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Lectures on Shakespeare Hardcover – January 15, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Series: W.H. Auden: Critical Editions
  • Hardcover: 452 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (January 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691057303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691057309
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,088,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I would highly recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in Shakespeare.
You will not always agree with everything he has to say, but it makes for some thought provoking and interesting ideas on his take of the work.
K. Stanfa
This is what Kirsch has managed to achieve in an excellent book that is superbly edited and written.
Kevin Brianton

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Auden's lectures on Shakespeare may well have been lost forever were it not for Kirsch's diligence and care. The time and effort that must have gone into researching lectures given over 50 years ago, and not recorded by the lecturer himself, must have been staggering, but it has paid off. This book gives the reader a unique opportunity to better understand and enjoy two of the greatest writers in the English language. Kirsch's expertise and passion come across clearly as he frames the lectures brilliantly. Anyone with an interest in either Shakespeare or W.H. Auden will find this book interesting and illuminating.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Cesar Cruz on July 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Reading each of Auden's lectures will not make you an expert on any aspect of the plays or poems - he doesn't aim to be comprehensive. Instead, Auden engages you in one or two key aspects from each play. Subsequently, the book could have been called "Conversations about Shakespeare."
Occasionally, as in "Julius Caesar" or "King Lear," Auden is direct and focused. Here you will get a good, general view of these plays. But more often he dives into a theme, leaving the specifics of the play far behind. Reading some lectures I would ask myself, "Is he going to talk about the play or is he going to stick with this?" In the lecture about "As You Like It," he goes on for the first seven pages about the pastoral play. You would think this would be annoying, but Auden's easy manner keeps you hooked. Then in the end you will have learned something new, something special to Auden's perspective.
Some of the themes can be pretty high brow, but usually the are educational and entertaining. And this off-the-beaten-path approach is what makes the lectures unique.
If you're looking for the exact historical context of a play or a lengthy essay about some character, read the introduction from a paperback copy of a play. Auden's lectures will teach you a little extra you won't find anywhere else.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By M. Willett on June 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
What we read as Aristotle is actually nothing he wrote, but rather notes collected from students of his, compiled into something that looks like a lecture. This is exactly what we have here in the form on Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare. He gave a Shakespeare course at New College in New York one summer and this book is a transcription of some copious scribes and pupils. Let me say first that they are wonderful. Auden's insight is not only a poet's-though it is that-but a scholar's also, and one of such penetrating originality he makes these works appear sometimes without the heavy critical histories they worry under. This is aided by the fact that he reads all of Shakespeare's plays (one per week) for this course, even the lesser known ones, and also by the fact that the notes can't help but distill his lectures only into their most interesting points. As such, it seems that he effortlessly moves from one new vision to the next with a nonchalance that I can only assume is British, or else a character marking of someone so consistently called "Augustain." We know of Auden as a reader of Shakespeare primarily from his long poem about The Tempest, now we have another, more direct view of his reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Oksol VINE VOICE on November 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
How fortuitous we are to have such a book! I just happened to stumble upon it browsing a discount book store and it is now one of my most precious finds.

Who would have thought! W.H. Auden announces in "The New York Times" in late September, 1946, that he will offer a course on Shakespeare, lecturing once weekly, commencing in October and continuing through May, 1947.

The lectures were held at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village in the neighborhood where W. H. Auden lived. The lectures were enormously popular; tickets were sold at the door, and as many as 500 people attended, some coming quite a distance to hear the great poet speak.

Auden's material for these lectures is not available, but several students, one in particular, took very good notes, and the editor of this compilation, Arthur Kirsch, has done an outstanding job obtaining and editing the notes, making the collection a coherent, fascinating look at both W.H. Auden and Shakespeare.

Auden lectured on all the plays except "Titus Andronicus" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as well as on the "Sonnets."

The essays vary in length, some very short, and some quite long. It would be interesting to know if the lectures themselves varied in length; if so, some lectures might have been quite short.

I would strongly recommend reading Auden's lecture notes after one has a good understanding of the play being considered. These are not Cliffs Notes. These are essays on Shakespeare's plays by one of literature's foremost poets and critics. Alongside similar works by Harold Bloom, these essays are absolutely superb.

Others have alluded to Auden's lecture on "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The student's notes - W. H.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Brianton on May 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Imagine trying to assemble lectures made close to 50 years ago from assorted notes and other papers. This is what Kirsch has managed to achieve in an excellent book that is superbly edited and written. W.H. Auden appears as a sensible and balanced critic of Shakespeare and his observations are always telling. I really like his chapter on Macbeth even though Auden claims that he has nothing to offer. I am just so pleased that Kirsch took the time to research and compile this book. An intense labour of love that will repay countless readings.
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