Shakespeare, William

Shakespeare, William
   Playwright. Shakespeare's significance in the German theater has been and remains unique; many have gone so far as to argue that Shakespeare is a "national" playwright whose status equals that of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, or Friedrich Schiller. Shakespeare's popularity among German audiences and the frequency of his plays' performance in German theaters since the 18th century is undeniable. The German Shakespeare Society, founded in 1864, is the oldest surviving national professional organization created to support Shakespeare scholarship. It became the model for similar societies in England, the United States, Australia, Canada, and other English-speaking countries. In a speech before the German Shakespeare Society in 1915, Gerhart Hauptmann intemperately declared that Shakespeare was more German than English:
   There is no nation, not even the English, that has earned a right to Shakespeare as the German nation 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 in Germany where he truly lives. The National Socialists made similar bombastic claims.
   German audiences were likely introduced to Shakespeare's plays at some of the initial performances of the Englische Komödianten (English Comedians) in the late 16th century, though there is scant record of such performances; there is less likelihood that the plays were complete or authentic. The first published German record of Shakespeare's name in print came in Daniel Georg Morhof's lecture on the origins of German literature in 1682. In 1741 Caspar Wilhelm von Borcke produced the first translation of a complete Shakespearean play (Julius Caesar, in French-style Alexandrine verses), and the same year saw Johann Elias Schlegel's publication of Vergleichung Shakespears und Andreas Gryphs (A Comparison between Shakespeare and Andreas Gryphius). Schlegel's essay was significant by virtue of the positive tone he took toward Shakespeare; other critics, Johann Christoph Gottsched most notable among them, had emphasized Shakespeare's ignorance of neoclassical rules and declared his "unworthiness" for the German stage. Lessing took issue with Gottsched on that and many other points, arguing that the German theater was far better advised to emulate the "Shakespearean model" than the French, as Gottsched advocated.
   In the 1760s several new prose translations of Shakespeare's plays by Christian Martin Wieland appeared; Wieland translated one (A Midsummer Night's Dream) into verse. After reading Wieland's translations, Goethe declared that he "stood like one who has been blind from birth [and] was given the gift of sight by a miraculous hand." In 1771 Goethe published his "Zum Shakespeares Tag" (On Shakespeare's Name Day), in which he apotheosized Shakespeare as a godlike figure: "Natur! Natur! Nichts so Natur wie Schäkspears Menschen!" (Nature! Nature! Nothing so much like Nature as Shakespeare's characters!).
   Friedrich Ludwig Schröder staged a 1776 prose translation of Hamlet in Hamburg, followed soon thereafter by Othello; he went on to stage several others during the ensuing decades, though they were often in abridged or truncated versions. The playwrights of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement continued in Goethe's idolizing vein, largely because emulating Shakespeare offered a complete break with neoclassicism.
   New translations of the plays appeared periodically through the remainder of the 18th century, though none of them approached the magisterial heights August Wilhelm Schlegel reached beginning in 1798. A. W. Schlegel concentrated on what he considered Shakespeare's best plays, completing eight histories, five comedies, and three tragedies. The effort left him exhausted by 1810, and he did not finish another translation. Schlegel's publisher beseeched Ludwig Tieck to continue the endeavor, but Tieck was able to complete only Pericles. Tieck likewise found the remainder of the task too daunting for him alone, and he ultimately turned to his daughter Dorothea and the Danish count Wolf Baudissin for help. Baudissin finished 13 of the remaining plays and Dorothea did six; Tieck eventually mentioned Baudissin's name but he never acknowledged Dorothea's work. The translations subsequently became famous as Shakespeare s Dramatic Works, Translated by August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck (published 1825-1833), popularly called the Schlegel-Tieck versions. They were largely the basis for Shakespeare's abundant place in the repertoires of most German theaters throughout the 19th century. Even by 1827, critic Christian Dietrich Grabbe complained that a "Shakespeare mania" had taken hold in Germany. By then the popularity of Shakespeare's plays had reached unprecedented proportions and few theaters had any interest in questioning its validity (as Grabbe did).
   Goethe had meanwhile lost his initial enthusiasm for Shakespeare; by the mid-1790s he began to equate his former perception of "nature" in Shakespeare's plays with "formlessness." He also became distinctly troubled by the effects Shakespeare seemed to have on audiences. Goethe's sense of "classicism" in Weimar postulated an idealized unity and harmony on the stage. Shakespeare's plays had no such postulates; indeed, he concluded, the plays make few demands of any kind on audiences. "The relationship between the stage and audience in the Weimar Court Theatre paralleled the benevolent but despotic relationship between ruler and ruled in the Duchy of Weimar," Simon Williams has written. "In spirit, the teeming world of Shakespeare was far from that well structured order. Never was the unsuitability of Shakespeare to the purpose of the German court theater in the late 18th and early 19th centuries more clearly revealed" (Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 1:92-93).
   The unstructured, "teeming" state of Shakespeare's "world" was one reason so many German actors and actresses turned such characters as Hamlet, Gloucester, Othello, Prospero, Lear, Shylock, and even Dogberry (in Much Ado about Nothing) and Hermione (in The Winter's Tale) into virtuotistic star turns in the decades that followed the publication of the Schlegel-Tieck translations. Goethe's Mephisto in Faust and Schiller's Franz von Moor in Die Räuber (The Robbers) offered actors a somewhat similar freedom to extrapolate, but few other German plays afforded performers such opportunities. As noted in individual entries in this volume, the careers of such 19th-century performers as Bogumil Dawison, Ludwig Devrient, Ferdinand Fleck, Adalbert Matkowsky, Friedrich Mitterwurzer, Karl Seydelmann, Agnes Sorma, and Charlotte Wolter would have been far less resplendent without the roles Shakespeare offered them. German actors and actresses of the 20th century such as Gustaf Gründgens, Fritz Kortner, Werner Krauss, Agnes Straub, and Elisabeth Bergner likewise benefited enormously from the chance to put a personal stamp on Shakespearean roles they played.
   German directors, however, have derived the most opulent benefits from Shakespeare's status as a German playwright. In the 19th century, the productions of Heinrich Laube, Georg II, and Josef Schreyvogel helped them legitimize their work. In the 20th century, the career of Max Reinhardt is nearly unimaginable without Shakespeare. Reinhardt did five different productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Berlin alone. Leopold Jessner's Expressionist productions of Macbeth and Hamlet during the 1920s at the Berlin State theater created an uproar leading to charges that he had "Jewi-fied" the German theater. During the Third Reich, Jürgen Fehling's State Theater productions of Richard III and Richard II were probably the two most significant German-language productions staged between 1933 and 1944. And in the postwar period, Saladin Schmitt's Shakespearean cycles in Bochum reestablished nonpoliti-cized production values.
   By the 1970s, however, tendentiousness and political agendas made a pronounced reemergence in the German theater, often with Shakespeare as a convenient anvil on which ambitious directors could hammer out personal obsessions. In Ulm, Peter Zadek staged The Merchant of Venice with a stereotyped, hooked-nose Shylock lusting for Gentile blood. He explored similar approaches toward other Shakespearean plays in Bochum with the stated goal of forcing German audiences to confront what he considered the particularly German malady of anti-Semitism. As new translations continued to appear throughout the 20th century, adaptations, variations, versions, and modernizations proliferated. The boundless freedom that Shakespeare afforded to not only audiences but also theater artists resulted in numberless new approaches that scarcely resembled the plays as pieces for theater performance. In many instances, German directors have used the plays as points of departure into flights of fancy. George Tabori's 1979 Improvisations on Shakespeare's Shylock was staged in a former assembly room of the Munich SS and used 13 actors to play Shylock. Peter Stein's Shakespeare's Memory (1978) was a seven-hour-long extravaganza presented on two evenings, consisting of dialogue sections from various plays by Shakespeare and attempting to replicate Elizabethan social and political conditions. Heiner Müller's Hamlet-machine used one line and a few characters from Hamlet as a jump-ing-off place for a kind of pessimistic meditation.
   Such experiments continued to proliferate into the 21st century, capturing audience and critical attention briefly, then disappearing without a trace. Nevertheless, they served as an abiding testament to Shakespeare's vital place in the German theater. That directors choose to mine Shakespeare's plays for some hoped-for discovery that might augment their own vision of what the German theater can still accomplish is a hopeful sign that Shakespeare continues to hold a unique place in the German repertoire.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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