Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare

…is one of the most stunning pieces of criticism I’ve ever read. Just plain jaw-dropping. As far as Shakespearean criticism is concerned, I place it second only to Northrop Frye’s Notes on Shakespeare.

Back in 1947, Auden proposed a series of one-hour lectures at the New School for Social Research: he would read Shakespeare’s plays in chronologically order and then provide a lecture on each. His lectures would be free of charge and completely open to the public.

The results are just astonishing. He performs brilliantly in the requisite role of explicator de texte. Here’s a sample, from his lecture on Othello:

Aaron, Shylock, Richard III, and Don John the Bastard are all patently villainous characters. Nobody trusts them. The moment they come on stage, we say, “This is a bad man.” Claudius, Proteus, Oliver, and Angelo are the same. They all have direct and visible motives. Claudius is possessed by ambition, Proteus by rivalry, Oliver by envy, and Angelo by jealousy of purity. But the point about Iago is that everyone must trust him. He resembles Boyet, Friar Lawrence, Puck, and Oberon, Prince Hal—Henry V, Hamlet, Pandarus, and the Duke of Vienna – all Machiavellian characters who manage people, though Iago is more like the characters in the comedies, Boyet and Puck, in that he does what he does for fun. Hal wants to rule, Hamlet to trap, Pandarus to revivify love, the Duke to make people conscious of what they are. Most Iagos onstage are impossible because they act sinister, like regular villains, so that no one will trust them. Iago must be plain and innocuous, absolutely ordinary, someone who could be chosen as a Secret Service man today, “honest” because that is what he looks like.

I love that line: “Iago [must be] someone who could be chosen as a Secret Service man.” A wonderful example of a critic free of some pet theoretical orthodoxy, a man willing to let his mind confront his topic and bring all of his experience – in this case Auden’s indulges his theater-going experience as someone who actually partakes of this stuff – to bear on his conclusion.

Here’s a snippet from the opening paragraph of his lecture on The Tempest:

People have very naturally and in a sense rightly considered the play Shakespeare’s farewell piece. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of it is irrelevant. I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It’s not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they’d finished their work.

Leaving aside Auden’s theories on psycho-biological determinism and the irony of literary careers, what’s shocking is what’s easily glossed over: “There are surprisingly few incomplete works of art.” I’ve never thought about the subject before, but Wystan’s absolutely right. I can think only of a few off-hand: Sydney’s Arcadia and Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon come to mind (well, there’s also Capote’s Answered Prayers, but it’s a mess of a book that poor Truman spent more time bragging about to reporters than writing). Not only are Auden’s lectures stocked with brilliant one-offs like the above, observations remarkable for the way they clarify and instruct, but, as the above example makes clear, Auden’s writing also has that other necessary component of great criticism: a willingness to digress, however briefly, from the topic at hand, to glance over at something else that caught his attention before returning to his task. The effect illuminates the work of art as well as the mind adjudicating it. Those of you with an analogous frame of mind might want to think about how some movie directors often have their hero notice something – an object or a vista – before beginning the arduous errand of saving the day.

Here’s another sentence that jolts one with its obvious clarity: “Art isn’t divided between the good and the bad, but between the boring and the interesting.” Right again, Wystan. And one could argue that literary art stopped being interesting when writers stopped attempting to entertain, when they began removing the interesting parts, the parts that bring pleasure (such as plot, character, rhyme, meter, etc.), and leaving only self-indulgent boredom and teased-out obscurities.

Do yourself and your critical sensibilities a favor and buy Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare. You’ll be rewarded with an object lesson in how criticism should be practiced, but sadly no longer is.

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