Ken Larson - Papers on Shakespeare Reception


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Shakespeare between Aufklärung and Sturm und Drang

Delivered at the 1987 MLA

For most of the last 200 years the discussion of Shakespeare's reception in Germany has been profoundly influenced by one central fact: that Germany's discovery of Shakespeare coincided with the emergence of a great national literature in the late 18th century--one of the greatest periods of German literature altogether. "Coincided" may be misleading, since the coming together of the discovery of Shakespeare with the flowering of German literature has been seen from the beginning as anything but "coincidence": Shakespeare is viewed as having propelled German writers in the late 18th century to ever greater heights. The writers of each period uncovered new aspects of Shakespeare that in turn opened up new possibilities for their own work. The progressive discovery of Shakespeare thus functions as a means of structuring the literary history of the years from Aufklärung (Enlightenment) through Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) to Classicism and Romanticism not only as a paradigm of developments but as an important factor behind them.

For nearly all literary historians this constellation of the discovery of Shakespeare with the rise of German literary greatness has been self-evidently positive. This morning I would like to describe one of what I believe are several ways that it has been at best a mixed blessing for literary historiography. I would like to focus on the first of the "Great Leaps Forward" in the German discovery of Shakespeare and in the development of German literature as presented by traditional historiography: the transition between Enlightenment and Storm and Stress.

Few periods come together so nicely in their contrasts as these two, virtually begging for a two-column listing of their contradictory characters: Enlightenment rationalism vs. Storm and Stress irrationalism, reason vs. feeling, attention to the neoclassical rules vs. wild rulelessness--all reducible in German historiography to the most expressive formula of all: anti-Shakespeare vs. pro-Shakespeare. But the evolutionary paradigm, which explicitly or implicitly posits that each of the stages of late 18th-century German literature moved one step closer to the full appreciation of Shakespeare and to the literary zenith at the end of the century easily obscures some of the fundamental connections among writers it casts as rivals. The example on whom I would like to focus particularly this morning is Christoph Martin Wieland, whom I would argue is the pivotal figure in the relationship of Aufklärung, Sturm und Drang and Shakespeare.

In a sense Wieland plays the role in the Shakespeare-mirror paradigm that the Enlightenment does in general for 18th-century German literature in much traditional historiography: he gets things started, and forms a convenient foil for the greater things that will come later. In fact, since Wieland's 1762-66 translation of Shakespeare follows Lessing's landmark 1759 Literaturbrief, in which he argues for modeling German literature on Shakespeare rather than on the French, Wieland is generally seen as representing a kind of backsliding into neoclassical niggling and inappropriate Enlightenment aesthetics. All commentators agree that his translation of 22 plays--the boldest attempt up to that time to translate Shakespeare into any language--made Shakespeare much more accessible in Germany. But Wieland's translation and his criticism of Shakespeare have won him as few kind words from later critics as from the young Sturm und Drang writers who followed him, and who viewed him as the embodiment of all the Enlightenment and neoclassical values they were rebelling against. Indeed, to a surprising degree later critics have simply adopted the point of view of the Storm and Stress in this case and accepted its argument that its Shakespeare is diametrically opposed to Wieland's Shakespeare. Even critics sympathetic to Wieland have tended to dismiss his translation and his view of Shakespeare as patently flawed because of his Enlightenment sensibilities. In every sense the locus classicus on this point is from Goethe himself, who said in his eulogy of Wieland: "He /Wieland/ stood in too great a contradiction with his author /Shakespeare/, as one can easily see from the passed-over and left-out passages and even more from the added notes, from which the French sensibility emerges." "French," in this context is of course a powerfully loaded word, signifying the qualities against which the new German national literature was rebelling.

The problem with this view of Wieland is that, despite his impeccable Enlightenment credentials, as documented in his own poetry and novels, the paradigm of conflict and progress leads to a false impression of his relation to Shakespeare and, on this particular issue, to the Sturm und Drang. The young writers, who attacked Wieland and in some cases even burned him in effigy, had other reasons to do so, including the fact that as the most successful writer of the previous generation his star had to fall before theirs could rise. When they attacked his Shakespeare translation and criticism in their own programmatic writings of the early 1770s they were largely attacking a straw man of their own making.

Subsequent German critics have nearly always adopted the Storm and Stress view that the very word "Enlightenment" is incompatible with Shakespeare. One detects the negative overtones when one modern critic, who can stand for many, describes Wieland's Shakespeare as a "rough translation into the language of the German Enlightenment" and says "Hamlet, Richard II, Lear, Othello: all speak aufklärerisch, moderately, with tempered hearts." Given what we know about Wieland this perhaps ought to be true; but an examination of the text itself shows that it is not. The fact is that Wieland takes great care in recreating the different styles of his speakers, and makes the point over and over in his criticism that one foundation of Shakespeare's greatness is his ability to create a different style for each of his characters. Far from toning down Shakespeare's language and homogenizing his styles to fit neoclassical tastes, Wieland made extraordinary efforts to reproduce the wild and fanciful Shakespeare whom rigidly neoclassical critics had cautioned against. Ironically, the language Wieland created in the process would in large measure become the language of Sturm und Drang drama. He not only had provided his younger readers with their first real glimpse into Shakespeare, but had given them precisely the Shakespeare they needed for their own program.

Even the aspect of the translations that most attracted the ire of the young writers--and I think that has continued to blind most later critics--the footnotes in which Wieland takes issue with Shakespeare's taste and explains why he left out certain passages, should be seen in this context: the footnotes are necessitated by the authenticity of the Shakespeare he has either left in the translation above them or posited in the original; he would have had no grounds to quarrel with a Shakespeare he had refined and made over according to neoclassical tastes. The notes call special attention to some of the qualities that are newest and most shocking--precisely those most interesting to the young writers.

Wieland's Shakespeare criticism maintains a similar stance. On the one hand he remains indebted to the neoclassical equilibrium that had been the basis of Shakespeare criticism throughout the century, but at the same time he goes remarkably far in expressing his admiration, indeed enthusiasm, for Shakespeare in terms quite like those of his young detractors. Wieland's essay "Der Geist Shakespears" ("The Spirit of Shakespeare"), for example, appeared in 1773, the same year as the most famous of the Sturm und Drang Shakespeare manifestos, Herder's essay "Shakespear." Herder's essay is well-known and well-read as a groundbreaking step of the new generation; Wieland's has largely been ignored, not just because it comes from the generation apparently now superceded but because it does not fit the pattern of the progressive model: Wieland's praise of Shakespeare is virtually indistinguishable from Herder's.

[Here I use quotations to show that Wieland's essay is actually remarkably similar to Herder's both in substance and even in language. Both concentrate on how Shakespeare's plays are wholes and create little worlds, and both stress how his grandeur and magnificence make a mere balancing of his virtues and faults absurd.]

Wieland stresses as Herder does that Shakespeare's plays are wholes and create little worlds. To some extent Wieland is similar even in manner and language: "[Shakespeare's] plays are, like the great play of nature, full of apparent disorder; -- paradises, wildernesses, meadows, swamps, enchanted valleys, sandy deserts, ... large and small, warm and cold, dry and wet, beautiful and ugly, wisdom and foolishness, virtue and vice, -- all strangely thrown together -- and nevertheless, seen from the right perspective, taken all in all, a grand, magnificent, incomparable whole!" Wieland does not entirely abandon the neoclassical vocabulary of Shakespeare's "beauties and faults," that is much more evident in his translation footnotes. But neither now nor earlier does he merely balance the positive against the negative: "But who must he be, who could read Shakespeare, and in the face of his beauties, of his superiority over every other human writer ... should not forget his faults?" He continues in a way fully compatible with Herder's essay: "The true source of these faults does not lie--as one is in the habit of saying--in the infection of the false taste of his time ... -- it lies in the grandeur and the magnitude of his spirit. His genius, like the genius of nature, encompasses with equal clarity suns and sunspecks ..."--and here he launches into still another catalogue of wholeness that would do credit to Herder. It is true that Herder and the Sturm und Drang would not have used the word "faults" at all, and scorned anyone who did. And it is true that the young generation tolerated not even a hint of criticism of Shakespeare. But Wieland's thesis is nevertheless much the same as theirs: that precisely the qualities that might be considered Shakespeare's faults by the most rigid neoclassicists, his freedom from the rules of dramatic construction, from the unities, and from restrictive language, are in fact his greatest virtues.

One might explain the similarities of Wieland's essay to Herder's, which preceded it by about three months, as an olive branch held out to the young generation, as Wieland's attempt to show them that he was not so outdated after all. Or it could be seen as a sign he had learned from them. Given Wieland's interest in mediation there is reason to take these arguments seriously. But in fact there is little in "Der Geist Shakespears" that is new for Wieland. One can trace the ideas and formulations here back to his earliest acquaintance with Shakespeare in the 1750s. In his 1757 lectures on the history of literature, delivered when Herder and Goethe were still children, Wieland already argues that what appear to be faults in Shakespeare "are only faults from a certain perspective, while in another they are beauties." And from his very first preserved letter mentioning the poet, in 1758, Wieland refers to Shakespeare as "ce genie incomparable" and invokes, not unlike the later "St>rmer und Dränger" "a curse on anyone who would wish regularity for a genius of such an order and who closes his eyes, or has no eyes, for his beauties..."

In his enthusiasm for Shakespeare Wieland was undoubtedly "ahead of his time,"--to stay within the model of literary progress under discussion here. But to an extent that has largely been overlooked, even at his most enthusiastic he actually stood within the broad, European tradition of Enlightenment and neoclassicism, a tradition that German historiography is too apt to forget includes The Spectator and Alexander Pope as well as Voltaire and Gottsched. It is true that Pope is still more inclined to balance beauties and faults. But it is also true that this characteristic habit of mind does not result in a balance of zero. For Pope as well as for Wieland Shakespeare's greatness far outweighs his flaws; for him, too, Shakespeare is an incomparable genius.

This is not to say that the Storm and Stress was not different from the Enlightenment and that its Shakespeare was not different from Wieland's. The young generation did go further; they threw out the vocabulary of balance altogether and made their reverence for Shakespeare total and absolute in a way unimaginable for Wieland. Above all, they reveled in precisely those qualities Wieland merely accepted, sanctifying the perceived wildness and irregularity that rigid neoclassicism abhorred and that Wieland took as part of Shakespeare's genius. To them it was his genius. But even in these changes it should be clear that they were largely still working within inherited categories, merely assigning different values to them.

My point is rather that the differences between Wieland and the Sturm und Drang on the crucial issue of Shakespeare have been greatly exaggerated. The Storm and Stress exaggerated them at the time partly out of a need to define itself by using the most prominent writer of the previous generation as a foil. And literary historians in the two centuries since have exaggerated them partly because of the special value attached to the movements starting with Sturm und Drang as the beginning of a particularly German national literature, and partly because the paradigm of "progress" toward the zenith at the end of the 18th century requires attention to divergences rather than similarities and assumes leaps, through open space, to ever higher levels. I would like to suggest that this model can be quite misleading, and that some of the paradigms and commonplaces of the German discovery of Shakespeare that have, in my opinion, obscured Wieland's relationship to Shakespeare may have clouded our vision in other cases as well.


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