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[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Author: Dirda, Michael
Date: Jan 21, 2001
Start Page: T.15

At this point Auden presumably bid his class goodbye, collected his paycheck, and went home to work on "In Praise of Limestone" and the other poems in Nones (1951). He never published his lectures, and no drafts survive. But, it turns out, the industrious Audenophile Alan Ansen had taken detailed notes during most of the talks. As fans of Ansen's enthralling Table Talk of W.H. Auden know, the younger poet and scholar possessed a Boswell-like gift for transcription and recall, so much so that he often captured the very speaking voice of his idol. Ansen's notes, supplemented by those of a handful of other auditors, provide the essential text for Lectures on Shakespeare. Superbly reconstructed, edited and introduced by [Arthur C. Kirsch], professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, this volume also includes the course's final examinations, linguistic remarks from the Saturday seminars, an appendix indicating highlighted passages in the one-volume Kittredge edition of Shakespeare used by Auden, and the identification of quotes, allusions and titles. In every way, Kirsch has produced a model of useful scholarship.

Yet why should ordinary readers care? Isn't the world overrun with Shakespeare commentaries? Certainly, the novice student of the plays should probably stick with a more conventional guidebook, say the graceful yet shrewd reflections of Mark Van Doren (Shakespeare) or last year's thoughtful study by Frank Kermode (Shakespeare's Language). Not that Auden doesn't offer brilliant insights into all the plays -- he does, and more on this in a moment -- but ultimately Shakespeare merely provides a springboard for the real pleasure of these pages: the 20th-century's most nimble poetic intelligence reflecting on nature and history, poetry and politics, time, self, community and love.

Who could stop quoting such observations? "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." Open to any page and you may find Auden discussing Shakespeare's metrics, the mixture of prose and verse in "Hamlet," the character of late works in an artist's career, why Iago is a kind of saint manque{acute}, the nature of farce, how young Shakespeare learned "the interdependence of character and situation" through the study of history in the chronicle plays, and even, in a meditation on Shylock, that "the Jew represents seriousness to the Gentile, which is resented, because we wish to be frivolous and do not wish to be reminded that something serious exists."

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