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Did Shakespeare Really Write in German?
Or: How the Bard Became ein Klassiker:

Notes on the Politics of Culture

Presented to the Wells College Faculty Club, March, 1988

Many of you may be vaguely familiar with the bizarre branch of Shakespeare "scholarship" that flourished particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century that attempted to prove Shakespeare's works were actually written by Sir Francis Bacon or by someone else. In the Shakespeare section of the stacks of great university libraries like Yale or Cornell you will still find yards and yards of such monuments to what most of us would consider, at best, single-mindedness. My title today, on the other hand, may seem to make the Baconian controversy look tame and serious by comparison. I mean it ironically, of course, but as my talk proceeds you may be surprised by the degree Germany has indeed adopted Shakespeare as one of its own. When I chose this title I thought of various subtitles that might seem equally frivolous, but that would nevertheless take the talk into valid and interesting directions, such as "Did he Write East German or West German?"--a question that points to the way each of the post-war German states claims Shakespeare and expends enormous resources--if not quite on Olympic proportions--to prove that it, and not the other, is his rightful inheritor. [Here are the 1987 Yearbooks of the competing German Shakespeare Societies, West German and East German.] But my present subtitle is most suitable for the kind of overview I would like to give this afternoon of the question why and how the Germans adopted Shakespeare in a very special way and what that process of adoption may show about various aspects of what I call "cultural politics." The word Klassiker in "How the Bard Became ein Klassiker" means more than merely a "classic" of world literature in our general sense, but rather a "classical writer" of the German tradition, associated with other "classical" writers such as Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller.

If you believe, as I do, that Shakespeare was unquestionably the greatest writer who ever lived, you might easily imagine that the issue of why he should be adopted by another country is actually a non-issue: of course the whole world would want to read him, play him, and honor him. But I hope to show that the German adoption of Shakespeare was special. In case you think my title is completely mad, listen to the great naturalist dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann, speaking before the German Shakespeare Society in Weimar. He concludes his address "Germany and Shakespeare" thus: "There is no people, not even the English, that has earned a right to Shakespeare as the German people has. Shakespeare's characters have become a part of our world, his soul has become one with ours: and if he was born and buried in England, it is nevertheless Germany where he truly lives" (ShJ 51, 12). I didn't mention the date of his paper: it was delivered in April, 1915 and was a part of a great upsurge of patriotic and anti-English sentiments in which the Germans avoided a potential conflict of conscience about adoring the English bard by going to new heights in claiming Shakespeare as their own. Hauptmann's assertion is only one of dozens or indeed hundreds by otherwise sober writers and scholars, appearing in otherwise sober journals during the First World War and--particularly shocking for us--during the Second World War as well. [I am considering doing a paper entirely on this phenomenon, called "Shakespeare Goes to War--for the Kaiser and the Führer."] When the wars were over those same sober people undoubtedly winced when they remembered their previous language and found such statements embarrassing, particularly when attending international professional meetings. But for my purposes today it's nevertheless worth quoting the extreme version of the "Shakespeare is one of us" thesis, if only to show how important he had become to Germany by 1914. His "loss" to the British was unthinkable.

But one doesn't need the extreme version of the thesis to show Germany's remarkable assimilation of Shakespeare. In every important area of German culture he had become central long before 1914 and has remained central afterwards. In the theater, for example: for the last two centuries Shakespeare has been the staple of every German theater company; just how important he has been becomes apparent in the annual survey of Shakespeare productions published for over a hundred years now in the Yearbooks of the German Shakespeare Society [show]. At least for some periods the Yearbook asserts that there were more Shakespeare productions in Germany than anywhere else, including England and the United States. That is hard to verify, but the numbers for Germany are indeed staggering. For the 1911-1912 season, for example, shortly before WWI, the Yearbook lists 413 different productions by 178 companies. The crucial thing to note here is that each theater, on average, produced between two and three different Shakespeare plays per season. Shakespeare was, as usual, in second place in total number of performances, just behind Friedrich Schiller. The total is so high partially because the Yearbook, at that time, with proverbial German thoroughness, listed productions even by tiny provincial theaters which would not be counted today. On the other hand, the fact that Shakespeare was played even in such small towns in the provinces is worthy of note in itself. The situation today, with the advent of the Autobahn and regionalization of cultural centers, is different, but even so the latest Yearbook of the West-German Shakespeare Society lists 57 different productions during the last season in West Germany plus nine in Austria and German-speaking Switzerland. The East German Yearbook lists 16 in the German Democratic Republic. That can't quite stand up to their Olympic medal count, but for a country with a population smaller than that of New York state it's certainly not bad.

Some of you may know that my particular area of specialization has been the history of translation. Shakespeare, of course, has been translated into virtually every language on earth, but never so frequently as into German. There have been some twenty different translations of the entire Shakespearean corpus into German since the late eighteenth century [counting significant revisions of earlier versions and a few important translations somewhat less than complete]. But the numbers become truly stunning if one looks at translations of individual plays. For King Lear, for example, the play I have examined most closely, there have been at least thirty-seven significant translations in only a little over two hundred years. That's an average of close to one new translation of Lear every five years. But the average obscures the fact that in some periods there were as many as three new translations of the play in a single year and 14 over 19 years. The situation in other countries is simply on a different order of magnitude.

The situation in scholarship is similar. The German Shakespeare Society, which I have already mentioned several times, was founded in 1864 and is the oldest surviving national professional organization created to support Shakespeare scholarship. (From time to time it is called the oldest such organization altogether, but there was a Shakespeare Society in London for 13 years between 1840 and 1853.) The German Shakespeare Society was the parent and model for later Shakespeare societies in England and the United States, such as the British Shakespeare Association and our Shakespeare Association of America. It has published its Yearbook nearly without interruption ever since, slowed up once by the Franco-Austrian War and again at the close of World War II and in the first years of occupation. As an indication of the importance attached to it by Anglo-American scholars I have brought along the Variorum edition of Hamlet, done by the Horace Howard Furness of Philadelphia in 1877 and still in print and useful today. You may remember glancing in admiration or horror at the Variorum in some Shakespeare class: it's the one with a few lines of text at the top of the page, the rest of that page and maybe the next given over to textual criticism and scholarly commentary. On the title page Furness lists himself with evident pride as "Honorary Member of the 'Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft' of Weimar." In volume two, devoted to longer selections of Shakespeare criticism, he gives ten pages to French criticism, 52 pages to English criticism, and 114 pages to "German Criticisms." To Germany's great chagrin it can no longer claim to be the center of world Shakespeare scholarship it was through much of the nineteenth century, but it hasn't given up. The two German Shakespeare societies, East and West, continue to foster outstanding criticism through their annual meetings and above all their Yearbooks. Among new projects, it was the West Germans who financed and published Marvin Spevack's huge nine-volume computer-based concordance to Shakespeare, completed in 1980. German universities continue to finance large Shakespeare libraries and institutes, and at least some scholarship and criticism becomes indispensable for colleagues in England and America. One example that comes to mind is Wolfgang Clemen's ground-breaking book on Shakespeare's imagery.

The percentage of German scholarship in Furness's book is undoubtedly skewed because the play involved is Hamlet, but that itself is a chapter that deserves a brief mention along the lines of "Shakespeare's Importance to German Culture in General" or "The German Self-Perception." The dedication page of Furness's edition of Hamlet is quite puzzling at first but quite revealing. He dedicates the book [quote] "To the / German Shakespeare Society of Weimar / Representative of a People / Whose Recent history / has proved / Once for all / that / "Germany is Not Hamlet." What's the missing background here? Remember the book came out in 1877, six years after the Franco-Prussian War in which Bismarck created a united Germany--a politically and economically powerful nation, a world power. Behind Furness's allusion is the fact that throughout much of the nineteenth century Germany had viewed itself through the image of Hamlet (as it interpreted the play at the time): a country of poets and thinkers capable of great music, philosophy, and scholarship, but not of decisive political action on the world stage, a country "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." The liberal writer Ludwig Börne had coined the image in 1828, and it had become famous and pervasive through a poem with the title "Germany is Hamlet" by Ferdinand Freiligrath in 1844. One can judge the pervasiveness of Shakespeare in Germany and the degree of his adoption and assimilation by imagining that at least to some degree the whole country viewed and understood itself through the image of Hamlet. As an aside, I think it is safe to say that all of us, both Germans and non-Germans, can only look back with nostalgia on the period before Germany hit upon the idea of overcoming its Hamlet-neurosis by becoming Richard III.

I hope these examples have been sufficient to convince you that Germany's relationship to Shakespeare has been quite special. What I would like to do now is to examine some of the reasons why that has been so. I will argue that the chief reason for Shakespeare's specialness to the Germans lies in an accident of timing. [I think that most people in the area of German literature, upon some reflection, might grant me that assertion.] What I think has been especially unclear, and this is the area of my own work, are the consequences of that accident for German literary scholarship.

First, a little bit of background. All this time I have been talking about Germany's relationship to Shakespeare in the last two centuries. That is because there was no relationship at all before the eighteenth century. Literary relations between England and the continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were rather like our current economic relations with Japan: the Continent exported culture, the English imported it. There were certain exceptions: there were travelling troops of English actors on the continent throughout much of the seventeenth century, some of whom even performed drastically revised (one could say mangled) versions of Shakespeare's plays, but while those actors undoubtedly taught the continent much about acting and theatricality they conveyed nothing of the literary values in Shakespeare or anyone else, and indeed never mentioned Shakespeare. It was not until Voltaire returned from his stay in England and "discovered" Shakespeare in his Lettres philosophiques of 1734, that anyone on the continent knew any more about Shakespeare than his name. But even after 1734 the Germans continued to know virtually nothing about Shakespeare that Voltaire hadn't told them, or that was not available in French or German translations of English criticism, such as The Spectator. In fact, except a small flurry of activity around a translation of Julius Caesar in 1740, there was no significant German interest in Shakespeare until the last forty years of the century. And there, as Hamlet would say, is the rub: by chance--or not by chance--the last third or so of the eighteenth century was something extraordinary for German literature. After years, some would say centuries, of relative unimportance and derivativeness--remember that the language of many German courts was still French--German culture began to come alive and German literature began to bloom in a way it had not since the twelfth century. Take note: what I am giving you now is the "standard view," which ignores the marvelous Baroque poetry of the seventeenth century. But within the "standard view," which held sway throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, German literature and culture rose in the last third of the eighteenth century from the ashes of Reformation and Thirty Years War to a new and never to be duplicated zenith. Decade by decade, year by year, new works of genius appeared from the pens of Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, and the Romantics that placed Germany--finally!--at the forefront of European literature and culture. Mme. de Stael, Wordsworth, Coleridge all traveled to Germany to find out what was going on, and returned with what William Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks refer to in a chapter of their Short History of Literary Criticism as "German Ideas." You can imagine that Germany was proud of its world-class writers--sort of the literary equivalents of Katharina Witt and company--and of its new place in Europe. Taken precisely, only the period of close cooperation between Goethe and Schiller between 1794 and Schiller's death in 1805, when both were experimenting with ancient Greek models and ideals, is called "classical." But in a broader understanding, this entire period of flowering at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries assumed the status of "the Classical Age of German Literature."

Now, imagine the power within the coincidence that it was precisely this period, this zenith and classical age of German literature and culture, in which the Germans discovered Shakespeare, and not only discovered him but declared him to be central to their new ideas and programs. It is as if the French had discovered Shakespeare and based their literary program upon him in the Age of Louis XIV--an unimaginable thought! Or if he had been discovered, idolized, and popularized in Spain by Cervantes in the Golden Age. Or, to change the change the metaphor slightly, in Russia by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. What counts in my image is that the period of a nation's history that most mattered should be the period that discovered Shakespeare and was most closely linked to him. From a German point of view--remember, I am giving you the "standard view," not necessarily my opinion--the coming together of German literary greatness in the late eighteenth century with the discovery of Shakespeare was anything but coincidental: it was Shakespeare who propelled Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, and the Romantics to ever higher levels and to ever more profound insights into the depths of the German soul. If I may use the word in a different sense here, the "classic" formulation of this was in the great 1911 tour de force by one of the founders of German Geistesgeschichte, Friedrich Gundolf: Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (Shakespeare and the German Spirit) [show]. Virtually no one today would take Gundolf's concept of "spirit" entirely seriously, although the book remains in print as one of the great creations of the twentieth-century intellect. But I would argue, that subliminally at least, much of what Gundolf formulated so brilliantly about the relation of Shakespeare to Germany remains in force; it had in fact been there long before him, and it remained long after his method of criticism fell into disrepute.

I say "subliminally" because I am convinced that German literary scholarship is still largely unaware of the manner in which the prejudices behind the traditional view of the "classical age" have, over the last 150 years, affected its view of Shakespeare or for that matter of literature and culture in general. And I am convinced that there is a specifically "political" component in these cultural biases in something close to our ordinary sense of the word "politics." This is the area of my own scholarship, of the articles and papers I have done over the last several years. Specifically, I have looked at various aspects of the German "reception" of Shakespeare and tried to show ways in which I believe our understanding of it has been skewed by the special cultural role assigned the "Classical Age" by the succeeding two centuries. What I show with German Shakespeare criticism is, I believe, relevant for other areas of literature and culture as well.

Let me concentrate here on one example, which will serve for many. As I said, my area of special expertise is the history of German Shakespeare translation. To this day, there exists a most remarkable example of double vision, even among scholars and critics, concerning translations of Shakespeare. On the one hand, scholars know that there were new Shakespeare translations throughout the nineteenth century and to our own day. But both from the "popular" and scholarly point of view, they scarcely mattered. The one Shakespeare translation that has mattered, at least until the last few years, has been "Schlegel-Tieck"--virtually universally acknowledged as one of the classics--there's that word again--in the history of translation. Even today most well-educated Germans, unless they happen to be experts in this particular field, will tell you that "Schlegel-Tieck" was created through the collaboration of August Wilhlem Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck--just as the name implies. Schlegel and Tieck were two of the founders of German Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century--exactly that zenith I have been talking about. Schlegel, along with his brother Friedrich, was one of the chief theoreticians of the movement, Tieck one of the first great practitioners in the fields of fairy tale, novel, and drama. The two were close friends in those crucial years of the late 18th century, and both were powerful exponents of the new German Shakespeare cult. It thus seems the most natural thing in the world to assume that the hyphen in "Schlegel-Tieck" implies that the two collaborated on the great translation that bears their names--so natural that the fact that they did not scarcely affects perceptions of the work even by scholars, little alone by the general public. For nearly everyone, the translation is "located" mentally at the end of the eighteenth century, at the height of Early Romanticism, which is so perfectly embodied by Schlegel and Tieck.

Yet the facts are these: Schlegel, who pioneered blank verse translation of Shakespeare, translated seventeen plays in the last years of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth. And then he stopped, never again to return to the project. His translations were indeed masterpieces. But from our point of view his project had the distinct disadvantage that he had concentrated almost entirely on the history plays, including all three parts of Henry VI--not exactly the center of the Shakespeare canon. He translated five of Shakespeare's sixteen comedies, most notably A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, but only three of the tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and--you guessed it--Hamlet. But that left untouched over half of Shakespeare's corpus and many of his greatest plays, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. Schlegel often toyed with the idea of returning to his project, but never did, leaving a "market niche" in the Shakespeare translation business that other translators eventually leapt in to fill. Many of their efforts were second- or third-rate, others were quite remarkable. All of this activity reached a peak in the 1820s and 30s, when no fewer than eight new verse translations of Shakespeare's complete plays appeared. You can easily picture how Schlegel's publisher felt about this: he owned the rights to what was acknowledged as a splendid, exemplary translation--of less than half of the plays; his competitors, on the other hand, were able to offer the complete plays. In an article last year I made use of correspondence to chronicle his publisher's desperate efforts to get Schlegel himself to return to his project after a hiatus of some twenty-five years--in vain. Failing that, his publisher made what he considered an even more desperate move: he turned to Ludwig Tieck, Schlegel's friend from three decades earlier, who was now the literary lion of Dresden. Upon Tieck's agreeing to the proposal, the publisher sold subscriptions to the work--and waited, and waited. Tieck brought out revisions of the plays Schlegel had already done, which infuriated Schlegel no end, but gave no signs of doing any new translations. After three years, the subscribers were demanding their money back, assuming that this, like many of Tieck's projects, would never be realized. It is at this point that the publisher hit upon a novel solution: he convinced Tieck to have his daughter Dorothea and a friend, Count Baudissin, do the translations, which he would then look over and publish under his name. The plan succeeded brilliantly: Baudissin did thirteen of the remaining plays, Dorothea Tieck six, including Macbeth. Tieck eventually mentioned Baudissin's name and, in an ambiguous way, his role, in a footnote to one of the final volumes; he never acknowledged Dorothea's work. Tieck never precisely asserted the translations were his own, but he put his name alone on the title page; to the extent he mentioned his "young helpers" at all, in the fine print, he implied that his work of reviewing the manuscripts, mainly what we would consider editing, had made them his, and--here we return to the main point--no one in the literary establishment argued with him. Thus was born the translation that was initially called "Shakespeare's Dramatic Works, Translated by August Wilhlem Schlegel, Completed and Commented upon by Ludwig Tieck," and in the second and all subsequent editions, simply and evocatively "Shakespeare's Dramatic Works, Translated by August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck."

I say "evocatively" because I believe that a special magic exuded from that "and" or the hyphenated combination "Schlegel-Tieck"--a magic that to some degree continues to the present day. It is the magic of the earliest days of German Romanticism, the last years of the eighteenth century, the zenith of what was, at least until recently, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest period of German literature. The fact that the majority of the translations were done thirty years later, with Schlegel's anger rather than his cooperation, and not even by Tieck at all has had remarkably little effect on the perception of "Schlegel-Tieck," either in popular culture or in scholarship. It remains safeguarded by its location in the "Classical Age of German Literature." That location has helped achieve for it exactly what its original publisher had hoped: for much of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth it has managed to push its rivals, including many that are aesthetically outstanding, into oblivion. Only in the last decades has there been a crack in the dominance of "Schlegel-Tieck," and then only in the theater; it continues to be first in printed texts and in the hearts of its countrymen and women. Nor is there, even now, any consistent effort to call it by its real name: "Schlegel-Baudissin-Dorothea Tieck."

What I hope this story demonstrates, besides that a rose by any other name might not really smell so sweet, is the importance of factors behind literary phenomena that are not directly aesthetic. In the case of Shakespeare in Germany, I believe I can demonstrate that the powerful urge to place Shakespeare in the period of his initial "discovery," the late eighteenth century, the "Classical Age of German Literature," has had a crucial influence on how his earlier and later reception has been perceived. In this case, translations before "Schlegel-Tieck" (too early) and after it (too late) are automatically disqualified. And I believe that the example of translation history points to one of the reasons that Shakespeare has played such an extraordinary role in German culture: he is, I hope it is clear by now, quite literally ein Klassiker, a "classical writer," a writer associated in Germany with the Classical Age at the end of the eighteenth century. A poem from 1864, the year of the founding of the German Shakespeare Society, expresses the situation precisely, if in embarrassingly bad poetry:


Seht, heut' gesellt, im heil'gen Bund der Dritte,
Zu Deutschlands Dioskuren sich der Brite,
Auch er ist unser...


(Today the Englishman joins Germany's dioscuri (Goethe and Schiller) as the third member in the sacred alliance. He, too, is ours...) The final line resonates for all German listeners with a famous verse in Goethe's epilogue for Schiller: "Denn er war unser" (for he was ours). Over and over again, even in the most scholarly literature, one finds a similar image and similar language: "the most frequently played classical writer was Schiller, but Shakespeare remained in second place" [Shakespeare Jahrbuch 73 (1937) 5]. By the way, if you were looking for a visual-arts representation of the perceived triumvirate of Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare, I recommend Weimar, which is the only place I know where you can find life-size statues of all three within a few hundred yards of each other.

The importance of non-aesthetic categories in determining what is read and how it is perceived in scholarship, education, and public opinion, might in several broad senses be considered "political." I am interested, for example, in tracing the "politics" of the German Shakespeare Society during the late nineteenth century in assuring the dominance of the "Schlegel-Tieck" translation. But I believe I can show that politics in the more conventional sense of the word is at least partially involved in Germany's adoption of Shakespeare as a German Classical Writer, worthy of being studied in school in German classes rather than merely in English. I am led to this through my investigation of the "Schlegel-Tieck" translation and my recognition that it was in the years between 1871 and 1914 that "Schlegel-Tieck" was made truly and irrevocably canonical. What I found is that there is a remarkable coincidence of efforts to stress the "Classical" roots of Schlegel-Tieck and of the German Shakespeare, with efforts to provide the cultural underpinnings for the new German nation state. Listen carefully to the language in the "Afterward" to an 1891 edition of "Schlegel-Tieck" by one of the greatest German Shakespeare scholars and editors of the time: "As the times were fulfilled and the people of the Reformation [i.e. the Germans] liberated themselves through poetry and scholarship, and German literature achieved the energy to propel itself into an intellectual world power, it was once again two works of the art of translation that participated powerfully in the unfolding of this energy. The German Homer [of Voß] caused Antiquity to renew itself for us; and the German Shakespeare [of "Schlegel-Tieck"] entered into an alliance with our home-born masters, such that, united with them, it could open up the richness and depth of modern literature..." [Note that he doesn't mean modern German literature, but modern literature altogether.] One can only imagine how strange, indeed appalling, the phrase "intellectual world power" (geistige Weltmacht) would have sounded to writers in the late 18th century; but in the decades after 1871 the connection between such words as "energy" (used twice here) and "world power" and the cultural heritage at the end of the previous century apparently did not seem so strange at all. Germany, at long last, was no longer Hamlet; it was an economic and political world power, but something of a parvenu and nouveau riche. The one area it could point to as a sign it truly deserved its new status was the one thing that had for nearly a century given it a degree of unity and pride: its literature and culture, above all the literature and culture of the Classical Age when it had first achieved the preeminence in matters of the European intellect that it now intended to achieve in matters of military and industrial might. Shakespeare, along with Goethe and Schiller and for that matter Beethoven and Hegel, had in fact been conscripted to serve the Kaiser long before 1914, and he could serve best, with the other two of the Triumviri, in the uniform of the late eighteenth century.

I hope these remarks have helped answer the initial question of why Germany's adoption of Shakespeare has been so special and so much more intense than that of other countries. You can see that if Shakespeare didn't really write in German, for all practical purposes within German culture of the last two centuries he might as well have.

A Concluding Unscientific Postscript to all this: despite what you might gather from my apparent bashing of the "Classical Age" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: this is the period of my greatest expertise and of my greatest love. I fervently believe that the literature of Goethe and Schiller is great literature, and that the Shakespeare translations by Schlegel and indeed by Baudissin and Dorothea Tieck some thirty years later are magnificent translations. But I don't like some of the uses those writers and those translations have sometimes been put to in obscuring or diminishing other periods and translations. I believe it would be healthier for both Shakespeare and Germany if they would terminate their special and peculiar relationship, and if Germany began to treat Shakespeare a bit more as other countries do: as a classic of world literature, not ein Klassiker of the German tradition.


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