ISBN 13: 978-0-691-19716-6 Princeton £14.99

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

Between October 1946 and May 1947 Auden delivered a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s plays, in chronological order, at the New School for Social Research, New York. Collected here with notes and appendices they make a volume of three hundred and more pages. They are fairly short and give Auden the opportunity to explore ideas and cite favourite influences. In writing of Romeo and Juliet, for example, he explores the origins of romantic love. It’s thought to have emerged in southern France some 800 years ago due to the large number of unattached knights, but Auden relates it also to the Cathar heresy. There may be something in this, but it’s a long way from Shakespeare’s play. Auden also refers to  Roland, who, when he’s dying, thinks of glory rather than love. That romantic love is a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon is interesting, but culture can make use only of what is natural, as Milan Kundera points to in his concept of the “anthropological scandal”. Affection is a natural phenomenon, as is sexual attraction. The ways in which they conjoin or don’t is interesting, but does an appreciation of the play require such an anthropological understanding? Auden also quotes lengthily from Kierkegaard, who he appears to favour, on the external and internal history of an individual. Immediately after, he quotes also at length from Dante, giving us, he says, a warning drawn from Paolo and Francesca’s love. Amidst all this the play tends to get lost. Auden writes around the play rather than about it. 

This is characteristic of these essays. Auden allows the play to spark off some association and he follows it where he fancies. He also has a tendency to concatenations of gnomic statements:

“Take what you do as a game. There are two mistakes one can make in this,however: a failure to devote oneself, which is bad, and devoting oneself only when one thinks it’s important, which is worse.” 

This from the essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, Auden believes, anthropomorphises nature as a means of exploring the human relation to it. This idea permits him to theorise about myth by leaning on Freud, Milton and Dante. The quick summary of Freud’s Totem and Taboo is impressive, but does it help much in appreciating the play? Auden’s Aunt Mildred seems to have been a badly put-upon woman too but her sister’s sprained ankle before they are due to go on holiday, though it may illustrate his point that what is ostensibly accidental may contain a degree of wilfulness, seems a somewhat roundabout way of making a simple point.  

Auden dismisses The Taming of the Shrew as a complete failure. He declares it the only one but then says Titus Andronicus may be another, which is typical of a certain laziness of thought. He thinks the play a failure because its plot is that of farce which wasn’t Shakespeare’s forte. “You cannot have a great writer of farce without the cooperation of the people who perform in it.” Surely this applies to any drama? Perhaps what he means is that farce makes greater demands on the actor’s understanding of the writer’s lines; but that’s hardly true of Ben Travers. Auden’s more vital point, however, is that farce must not touch on a serious subject. In this, he’s quite wrong. Orton, Britain’s best 20th century writer of farce, learned from the Greeks that subject matter is tragic, comic or farcical only according to how it’s treated, not inherently. Auden also thinks farce is “pure caprice” and there is “no necessity whatsoever”. Orton’s plays work with the precision of a good watch. There is absolute necessity in the unfolding of the madness. The war of the sexes, as he dubs it, is too serious today to be treated as farce. His criticism of the play is entirely in these broad terms. There is no close analysis to show how the play fails dramatically.  

Shylock is an outsider by character not because of his Jewishness, Auden claims. There is no racial prejudice in the play. Rather it’s about a form of society which needs outsiders. The question is breeding or perhaps to put it another way, manners. Shylock’s fault is that his revenge is in excess of the injury suffered. He lacks the restraint and tact to accept a commensurate compensation. By carrying his grievances too far (this a comment from the essay on Hamlet) he invites his nemesis.  He makes use of the law which Auden calls “frivolous” while morality is “serious”. The law defeats him by being applied to the letter. Yet his real defeat is moral because he is motivated by hatred. Auden ends this essay with a bit of nonsense about anti-Semitism. Gentiles, he claims, want to annihilate Jews because Jews are serious and Gentiles aren’t. A generalisation it would be impossible to confirm. The notion that Gentiles, all Gentiles, want to destroy Jews is bizarre. As Norman Finkelstein says, if the  Gentiles have been trying to wipe out the Jews for thousands of years, they’ve done a pretty bad job.  

Hamlet, Eliot thought, was an artistic failure; but he also called Lawrence a heretic and wasn’t nicknamed The Undertaker for nothing. Eliot had a fear of life, and sex in particular, disliked democracy and was an anti-Semite. Auden thinks Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as an act of spite against actors. That the play has faults is without doubt and Auden picks up on some, but like Eliot, he is too sweeping and gives little credit to the play’s strengths.  

There is much of interest in these essays, but they are not always lectures on Shakespeare. They are lectures in which Auden uses Shakespeare as a springboard. They are full of fascinating references, but close analysis of the plays wasn’t Auden’s intention.