Ken Larson - Papers on Shakespeare Reception


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How Large was the Shakespeare Canon?

Delivered at the 1988 MLA

Simply posing the question "How Large was the Shakespeare Canon [in 18th-Century Continental Europe]" may already imply my answer: very small indeed. But I would assert that, given Shakespeare's significance for eighteenth-century Europe, it is hard to imagine just how small the canon was.

The importance of Shakespeare to the literature and the literary criticism of the continent in the 18th century, particularly in Germany, but through Voltaire to some extent in France as well, has been discussed intensively for well over a century. But exactly what did continental Europeans mean when they said "Shakespeare"? Upon reflection, we would probably all agree that they almost certainly did not mean the same thing we do, that they probably had a different set of experiences and associations. Each of us has his or her own "Shakespeare," conditioned by the plays we have read, or seen, or taught and the criticism we have read or written over the years. But we nevertheless probably share at least a certain community of meaning, based largely on a certain canon of plays we all know to some degree. My question is thus: what was the equivalent canon, the community of meaning behind the word "Shakespeare" on the continent in the 18th century? What plays did they have in mind, and to what extent was their "Shakespeare" based on a knowledge of the plays at all?

I should begin with some definitions. For my purposes here I want to restrict myself to the first three quarters (or in the case of Germany, two thirds to three quarters) of the century. The limitation is not arbitrary: the European reception of Shakespeare changed radically in the last third to quarter of the century, I would argue at least to a large degree because the period 1775-83 saw the publication of complete and in many ways quite admirable and scholarly translations of Shakespeare into both German and French, by Eschenburg and LeTourneur. Eschenburg's work stood on the shoulders of Wieland's remarkable translation of 22 plays of 1762-66--thus the earlier terminus ad quem for Germany. I should also emphasize that in talking about the reception of Shakespeare on the continent in the first seven decades of the 18th century, we are talking exclusively about Germany and France. For whatever reasons, there simply was no significant reception of Shakespeare in other countries before the last three decades of the century.

I first came to this question because of the scholarly interest in Germany in tracing the enthusiasm for Shakespeare at the end of the century back to its origins earlier on. What I found is that, despite the importance of Shakespeare to new literary movements and critical theory, the number of plays that seem to have been the basis of that criticism is extraordinarily small. I would like to start with the situation in Germany, where nearly everyone agrees Shakespeare was more influential, and where the significant early discussions of Shakespeare are more readily available in numerous collections of documents.

Because of the nature of literary history in seeking origins and defining particular topics as interesting, it can easily seem that Shakespeare was a cause celebre in German literary debate throughout most of the eighteenth century, particularly in the battle between Gottsched on the one side and his enemies (later above all Lessing and his friends) on the other. But which Shakespeare plays were involved? It is widely accepted that, although Shakespeare's name had appeared in print in Germany since 1682, he was never discussed in any detail until he became the object of attack by Gottsched in the early 1740s. In fact, I believe there is no convincing evidence that any German had ever read a play by Shakespeare before 1741, when a translation of Julius Caesar appeared (the first translation of a Shakespeare play into any language), piquing Gottsched's curiosity and his fury. But the point that I believe has never been underscored sufficiently is that in all of Gottsched's subsequent references to Shakespeare in his books and articles, he never goes beyond Julius Caesar alone. His campaign to discredit Shakespeare seems never to have led him to look at any other play. In the ensuing discussion in the 1740s and in fact until 1753 no other play by Shakespeare seems ever to have been mentioned in Germany. That year a journal article finally seems to widen the canon by mentioning Falstaff and introducing four other titles: Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But these are titles only, and on closer scrutiny the entire article turns out to be merely a pastiche of sentences from Rowe's 1709 "Life of Shakespeare" and Pope's 1725 "Preface" to his edition of Shakespeare.

One might imagine that the canon would widen radically in the mid- to late 1750s, when Lessing and his fellow Berlin critics Nicolai and Mendelssohn made Shakespeare an essential weapon in their battle against rigid neoclassicism. In fact the Berlin critics do discuss or mention Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear repeatedly, and mention The Tempest at least once--but that is the sum of their references to specific plays. Otherwise Shakespeare remains for them, as he did for earlier German critics, more a set of generalizations about a genius who ignores or transcends the rules than the author of particular plays.

For all of Shakespeare's importance to literary polemics in Germany in the period before Wieland's translation in the 1760s, the "canon" for all practical purposes thus consisted of only four plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, only the first of which had ever been examined in print in any detail. Most tellingly, except for King Lear, which seems to have been a true discovery of Mendelssohn and Lessing, the other three are precisely the plays that Voltaire had discussed in his Lettres philosophiques of 1734, in which he first made Shakespeare known on the continent, and the plays that had continued to dominate French discussions of Shakespeare ever since. To the extent other plays (only about four) were mentioned even by title or in passing in Germany, they were among those that had appeared in German translations of English criticism, such as the Spectator. Only after Wieland's translation does the canon begin to widen, above all in Gerstenberg's 1766-67 criticism of Wieland, in which he discusses no fewer than thirteen plays. But interestingly, even after Wieland and Gerstenberg, most German discussions of Shakespeare at first remain centered on the same handful of plays known in the 1750s. Lessing, in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie of 1767-69, added only Richard III, which had recently appeared in Weisse's adaptation, and Romeo and Juliet to his original group of three plays. Other German critics of the 1760s added Macbeth to the central group. Five or six plays appear on the periphery, but for all practical purposes, the three plays introduced by Voltaire along with King Lear and Macbeth make up close to the entire canon in German discussions of Shakespeare through the first seven decades of the century, and even they appear far less frequently than generalizations about Shakespeare's nature and genius not based directly on any plays at all.

Shakespeare's reception in 18th-century France has never been examined as intensively as that in Germany, since it proved less important for subsequent literary historiography. But there is one notable exception: Voltaire. Voltaire's relation to Shakespeare has always been at the center of 18th-century French Shakespeare reception, the object of numerous books from the 18th century to the present. The topic "Voltaire et Shakespeare" has been central partly because of Voltaire's importance in first introducing and then attacking Shakespeare, but also partly because it has been such good fun to watch him fume at this monster of his own making. As the most eminent man of letters in Europe, his pronouncements of five decades were uniquely important to the European discussion of Shakespeare, and all of them (38 in Theodore Besterman's edition) have been carefully edited and republished.

Within this context I want to focus on a single point: in all of Voltaire's writings on Shakespeare, which plays does he discuss or mention? Considering the number of his public statements and their importance, the answer is surprising: during the thirty years after he had introduced Shakespeare, he comes back again and again to the same three plays he had discussed in 1734 in the Lettres philosophiques--and to them alone: Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Othello. He now uses them for examples of how bad Shakespeare is, as well as occasionally sublime. But his "canon" remains the same. In fact, to a remarkable degree, he returns to the same passages. He published and republished his translation of Hamlet's soliloquy "To be or not to be" on three different occasions over forty years, and returned again and again to other passages, too: the gravedigger in Hamlet, the guard's talk in that play about a "mouse," the "beast with two backs" at the opening of Othello. Only in 1764, in his commentary on Corneille, in which he also translates the first three acts of Julius Caesar, does he widen the canon with a short paragraph on the witches in Macbeth. Interestingly, he begins to mention other plays in the 1770s: Henry V on three occasions (always the same scene), and five other plays once each in short passages quoted to demonstrate Shakespeare's crudity. Three of the additions are in his open letter to the Academie Francaise in 1776, attacking LeTourneur's translation of Shakespeare, a reminder that with the 1770s we are already at the end of the initial reception of Shakespeare on the continent. In his "Lettre a l'Academie" Voltaire at one point says "Quelques-uns de vous, messieurs, savent qu'il existe une tragedie de Shakespeare intitulee Hamlet." If they did not know of that play by 1776, it was not because he had failed to tell them about it. He had made Hamlet, along with Julius Caesar and Othello, the sum and totality of Shakespeare throughout nearly all his career.

When one looks at other cases of French Shakespeare reception in the 18th century the canon widens only slightly. It is impossible here to make a claim of anything near completeness, but I have examined some of the major literary journals of the century as well as books with discussions of Shakespeare, like Riccoboni's Reflexions ... sur les differens theatres de l'Europe (1738) and the great Encyclopedie of 1765. What I have found is that the number of Shakespeare's plays whose titles, at least, appeared in print or that were mentioned in passing is far greater in France than in Germany: I count twenty-five plays mentioned at least once in the critical discussions I have looked at, including Voltaire's. But seven of them were mentioned only once, another eight only twice, and of those fifteen, many are mentioned only by title or in a context implying and providing no knowledge of the plays. Such superficiality is also characteristic of most of the remaining ten, only four of which are discussed or mentioned more than four times in the sources I have examined: to Voltaire's favorites Hamlet, Othello, and Julius Caesar is added Macbeth -- in other words exactly the same canon as in 18th-century Germany, with the notable absence of King Lear, which seems to have found no interest in France at all. The other plays that are mentioned in France with any regularity are Antony and Cleopatra, Timon, and the histories Richard III, and Henry IV. As in Germany, many discussions are not based on any plays at all but merely on a general impression of Shakespeare.

The methodologically rigorous might wonder what one would find if one applied the same methodology to the English Shakespeare canon in the first seventy years of the 18th century. The answer is that the situation in England is quite different: the canon is vastly larger. I have looked both at the most famous and widely-distributed Shakespeare essays of the time and also at a more broadly-based selection: Brian Vicker's massive documentation of eighteenth-century discussions and mentions of Shakespeare (four volumes and over 2000 pages for this period). In both cases what one finds is that, while certain plays are discussed more frequently than others, virtually all the plays receive considerable attention. Critical interest is far more evenly distributed than on the continent. To consider just one aspect of the contrast with the continent: in England, the comedies receive a great deal of attention as well as the tragedies, with The Tempest one of the most discussed plays.

What I hope has emerged from this examination is that in talking about the continental reception of Shakespeare during most of the 18th century, we need constantly remind ourselves that the writers and critics who discussed Shakespeare and even made him central to their programs and polemics (like Lessing and Voltaire) meant something different by "Shakespeare" than their English contemporaries did, and than we do--something much narrower with reference to actual plays, and more abstract. To the extent their discussions of Shakespeare were concrete, mentioning particular plays, they returned almost exclusively to the same four or five tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, in Germany King Lear, and from the 1760s Macbeth. But even with them, as with the plays known by title or by passing remarks, the references to particular plays were usually lost in the far longer discussions of Shakespeare's qualities in general, which seem to have had little need for supporting detail. In 1775, the Journal des Scavans, announcing LeTourneur's translation, wrote: "Shakespeare est vraiment inconnu en France. . ." It was exaggerating, of course, but I believe this examination of the canon in continental Europe shows that, at least with regard to individual plays, it was not far wrong: on the continent Shakespeare remained until the last decades of the century less a dramatist, known by the body of plays he had written, than an idea, a metaphor, usable by both his admirers and his detractors to mean the opposite of neoclassical, the opposite of regular, and to the Germans at least, the opposite of French.


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