on 26 May 2002
This marvellous book, Lectures on Shakespeare, brings into book form a series of lectures given by Auden over fifty years ago to students in America. The book affords us the opportunity to share in Auden's thoughts about Shakespeare but also, and equally importantly, how his reading and understanding of Shakespeare adds to his own personal development. Auden brings his usual perceptive and poetic sensibility to his reading of the plays and sonnets in order to bring them to life. His readings are imaginatively grounded in psychological and sociological realities. These readings are mediated through authors whom Auden was reading at the time: Kierkegaard, Pascal, Buber, St. Augustine and Tillich for example.
These lectures on Shakespeare enable us to witness the mind of a great poet as he wrestles with meaning in his own life, and thereby extends to us, the reader, a helping hand, as we endeavour to make sense of our own lives. As usual in Auden's work, he is able to move seamlessly between the general and the particular. Auden at one point tells us that "Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies both turn on the idea of original sin and man's inveterate tendency to foster illusions, one of the worst of which is the illusion of being free of illusion, the illusion of detachment." He then offers us such insights like, " Iago is a saint manqué", or "Usually in tragedy a good person is made to suffer through a flaw in his goodness. In Macbeth this pattern is reversed: it is the streak of goodness that causes pathos and suffering." The book is replete with such aperçus. It is a book to be dipped into and savoured.
One of the lovely things about this book is the personal, conversational tone displayed. It is almost as if we are listening to the words of a friend. There is nothing dry and academic about this book. Although full of brilliant insights about Shakespeare, Auden and life in general, there is a charming commonplace intimacy about the book. All in all, for my money, this book represents a real marriage of true minds.
on 5 July 2001
I find that this is a book I can constantly return to. Auden writes about his love of Shakespeare from a very personal viewpoint. He is able to bring out the great depth and humanity of Shakespeare. One of the most charming elements of the book is the way Auden reveals his own warmth and wisdom in his discussions of the various plays. One of my own personal favourites is his essay on King Lear. I am a long time fan of this play but I find that Auden is able to bring his own very personal and distinctive insights to his reading of the tragedy. When I return to my own reading of King Lear, I find that I bring to it a whole new perspective. Auden in his lectures on Shakespeare brings a marvelloust richness and depth to my understanding of the plays and indeed sonnets of Shakespeare.