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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004) 505-529

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Shakespeare, Women, and French Romanticism

Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. I recognized the meaning of dramatic grandeur, beauty and truth. At the same time I saw the utter absurdity of the French view of Shakespeare" (Shakespeare, en tombant ainsi sur moi à l'improviste, me foudroya. Son éclair, en m'ouvrant le ciel de l'art avec un fracas sublime, m'en illumina les plus lointaines profondeurs. Je reconnus la vraie grandeur, la vraie beauté, la vraie vérité dramatiques. Je mesurai en même temps l'immense ridicule des idées répandues en France sur Shakespeare).1 So wrote Hector Berlioz after witnessing his first Shakespearean performance in 1827. The love-struck composer filtered his admiration for the English playwright through an infatuation with Ophelia, performed by Harriet Smithson. For an entire generation of Romantics, from François Guizot to George Sand to Eugène Delacroix, Shakespeare's women provided the pretext for confronting the tenets of French neoclassicism.2 As part of the terrain on which neoclassical [End Page 505] and Romantic aesthetics vied for supremacy, adaptations and writings about the heroines by men and women alike abounded in conflicting literary, political, and gendered ideologies.

Since then, however, women writers' contributions to this discourse have been all but overlooked.3 Moreover, the few women whose use of Shakespeare's heroines does receive critical attention, mainly the novelists Germaine de Staël and George Sand, have tended to be discussed at the expense of women poets, who for most of the last two centuries have been relegated to the category of poésie féminine or domestic, "womanly" poetry.4 Yet it may be in the work of these poets that Shakespeare [End Page 506] contributes most to women's literary agency. His appearance in the writing of three Romantic women poets, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859), Amable Tastu (1798-1885), and Louise Colet (1810-76), illustrates and recenters—in all its unresolved aesthetic, political, and gendered contradictions—the tension between neoclassicism and Romanticism in the first decades of the nineteenth century. In fact, from the early interest of these poets in Shakespeare to the broad popularization and nationalization of his heroines in the often reprinted Galerie des femmes de Shakspeare, Shakespeare helped construct the gendered aesthetics of French Romanticism.

Shakespeare's Conquest of France

Though presented more or less faithfully and completely in translation by Pierre Letourneur in 1776 , Shakespeare became widely accepted in France only in the late 1820 s.5 Despite Napoleon's rejection of English influence as a threat to the Continental system, the popularity of British literature had steadily increased during the First Empire.6 The slow withdrawal of British troops from Continental soil after Waterloo ushered in a moment of French Anglophobia, which played itself out as an aesthetic battle between neoclassicists and Romanticists on the Shakespearean stage—perhaps inevitably, since after Waterloo it was impossible to dissociate the country across the Channel from Shakespeare.7 But anti-British sentiments proved short lived. After years of war, the French were ready for an influx of new, foreign (especially British) [End Page 507] ideas. They did not hold Waterloo against Shakespeare, Lord Byron, or Sir Walter Scott (Partridge, 22 ).

In France, as in England a couple of decades earlier, a nostalgic and sometimes nationalistic yearning for origins and authenticity created renewed interest in older vernacular literatures. The Ossianic myth, for example, found an audience in both countries, and Shakespeare acquired a mythic status with complex aesthetic and political dimensions.8 In 1822 , when Jonas and Penley's Theater Royal of Windsor and Brighton performed several English plays at the Porte Saint-Martin Theater in Paris, the productions so aroused the passions of the spectators that they threw rocks and eggs at the villains onstage and punches at each other.9 Yet many French Romantics...


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