Auden’s Shakespeare

Although Auden’s engagement with Shakespeare produced the most wonderful and surprising results, both in prose and in verse, it is not to be supposed that, during his lifetime, he was always listened to on the subject with sympathy or even respect. Throughout his adult life, Auden enjoyed celebrity as a poet, but that celebrity did not automatically entitle him to assume the august mantle of critic and teacher. Here he is, glimpsed through the memoir of Charles H. Miller, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1941:

When he got to Shakespeare, he drew blackboard diagrams to show that Othello was stupid and that Iago was the most honest character in the play. I wasn’t the only student to be put off, or let down, by his seeming flippancy toward Shakespeare; few of us had known so unorthodox a teacher, and none of us had known such a presence with such methods.

And here is the same witness, five years later, in New York:

At the New School lecture on Shakespeare, Amalia and I sat down front, as we had in Angell Hall in Ann Arbor. We smiled knowingly when Wystan made conscious efforts to be “original” about Shakespeare’s plays, and we weren’t surprised when a few elderly academics got up and walked out in protest at Wystan’s lack of humility before the Bard.1

Charlie and Amalia, newly married college friends, smiling knowingly at each other with Wystan up there on the platform—good old Wystan—and the elderly academics walking out: it is a charming and believable scene. People normally write in memoirs about the experiences that made a real impact on them in life. Here, more valuably, we have a description of somebody making absolutely no impact whatever.

Charlie Miller knew Auden very well: he shared a house with him on campus, cooked for him, told him his nightmares, showed him his journals, liked, admired him even, kept a useful record of his conversation, thought of his English 135 class that year in Michigan as “an individual monument.” But he seems never to have taken Auden seriously as a critic of Shakespeare, either in his youth or at the time he was writing his book.

And you can see why. You can see how an offense had been committed against the decorums. The students listened attentively, but suspected they were being taken for a ride. How could Iago be shown, by diagrams, to be the most honest character in the play? Well, we no longer have the diagrams, but we do seem to have the remainder of the argument in Auden’s essay on Othello, “The Joker in the Pack.” Everything that Iago says to Othello, Auden argues,

is designed to bring to Othello’s consciousness what he has already guessed is there. Accordingly, he has no need to tell lies. Even his speech, “I lay with Cassio lately,” can be a truthful account of something which actually happened: from what we know of Cassio, he might very…

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