Lectures on Shakespeare

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9780691057309: Lectures on Shakespeare


"W. H. Auden, poet and critic, will conduct a course on Shakespeare at the New School for Social Research beginning Wednesday. Mr. Auden has announced that in his course . . . he proposes to read all Shakespeare's plays in chronological order." The New York Times reported this item on September 27, 1946, giving notice of a rare opportunity to hear one of the century's great poets comment on one of the greatest poets of all time. Published here for the first time, these lectures now make Auden's thoughts on Shakespeare available widely.


Painstakingly reconstructed by Arthur Kirsch from the notes of students who attended, primarily Alan Ansen, who became Auden's secretary and friend, the lectures afford remarkable insights into Shakespeare's plays as well as the sonnets.


A remarkable lecturer, Auden could inspire his listeners to great feats of recall and dictation. Consequently, the poet's unique voice, often down to the precise details of his phrasing, speaks clearly and eloquently throughout this volume. In these lectures, we hear Auden alluding to authors from Homer, Dante, and St. Augustine to Kierkegaard, Ibsen, and T. S. Eliot, drawing upon the full range of European literature and opera, and referring to the day's newspapers and magazines, movies and cartoons. The result is an extended instance of the "live conversation" that Auden believed criticism to be. Notably a conversation between Auden's capacious thought and the work of Shakespeare, these lectures are also a prelude to many ideas developed in Auden's later prose--a prose in which, one critic has remarked, "all the artists of the past are alive and talking among themselves."


Reflecting the twentieth-century poet's lifelong engagement with the crowning masterpieces of English literature, these lectures add immeasurably to both our understanding of Auden and our appreciation of Shakespeare.


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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 the Back Cover:


"What Auden has to say about Shakepeare's plays is almost always interesting, for two reasons. First, he knows how to praise or dissent, and to do so with much originality; secondly, he speaks of the ideas that were shaping his own thought and work at this important moment in his career, so that this book is as much a contribution to our understanding of Auden as it is to our appreciation of Shakespeare. It is beautifully edited and should interest all readers of Shakespeare and all admirers of Auden."--Frank Kermode


"Auden's lectures on Shakespeare are a marvelous blend of steady, patient intelligence and stunning insight--spirited, free-thinking, resourceful, unintimidated, liberated from the air of treacly piety, and very, very intelligent."--Stephen Greenblatt


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