The Shakespearian Rag

Shakespeare Our Contemporary

by Jan Kott, Translated from the Polish by Boleslaw Taborski, with an Introduction by Martin Esslin
Doubleday, 241 pp., $4.50

A year or so ago, the name of Jan Kott began to appear in English theater programs. Peter Hall quoted liberally from Kott in his notes on the Stratford version of the early history plays of Shakespeare; and Peter Brook’s Lear, seen not long ago in New York, was avowedly indebted to Kott’s essay on the play.

Certainly it is unusual for the speculations of a professor of literature to have so immediate an impact on the public stages; and to have attended with such enthusiasm to the bidding of a Shakespearian scholar may well ease the conscience of the directors. Unfortunately they show signs of being factious about it; the mood is well represented by Mary McCarthy, who has joined the Kott party and has herself written, shall we say, unstuffily on Macbeth, when she remarks that Kott makes “Anglo-Saxon Shakespeare criticism of the last twenty-five years seem smug and stuffy.” In fact the pre-publication puffs, or rather blasts, for Kott’s book suggest that he is to be sharply distinguished from other writers on Shakespeare, not for his learning but because as a Polish ex-Stalinist he has seen a world in which the flesh hates what it gets and the modern machiavel sends out his murderers before dawn. Possibly because this is a harder position to maintain than may at first sight appear, the champions of Kott have invented, as a comic antithesis to him, a sort of ivy-clad professor-figure, a dismal antiquary cut off from the world and myopically engrossed in microscopic investigations of texts he can’t hope to penetrate. There may be a few of these types left, say in Oxford, but hardly enough to justify this myth-making; and in any case it is wrong, simply because you like Kott, to neglect all the other estimable achievements of Shakespeare criticism in this century, much of it by men who have given the subject more time and effort than he has, and who are quite unlikely to be uniformly imperceptive (as their frequent anticipations of Kott may be held to confirm). The purpose of this preamble is not of course to defend professors, but simply to say that knocking them has no relevance to the defense of Kott, unless you wish to conceal the fact that the most interesting material in Kott’s book is often not particularly original. It may be added that what is most original in his book is, in my opinion, for the most part useless and sometimes harmful, or would be if anybody really took it seriously.

Writing with much energy and enthusiasm in prose which, if the translation is fair, could be described as excitedly banal, Mr. Kott appears, broadly speaking, to rely on two methods. The first is to treat Shakespeare as very up-to-date and especially meaningful to anybody who has experienced totalitarian politics. Thus Hastings, in Richard III, is less a medieval or Elizabethan politician who was outwitted and lost his head, than a Stalinist over-reached, a Beria. The second method…

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