Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. 1964. Read in March 2009.
This book is one of the most important ever written about Shakespeare. First published in Polish in the 1960's it brought a radically new view of Shakespeare to Western literature analysis. As Peter Brook points out in the preface, Jan Kott, having lived in Poland in the turbulent 20's, 30's,40's, 50's and 60's, experienced personally many of the things Shakespeare wrote about. He could therefore, unlike almost all other modern scholars, consider Shakespeare his contemporary and unlike any other scholar I have come across so far, Kott succeeds in showing in his book why Shakespeare is not just some clever productive Renaissance author that we have to read because he's part of the canon, but that his plays are highly relevant to our lives today.
Careful readers of this blog will have noticed that I have often referred to Kott in my play analyses.
In his chapter “The Kings”, which I used in my texts on Henry VI, the Richards and Henry IV, Kott writes , “There are no gods in Shakespeare. There are only kings, every one of whom is an executioner, and victim in turn. There are also living, frightened people...The greatness of Shakespeare's realism consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history” (p. 19-20). Kott, himself a Polish Jew, a Marxist, a resistance fighter in World War Two, a literary critic leading the opposition to Stalin in the 50's (all according to Martin Esslin in the book's introduction), should know.
This book is not a cheerful read. Kott's experience and his academic depth find that in Shakespeare, and in life, “the abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere” (p.146) and that, “[i]n Shakespeare's play [King Lear] there is neither Christian Heaven nor the heaven predicted and believed in by humanists” (p. 147). He shows throughout the book how Shakespeare avoids the absolute, in fact “the absolute has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the absurdity of the human condition” (p. 137).
A prolific literary critic, Kott spent the last thirty or so years of his life in the United States. He died at the age of 87 in 2001. Since then Shakespeare Our Contemporary has remained one of the most influential books on Shakespeare and references to it can be found almost wherever one looks. I will certainly continue to refer to him. A grim book, yes, but very exciting. After all, what can be more exciting than the absurdity of the human condition? Nobody did it better than Shakespeare and nobody has so far made Shakespeare's connection to the 20th century better than Jan Kott.