The Very Short Dead Critics Gift Guide

In the 1950s, three esteemed critics, Jacques Barzun, W.H. Auden, and Lionel Trilling formed the editorial board of the Readers’ Subscription Book Club. That Club and its successor, The Mid-Century Book Club, had as their missions to bring sophisticated new and classic books to a general public. The essays these critics wrote individually as introductions to these books are collected in the wonderful A Company of Readers (edited by friend of the site Arthur Krystal), and will provide fodder for future posts; but as a special holiday treat I’m going to look at one of the few selections they all commented on: The New Arden Shakespeare (1961).

It might be a little demanding to ask for a complete leather-bound set of Shakespeare for Christmas/Hannukah, especially one that is presently between editions. No doubt some sleuthing might unearth some used sets of the second series, which is the one the essays below refer to; the third series is presently being issued volume by volume by Metheuen Drama (link to the single-volume alternative here, as well as here). But back to the point — to the essays, and why a complete set of Shakespeare’s works is something these critics feel is not only valuable but essential reading.

W.H. Auden writes about how although everyone knows Shakespeare is “Top Bard” (there is a reality show that will never happen), he is little read by the young, who would rather read Romantic poetry or plays by Chekhov or Shaw. For a man over 30, Auden urges, “if he can once get himself to read [Shakespeare],the more he reads Shakespeare the more he becomes convinced that Shakespeare really is Top Bard, that between him and every other English writer there is an immense gulf.” Auden compares Shakespeare to Dickens, and claims while he loves the latter once you have read three or four of Dickens’s works you have read enough to know the Dickensian world. “But to have read, let us say, one comedy, one tragedy, one chronicle play and one non-dramatic poem of Shakespeare’s, will not give you any proper idea of the Shakespearean world: that can only be gotten by reading everything he wrote.” A tall order, no doubt, but hard to argue against. For to know Shakespeare one must know Hamlet and Lear, all of the histories, the sonnets and the comedies. The rest of Auden’s remarks praise the Arden edition in particular for its functionality (“one volume, one play”), having the right amount of critical apparatus, and being “designed for re-reading by the middle-aged and the old.” This is a Shakespeare for the ages, to last a lifetime.

Jacques Barzun also focuses on the physical quality of the New Arden books: he likes that they are “tall and thin, made to hold in one hand; the paper is of a pleasant cream tint, flexible, and trained from birth (doubtless by Juliet’s nurse) to lie flat; the ink is black and, as I said, the editors are discreet.” By this he means there are not too many footnotes, and what is there clarifies vocabulary; there is no unnecessary commentary. Like Auden, Barzun applauds the New Arden for not cluttering up the text with superfluous scholarship. Barzun’s advice is straightforward:

Take up and read. Read Shakespeare. Read him in the most attractive edition. Read him in bed, while shaving, at lectures, during parties, in the dentist chair. Read him in whole and in bits. Read him until you possess him so well that nobody — no editor, no producer, no critic — can poison your pleasure. Read him in his new leafy forest of Arden: it is as good a spot as you will find.

You will not find Lionel Trilling reading Shakespeare in a forest, or, God forbid, a city park. He argues that there is a element about reading Shakespeare that makes it much more complicated than Barzun’s simple exhortions. Trilling asserts, “I find I am reluctant to bring into public view the matter of reading Shakespeare: it is one of the few really private things in the world and it ought to remain so.” Unlike seeing a Shakespeare play, which is a public and communal act, Trilling thinks “to read Shakespeare is virtually a secret act. It is by no means socially licensed.” It strikes him as immodest, boastful, pretentious (and in need of many explanatory italics). “All one’s priggishness lies in wait. Society allows one to have read Shakespeare, and to that act of the past it even gives a frank admiration. It understands that one might study Shakespeare, and it is much interested in anyone who teaches Shakespeare. But to read Shakespeare — that is to say, for no good reason, for pleasure — is on all sides thought to be an act of cultural hubris.” Therefore, Trilling concludes, one must read Shakespeare for “personal and private reasons or not at all.”

This is quite fascinating: Why is Shakespeare reading so much more looked down upon (or looked up upon?) than other kinds of indulgence in high culture? Is it more embarrassing than reading, say, the Odyssey or Dante or Romantic poetry or some other Great Book or writer in the Western canon? Why is Shakespeare more personal and private? It must be because he is otherwise available to us by going to see his plays, and because his reputation as a genius is beyond dispute. By choosing to experience Shakespeare on one’s own the reader is being arrogant enough to assert that he wants to commune (or as Trilling would say, commune) with the genius of Shakespeare. He is saying he is up to the challenge of taking on the Top Bard, unmediated and unhampered by the hundreds of years of literary history that litter the landscape between Shakespeare and the contemporary reader.

That is precisely what — Auden, Barzun and Trilling tell us in their essays — the New Arden Shakespeare is designed to do. Whether you read it during parties or in secret, whether you read all of it or a pick a sonnet here and a tragedy there, Shakespeare is sure to enrich your life. And that is why it is the only book — well, books — on the Dead Critics gift guide this year.