Manhattan's New School, and luckily, several of the students attending took maniacally assiduous notes. Now Arthur Kirsch has collated the whole batch--and, one assumes, done some major nip-and-tuck work on this textual nightmare. The result is an insightful, eccentric, and perhaps essential slice of Bardolatry, which tells us as much about Auden as his subject.
Nobody can accuse Auden of parroting the party line on this greatest of English writers. In one of the nuttier moments in the lecture series, in fact, he expressed his distaste for The Merry Wives of Windsor by declining to say a word about it--instead he simply played a recording of Verdi's Falstaff for the perplexed audience. Elsewhere his tendency was to view Shakespeare's creations as flesh-and-blood characters rather than poetic constructs: "If Antony and Cleopatra have a more tragic fate than we do, that is because they are far more successful than we are, not because they are essentially different." He's harder pressed to locate any success stories in Julius Ceasar: the protagonist strikes him as a fading despot, Octavius is "a very cold fish," and Cassius "a choleric man--a General Patton." And sometimes, as in this discussion of Falstaff's role in the double-decker Henry IV, Auden spins off his own freestanding riffs, which amount to short prose poems on Shakespearean themes:
A fat man looks like a cross between a very young child and a pregnant mother. The Greeks thought of Narcissus as a slender youth, but I think they were wrong. I see him as a middle-aged man with a corporation, for, however ashamed he may be of displaying it in public, in private a man with a belly loves it dearly--it may be an unprepossessing child to look at, but he's borne it all by himself.
Auden would return to the Bard's terrain many times in his career, most notably in "The Sea and the Mirror." But for sheer penetration and puckish humor, Lectures on Shakespeare
is hard to beat, and demonstrates that for all their differences, both the speaker and his subject had a crucial thing in common--what Auden calls "a fabulously good taste for words." --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
Given in 1946 at Manhattan's New School for Social Research, Auden's casually erudite, somewhat idiosyncratic lectures on Shakespeare's plays and sonnets may have been lost in manuscript but were not lost on members of his audience, several of whom took detailed enough notes for U.Va. Shakespeare scholar Kirsch to reconstruct the talks. Having already taught Shakespeare at several other American colleges and universities, Auden treats the plays with considerable familiarity, cutting down their characters to human size, sometimes even gossiping about them. This approach works better with the comedies, histories and "problem plays" than with the tragedies, which Auden generally finds less satisfying. "It is embarrassing to talk for an hour or an hour and half about great masterpieces," he complains before his self-assured lecture on the dramatic difficulties of King LearAa work he considers "perfectly easy to understand." In a sense, the detached formalist in Auden is most in tune with the late romances, since these have the most distilled characterizations, simplified plots and technical mastery of verse. Ultimately, when a poet of Auden's rank takes on a subject as lofty as Shakespeare, there are just as many revelations about the former's preoccupations as insights into the latter. Auden's references to T.S. Eliot, Kierkegaard and Mozart uncover more about his own interests in Christianity and opera than Shakespeare's themes and language. Such digressive allusions didn't reduce these accessible lectures' popularity in their time, nor will they now that Auden's survey of the Bard has been recovered and translated into book form. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.