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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 well have such a dream as Iago reports.2

In fact, Iago does tell some definite lies, but rather fewer than you’d expect. He is economical with the untruth.

Auden loved expressing himself aphoristically, and often an aphorism is a statement which is only true if handled with a certain sympathy. Auden said: “Every woman wants to play Hamlet, just as every man wants to play Lady Bracknell.” The comic effect comes from the disparity in the level of ambition between woman and man: cross-dressing suggests to the one the opportunity to satisfy the highest cravings of the spirit, to the other nothing grander than the opportunity to camp it up.

One evening in Michigan, Auden talked to Charlie Miller about Shakespeare. He said:

When a director seeks an actor to play the role of Hamlet, he may as well go out on the street and take the first person who comes along. Because the role doesn’t require an actor. One has only to recite Hamlet’s speeches, which are instruction and arguments to himself on how to act the roles he decides to play.3

Of course the role does in fact require an actor, someone with the stamina, the voice, the fencing skill, and so forth. But if Auden is taken as meaning that the actor will find no great mystery in how to play the part, so long as he pays attention to the internal directions—that is, to the pointers given by the author within the speeches themselves—this is profoundly true, not only of Hamlet but of Shakespeare in general.

Quite how many worthwhile performances of Shakespeare Auden would have seen, I do not know. Probably not many. In 1939 he expressed the belief that The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well that Ends Well were about subjects with which Shakespeare could do nothing. “Genius,” he wrote,

is rarely as artistically successful as talent. Had his range and power of expression been less, [Shakespeare] would have been a better writer for the theater. In Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, for example, what he is interested in expressing, the vastness of human corruption, is a lyrical not a dramatic theme, and is more than the plots and characters can bear.

With the exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor, all these plays used to be seen as presenting problems. Measure for Measure, for instance, was much disliked, and considered a dramatic failure, and it has only been in the latter part of this century that imaginative directors such as Peter Brook and Jonathan Miller have had a success with it. Auden’s dismissal of such pieces is conventional rather than odd.

What is odd is the habit of mind in Auden that considers, say, the character of Falstaff, finds him out of place in Henry IV, imagines Falstaff out of the play and in the audience watching the play without him, commends Queen Elizabeth’s perceptiveness in wanting to see Falstaff in a comedy, and finds that Falstaff only really becomes a fully achieved character in Verdi’s opera. Or finds Iago’s motivation more fully explicated in Boito’s libretto than in Shakespeare’s play. As if Falstaff and Iago are preexistent essences. Falstaff has to wait around for Verdi in order to find his essence truly expressed.

Auden’s playfulness might have been better appreciated by his students if the word “ludic” had enjoyed an earlier vogue, and someone could have whispered in their ears: this isn’t irreverence—this is ludicity. But of course an essay like “The Joker in the Pack” goes well beyond the ludic. As it develops its notion of Iago as practical joker, and then, by a surprise maneuver, presents the sinister practical joker as a scientific inquirer, the piece converts itself into a moral essay of plain earnestness: an attack on society’s acceptance of our right to knowledge at whatever cost, from the gossip column to the cobalt bomb.

A horror of public gossip, a dislike for the glib intrusion on another’s private life, seems to have crept over Auden in his later years, and it provides the theme for both the opening and the conclusion of his essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which forms the introduction to the Signet Classics edition, where he attacks the blurring of the borderline between the desire for truth and idle curiosity, arguing that

a great deal of what today passes for scholarly research is an activity no different from that of reading somebody’s private correspondence when he is out of the room, and it doesn’t really make it morally any better if he is out of the room because he is in his grave.

When the Sonnets were first printed by Thomas Thorpe (described by Stephen Booth as a small-time entrepreneur who specialized in acquiring manuscripts and arranging for them to be printed) in 1609, they had a dedication signed “T.T.” and addressed “to the Onelie begetter of these insuing Sonnets Mr. W.H.” Auden had come to believe that the Sonnets had been procured by the “Onelie begetter,” that this was the meaning of Thorpe’s dedication, and that they had been published without Shakespeare’s permission.

How the sonnets came to be published—whether Shakespeare gave copies to some friend who betrayed him, or whether some enemy stole them—we shall probably never know. Of one thing I am certain: Shakespeare must have been horrified when they were published.

In other words, Auden believed the Sonnets to be an intimate record of the poet’s involvement with a young man and a woman, and that both of these affairs were, in different ways, extremely intense. But what Auden did not wish to say was that Shakespeare’s love for the young man was homosexual. He did not want to use the word—or indeed the word “heterosexual”—about the kind of love he felt was involved.

In a passage which has since become notorious, Auden tries to avoid two interpretational fallacies:

Confronted with the extremely odd story [the Sonnets] tell, with the fact that, in so many of them, Shakespeare addresses a young man in terms of passionate devotion, the sound and sensible citizen, alarmed at the thought that our Top-Bard could have any experience with which he is unfamiliar, has either been shocked and wished that Shakespeare had never written them, or, in defiance of common sense, tried to persuade himself that Shakespeare was merely expressing in somewhat hyperbolic terms, such as an Elizabethan poet might be expected to use, what any normal man feels for a friend of his own sex. The homosexual reader, on the other hand, determined to secure our Top-Bard as a patron saint of the Homintern, has been uncritically enthusiastic about the first one hundred and twenty-six of the sonnets, and preferred to ignore those to the Dark Lady in which the relationship is unequivocally sexual, and the fact that Shakespeare was a married man and a father.

The expression “Homintern,” formed by analogy with Comintern, was one which Auden had been wanting to get into print for decades. It was supposed to refer to an international conspiracy of buggers, to any one of whom being a member of the Homintern would be like being one of the elect. Co-opting Shakespeare would be good for the prestige of the club, but Auden was reluctant to admit him to full membership.

In Such is My Love, a study of the Sonnets published in 1985, Joseph Pequigney criticized Auden’s “eccentric and unpersuasive critical performance” in his essay, and contrasted the public disavowal with a remark Auden made during an evening at the Stravinskys’ in 1964. Auden, according to Robert Craft, had said, “It won’t do just yet to admit that the top Bard was in the homintern….” Actually that is not the whole of what Auden said, but I shall come back to that. Pequigney argues that this statement, if accurate,

is startling, and less for what it says than for gainsaying the stand taken in the Signet introduction, which was written at about the same time. If Auden did not believe what he wrote there and prudently falsified his opinion—and we can never be certain which of the two views he held—we have not necessarily the only instance of a discrepancy between what an expositor wrote and what he privately thought, but it is the only instance I know of where the discrepancy can be documented as being at least feasible.

  1. 1

    See Charles H. Miller, Auden: An American Friendship (Scribner’s, 1983), pp. 29, 92.

  2. 2

    W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (Vintage, 1989), p. 266.

  3. 3

    Miller, Auden, p. 61.

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