To the Editors:
In his excellent essay on Auden and Shakespeare [NYR, March 23], James Fenton reports that Auden’s flippancy about Shakespeare often shocked auditors. In particular, Auden disturbed people with the idea that Iago was “the most honest character” in Othello. This approach must have something to do with being a writer. For it is striking that Coleridge, in an 1818 lecture, declared Iago a “bold partisan for truth, but yet a truth converted into falsehood by the absence of all the necessary modifications caused by the frail nature of man.” And Melville, who read the Biographia Literaria in 1848, was similarly drawn to the idea that in characters like Iago, Lear, Timon, and the Fools, Shakespeare “craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter or even hint of them!”
As for Auden’s “lack of humility” before Shakespeare, John Berryman once wrote about Shakespeare that
Our incredulity, to tell you the truth, does us small credit. It savours of what Kierkegaard called “playing the game of marvelling at world-history.” It betokens inexperience, and perhaps it is a little unmanly. At the highest levels of artistic understanding—in Coleridge, Baudelaire, Melville—you will not find it. Up there, admiration for Shakespeare strengthens, but incredulity about him evaporates. We judge of others by ourselves.
One supposes that Berryman himself, and now Auden and James Fenton, can be added to this list of poets’ fine “flippancy.”
May 25, 2000