Science and Society 41, no. 1: 66–68.
Budapest, Aug. 15, 1964
I thank you very much, even belatedly, for sending me your book about Shakespeare. I did not want to write before I had studied the book. After having looked at it carefully, I can only say: it is a very interesting and an absolutely necessary study of Shakespeare, It is to your great credit that you have destroyed so radically the romantic myth about his dramas. Already in my youth I was appalled when his Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed with the music of Mendelssohn and in its spirit. And indeed your study about this particular drama and about The Tempest I like best. In addition to this I like the analysis of Antony and Cleopatra, Even though I consider the pessimistic controversies of your first analyses somewhat exaggerated, these studies have stimulated me greatly and have given me new perspectives with which I can agree in many ways.
But you will understand when I immediately turn to the aspect where our opinions differ. There is foremost your fundamental theory of mechanism, which dominates the whole social historical situation. This is a subjective, justifiable and objective — in part — a right perspective of the historical development since the First World War — a period whose basic mood Kafka expressed most suggestively. Today this period is of course already in decline, and moves to a period of a more or less mild manipulation. Therefore I consider writers such as Beckett or Ionescu as epigones. The change becomes obvious in the appearance of writers everywhere, who reflect and express the period of fear of fatal mechanism in a very different way. So Solzhenitsyn in his A Day in the Life of Ivan D., so in the West Semprun in The Great Trip.
Where I disagree with you most deeply is the fact that you interpret the Shakespearean understanding of history from an historical perspective of the Kafka Frame of reference of our time. As far as I understand Shakespeare, his central historical problem was the dissolution of feudalism in the form of a self-destruction in the War of the Roses. But he already understood the Tudor period as a separation from these battles. On the basis ofyour theory of the irresistible mechanism, a figure such as Henry V can not be understood in the Shakespearean sense; he is for Shakespeare the forerunner of the great solution, the problematic of which does not escape Shakespeare, however. This understanding runs through all the later dramas in which moral-ideological problems of the feudal period are dealt with. When you think of the objective and subjective tie which Othello has to the Venice of the Renaissance, which is verbalized explicitly in the last monologue, you will understand what I mean. It follows that from your picture of the dissolution of feudalism, not only the figure of Henry V is missing, but also the true representatives of the feudal morality, such as the Bastard in King John, such as Percy in Henry IV, Kent in King Lear, etc, Falstaff [who] goes along with the figure of Percy as an historical figure of contrast, is for Shakespeare a matter of course just as the figure of Crown Prince Henry differs from both extremes of the self-dissolving feudalism.
In addition to this, in your analysis the new — the new ethic and the new image of man of the Renaissance — is also missing completely. It is certainly no accident that you have been able to give a spirited, even though slanted analysis or Hamlet without even mentioning Horatio. But in my opinion Hamlet can only be understood in light of the quartet of contrasting types: Hamlet, Horatio, Fortinbras, Laertes. In the same way it is not accidental that in your analysis of the Roman dramas, Julius Caesar is completely missing, for the figure of Brutus is the key to Shakespeare’s understanding of the Renaissance, in politics as in friendship and love.
Also completely missing in your analysis is the development of Shakespeare’s attitude to the people, toward the lower classes. This is expressed in Lear, both in the revenge of the servant because of Gloucester’s blinding, and in the catharsis of Lear himself in the storm scene. It is also found in Timon of Athens, a play which you also bypassed.
Pardon me for having dwelt at greater length on the issues on which we have disagreement than on the positive aspects of your book. I would not think of denying these, but consider it my duty to tell you frankly where we do not agree.
Again, thank you so much for the stimulating and interesting book.
With cordial greetings,
Yours, GEORGE LUKACS
*The comments by the most distinguished Marxist literary critic of the mid-twentieth century were occasioned by the publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, by Jan Kott (1963). Professor Kott gave permission to have the letter read at the Shakespeare Conference. The translation from the German is by Christopher Schmauch.