Shakespeare, in particular, unsettled Borges. He seemed to regard him with a mix of awe and instinctive aesthetic recoil. His improvised remarks about Shakespeare can seem simplistic, designed to shock. “I always feel something Italian, something Jewish about Shakespeare,” he told an interviewer, “and perhaps Englishmen admire him because of that, because it’s so unlike them.” He sincerely objected to what he characterized as Shakespeare’s overstatements, his habit of “piling on the agonies.”
It’s easy to imagine how the bursting soliloquies of Lear or Leontes in A Winter’s Tale might grate against Borges’s coolly metaphorical sensibility. Yet he agreed with Coleridge that “Shakespeare took everything out of himself,” that he was a kind of pantheistic force, “capable of assuming all shapes,” who had the capacity to become even his most minor characters when he wrote them. The great personal cost of Shakespeare’s pantheistic genius, Borges believed, was that he himself had no individual identity. “Behind his face…and his words…there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one,” he wrote.
☛ The New York Review of Books: “The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges” by Michael Greenberg, January 9, 2014.
This excerpt comes from an interesting review of the book Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, which came out this summer (by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, and translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New York: New Directions, 2013).
The reviewer of The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg, divided his essay in three parts. The first one provides us with a short presentation of Borge’s life. It covers his early life in “the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires”. It also tells us about Borges’s political views in the 40s, and all the way to the 70s (Borges has publicly supported the repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, a position he came to regret later).
The second part is the review of the book itself, which is a transcription of 25 classes on English literature Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. It tells us how Borges taught himself Anglo-Saxon when he was 59 and just how much he loved this language. It provides an idea of the works Borges chose to teach, and what aspects in particular he was interested in. This is the part where the reviewer tells us about Borges’s thoughts on Shakespeare.
In the last part of his review, Michael Greenberg recounts the time when, in 1973, he attended a lecture Borges gave in Buenos Aires. It allows him to close the loop of his review by going back to the topic of the criollos, the Spanish settlers Borges admired as a young men.