Vol. 23 No. 4 · 22 February 2001

Maximum Assistance from Good Cooking, Good Clothes, Good Drink

Frank Kermode

3564 words
Lectures on Shakespeare 
by W.H. Auden, edited by Arthur Kirsch.
Faber, 398 pp., £30, February 2001, 9780571207121
Show More
Show More

These lectures were delivered at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village during the academic session 1946-47. Arthur Kirsch has pieced them together from the records of four people who attended them. To have one’s lectures put together from students’ notes years after they were given is a rare mark of distinction; offhand I can only think of Saussure and Wittgenstein, though possibly one could add the name of Jesus. Pascal’s Pensées were put in some kind of order long after his death, but he had written them down, so no allowance needs to be made for mishearing, faults of memory, or the occasional failure of the student to follow the argument. Some disagreement about what was actually said seems inevitable, and it has proved to be so in the case of Saussure. Kirsch, however, has one very dependable witness, Alan Ansen, who was soon to become the poet’s secretary. Ansen was an exceptionally alert, well-read note-taker, but he missed a few of the lectures, and for them the editor has to turn to the much less reliable Howard Griffin (who also, in his turn, became Auden’s secretary) and to two other volunteers, women who had preserved their notes from the spring term.

The result reads like a remarkably full account of what the poet said about Shakespeare but also about many other matters. At the time of the lectures he was nearing forty and settled in New York. The last few years had been extraordinarily productive even by Auden’s standards. New Year Letter (or, in the USA, The Double Man) appeared in 1941, For the Time Being (a volume also containing The Sea and the Mirror) in 1944. A Collected came out in 1945 and The Age of Anxiety, on which he was working at the time of the lectures, was published in 1947. These works, and especially the superb Tempest sequel or commentary, The Sea and the Mirror, testify to a major poet at the height of his powers. A model of professional industry, he was also in these years writing a good deal of prose.

Presumably he agreed to do this heavy lecture course for the same reason he wrote prose – because he needed the money – but they show few signs of being put together hastily or impatiently, or treated as a weekly chore. He not only gave the lectures but sacrificed his Saturday afternoons to meet with small groups of students in a situation where they could do some close work and not merely listen to him ‘boom away’ at them in a large lecture theatre. He must have spent much time on preparatory reading, criticism as well as the actual texts. He didn’t write the lectures out but spoke from notes which he later threw away; it does not seem to have occurred to him to use them as the basis of a book. Some of the ideas tried out there do turn up in the group of Shakespearian essays in The Dyer’s Hand, fifteen years later, but a lot more thinking had been done in the interim. For instance, the well-known piece about Othello in The Dyer’s Hand is remembered for its treatment of Iago as a practical joker, but in the relevant lecture nothing is said about this aspect of Iago’s wickedness: instead he is called an ‘inverted saint’ and credited with an acte gratuit of the sort St Augustine committed when he stole some pears he didn’t want, and fed them to pigs. Over so long a period alterations of emphasis were only to be expected, and Kirsch has had to be careful about supplementing Ansen’s notes from material in the later essays. He does make it clear when and why he occasionally finds it necessary to do so.

Auden was by this time a practised lecturer, and his unprofessorial manner on the platform appealed strongly to his audiences, which were large – as many, it is said, as five hundred. Somebody remarked that the crowd couldn’t have been more enthusiastic if Shakespeare had been lecturing on Auden. They might well have been on the lookout for the odd joke or teasingly perverse remark, and there are some; but they must also have been willing to listen to lectures that might quite often have been mistaken for sermons.

Under the influence of Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr he had been trying to come to terms with Christianity, and from his reading of Pascal (instructive concerning doubt), Augustine (authoritative concerning sin), Buber, Tillich and above all Kierkegaard, he had arrived at a variety of Christian existentialism which is repeatedly expounded in these lectures. He was particularly impressed by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s book Out of Revolution, which gives a very idiosyncratic account of Christian history, ‘tracing patterns unimaginable by others’, as Edward Mendelson remarks – a disparaging view the poet himself later accepted. Throughout the time he was working on The Age of Anxiety the tone of his thinking was rather bleakly religious. The poem is set on the night of All Souls, a feast of which the establishment in 998 AD seemed to Rosenstock-Huessy, as Mendelson puts it, ‘one of the great transforming events of European history’. On the other hand, surrounded by Jewish intellectuals, and now fully conscious of the horror of the Holocaust, another transforming event, he had become very interested in Judaism and even, at one moment, contemplated conversion. At the end of the poem Malin, a Canadian Air Force officer, returns to duty and is ‘reclaimed by the actual world where time is real and in which, therefore, poetry can take no interest’. These were some of the preoccupations he brought to his Shakespeare course.

He was almost from the outset offering instruction on the difference between the essential and the existential self. This kind of thing must have been hard going for the audience, which had presumably come to hear about Shakespeare and wasn’t expecting Kierkegaard and the like; and it still doesn’t always seem very transparent on the page. The excuse for its first appearance is that it leads into a discussion about Richard III’s ugliness, which compelled him to make his essential self a not-self and absolutely strong; whereas Don Giovanni, introduced for contrast, has an existential self, and ‘the existential drive evolves into an infinite series’ – hence the list of conquests. There is quite a lot of this kind of thing.

Auden himself had a passion for lists, accompanied by another passion for dividing his topics up into sections, less, one feels, to make the lecture more readily understandable by the audience than to satisfy some personal need. ‘We must distinguish the different senses of the term nature,’ he will begin. Two senses are then distinguished, one relating to what is distinctively human, the other to ‘the physical frame’ in which we have to live. Whereas ‘Classical and Chinese writers use the term . . . in the first and traditional sense . . . the modern West uses the term in the second . . . The second sense can in turn be divided into four subcategories . . .’ This by way of introduction to a discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare ‘mythologically anthropomorphises nature, making nature like man and reducing the figurants of nature to size in comic situations’. There follows a disquisition on myth, with reference to Totem and Taboo, Milton’s Nativity Ode and Dante. As to the interference of fairies in human life, we have to accept it as demonstrating the ills, major and minor, that fortune brings on us and which we are obliged to bear. This is a matter of duty: ‘our duties are . . . (1) . . . (2) . . . (3) . . .’ Along the way he turns aside to explain that nature as manifested in the climate of New York is displeasing to him. Nature, he remarks, never intended anybody to live in such a place, ‘only in just a little bit of Europe and in New Zealand’. A welcome moment of light relief.

In relation to All’s Well that Ends Well, ‘there are two kinds of ego satisfaction.’ In Measure for Measure, there are ‘four claims to be made against a law we consider unjust’, in Othello we can identify ‘two types of despair’. To understand Macbeth one must recognise ‘three classes of crime’ and ‘three kinds of societies’. The rhetoric of love may also be said to be of three kinds. Less schematic but not a bit less serious are disquisitions on such subjects as the Comic, which includes the observation that masters have essence but servants only existence – it’s a pity servants are going out of fashion, they were a useful dramatic resource (see ‘Balaam and His Ass’ in The Dyer’s Hand).

These explanations can go on so long there isn’t always time to say much about the plays themselves. Auden’s head is full of ideas about Christian ethics and psychology which an encounter with Shakespeare provides an occasion to expound, the more so in that Shakespeare’s assumptions concerning these matters are evidently Christian. What is society? How ought I to love my neighbour? How must I love God? ‘Beliefs are religious or nothing,’ he declared. He thought his own earlier poetry was marred by fake beliefs. Shakespeare’s wasn’t.

It seemed to follow from these convictions that the aesthetic, art in general and especially his own art of poetry, were, when understood in relation to the seriousness of religious belief, pretty unimportant. ‘On one side the artist starts with an acute ego problem. Art is completely unnecessary. Like love, it is not a matter of duty.’ He accepted Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical, which condemns the former as despair. What is important is the ethical-religious awareness of one’s relation to God. This view, expressed more directly and forcibly in other writings, affects much that Auden says about Shakespeare, as it was to affect his own poetic practice. Later he tried to write poetry that was as near to prose as possible without sacrificing verse altogether, and here he singles out for admiration a passage from Cymbeline V.iii.28-51, a speech ‘often cut by directors’; it is a ‘kind of writing that is not immediately noticeable, but anyone who practises verse writing returns again and again and again to such passages, more than to spectacular things . . . A writer wanting to learn his trade can find out how to write verse by studying them.’

This is one of Auden’s rather rare comments on Shakespeare’s language. He might say of a particular passage, like Henry V’s soliloquy about the cares of kingship, that it is ‘terribly bad poetry’, but he doesn’t say anything more, except that this ‘is just as it should be’. He would read aloud long passages and pass on without recorded comment. The effect is a sort of compliment to the audience: they don’t require laborious explanations, for their presence is in itself a claim to be qualified to recognise good writing. His editor says that ‘he can, of course, respond with perfect pitch to Shakespeare’s verse’, and this is indeed of course, but he chooses to do so rather rarely. When he does he sometimes depends, wisely, on George Rylands’s Words and Poetry, a book published in 1928 and, in its kind, never superseded. Auden may very well have said more on the subject of Shakespeare’s poetry than has survived; but it is still true that his main interests were elsewhere.

In a sense, he believed that Shakespeare’s were, too.

I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude towards his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously.

In the circumstances this is about the biggest compliment he could have offered.

Auden was at this time involved in an anxious love affair, and while he naturally does not refer directly to his own life, he occasionally meditates on love, and, more generally, on the responsibilities of one person to any other person. He quotes Denis de Rougemont (romantic love is a rather absurd illusion), and admires Kierkegaard’s lofty view of marriage as the proving ground of a spiritual relationship. Such were his preoccupations; they stem from his own situation in those years, and are of interest to his biographers, though he himself believed that an artist’s biography was his work, other talk of his life being objectionable tittle-tattle. Sometimes he does, rather surprisingly, speculate about Shakespeare’s life, with the unspoken implication that as a poet he is better equipped to understand it than a non-poet would be. Artists had to learn and do a job, a job for which they might sometimes, perhaps always, feel some disgust. He is sure Shakespeare did. He identifies a period during which Shakespeare was ‘either ill or exhausted’ and during which he wrote, or perhaps only partly wrote, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline and Pericles. And he is fairly sure that Shakespeare would agree with him that art is often ‘rather a bore’.

He makes some interesting remarks about the difference between minor and major writers, the latter ‘engaged in perpetual endeavours’, always trying something new and not caring if it fails, like Shakespeare, Picasso and Wagner, while the minor writer works on one masterpiece with the idea of bringing it to perfection in its kind, like Dante or Proust. The Sonnets worry him a little, as does all poetry that concerns itself with what look like private problems such as those caused by sexual desire. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating – which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down?’ He discusses these matters at some length in his lecture on Romeo and Juliet. And although for the most part he proceeds dutifully through the canon he occasionally jibs at plays he despises – The Taming of the Shrew is one, The Merry Wives of Windsor another. Indeed he declined to discuss The Merry Wives, and told the class they could be grateful it was written because it provided the occasion for ‘a very great operatic masterpiece’. He then played a recording of Falstaff, a substitution that brought a protest from one of the students in the audience who claimed he was paying to hear Auden talk, not put on records.

Hamlet, Macbeth and Coriolanus elicit a more unconventionally disparaging view. He feels sure Shakespeare was dissatisfied with Hamlet, disliking the soliloquies because they are in a way detachable from the play – a fair though contestable point – and, more freakishly, arguing that the whole thing must have been written to spite the actors. Sometimes he may not greatly like a play but still find a lot to say about it, as with As You Like It, where he goes conscientiously into ancient primitivism and Empson on pastoral, with quotations from an Old Irish poem, from Goethe, and from Alice in Wonderland. Discussing Love’s Labour’s Lost, he gives a summary account of courtly love based on C.S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love, as well as a competent account of Renaissance Neoplatonism, mostly, and legitimately, cribbed from Panofsky. He thinks this one of the most perfect of the plays, and says some fine things about its wit.

The chapter on The Merchant of Venice is as good as anything I’ve read on the subject, with a clear view of Shakespeare’s idea of Venetian society, an excellent discussion of the usury question, and an account of Shylock that is both plausible and enlightened. But it is on the plays he most admired that he writes best: the Henry IV pair, and Antony and Cleopatra. The argument of the lecture on the first of these subjects is developed in The Dyer’s Hand. Auden loathes Prince Henry, the sort of person who becomes a statesman or a college president. (Mendelson describes his reaction to James Bryant Conant, the President of Harvard: ‘This is the real enemy.’) But he loves Falstaff, not in the old vacant, adoring, incomparable Sir John way, but as a man with a life, and an antitype to the ghastly prince; not a character you would choose to run a country or a university, but a man of style; fat, but compare his way of talking and behaving with Hal’s and it is the prince who seems fat. Auden then meditates on the reason people get fat: they eat humble pie and swallow their pride as drink; and drink destroys the sense of time (time, as he argues, is very important in these plays), and makes one childlike, innocent. Falstaff is attached to life through Hal, and when he is rejected he dies. He would be an artist except that artists need not only the gift of liveliness, language and wit, but also something of Hal’s Machiavellianism and prudence.

The Winter’s Tale III.iii is praised as ‘the most beautiful scene in Shakespeare’ – it is the scene on the coast of Bohemia in which Antigonus deposits the baby Perdita and then, as the shepherds discover the child, is eaten by a bear. However, it is the situation, not the language, that Auden admires – he says you could describe it in other words and it would still be beautiful in the way a dream can be. Auden believed in the validity of myths, however they were told; and he distrusted language, which he also worshipped, as only a good poet has a right to do. But the famous speech of the old shepherd in that scene must surely have contributed to his sense of its exceptional beauty.

Otherwise his highest praise is reserved for Antony and Cleopatra, of which he speaks with a certain magnificence. He regards with sympathy the love of the principals, so different from that of Romeo and Juliet or Troilus and Cressida; the first pair are just discovering sexual love, the second are coarse and false, but Antony and Cleopatra are having their last affair and its purpose is to enable them to escape the future, old age and death. ‘They need the fullest possible publicity and the maximum assistance from good cooking, good clothes, good drink.’ The poetry of their love talk is like fine cooking, a technique to maintain excitement even as the senses cool. He makes this point by quoting some ‘marvellous’ verses, and marvellous they are:

Lord of lords!

O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from

The world’s great snare uncaught?

And the little scene, certainly a work of genius, in which ‘the god Hercules, whom Antony lov’d,/Now leaves him,’ is called ‘beautiful’ by a critic who rarely uses such language. This play moved him more than any other, though he also loved some of the late romantic comedies because they represent ‘the world as you want it to be, and nothing makes one more inclined to cry’. But he is still more interested in the situation presented in the Roman play – the vast imperial setting, Ventidius doing Antony’s fighting for him on the remote eastern frontier, Octavius coldly planning in Rome, the future of the known world in the balance, while this couple, both ‘getting on’, are saying wonderful things to one another, and hating as intemperately as they love. ‘Tremendous power’, says Auden; but there is also a worldliness in which we all share, for ‘We all reach a time when the god Hercules leaves us.’

A concluding lecture makes some just remarks about the superiority of Shakespeare to all his competitors in the brief flowering enjoyed by the Elizabethan-Jacobean drama. In a few years Shakespeare, serving it, developed his ‘middle style’, a style ‘paced with matter’, as Rylands remarked: a style that reaches an extraordinary and difficult maturity in the speeches of Leontes at the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, which have ‘a complete freedom of sentence style’. One wishes there were records of those Saturday afternoon sessions devoted partly to analysis of such passages.

We are left, then, with a Shakespeare who, like his expositor, practised an art without taking it too seriously. ‘Increasingly he suggests . . . that art is rather a bore.’ Although the book contains many such remarks, it does take Shakespeare seriously, partly by remaking him in the image of the poet devised by the poet who is discussing him. We may wonder at the intensity of conscience and intellect Auden brought to a task he must sometimes have thought a waste of his time. That it never occurred to him to save the notes and make them into a book strengthens one’s respect for the book, now it has appeared. It is the tribute of a mature fellow craftsman, with as much scholarship as he needed to serve his purpose – certainly nothing like the effort of research that went into John Berryman’s book on Shakespeare, but enough to illuminate the subject, and along the way to illuminate the lecturer. It is a remarkable achievement, done, to borrow Milton’s phrase, with the left hand.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences