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  • The Drama in Rags:Shakespeare Reception in Eighteenth-Century Germany
  • Bianca Theisen

For the early eighteenth century, Shakespeare stood as the token figure for a liberal departure from normative poetics. Imperious advocates of a restrained, rule-governed poetics such as Voltaire or Gottsched thundered against the irregularity of Shakespearean drama, decrying its monstrous hybridization of the tragic, the comic and the lyrical, railing at the complete lack of dramatic unity and the lamentable violation of decorum and poetic taste. Seventeenth-century poetics, namely Boileau's L'Art Poétique (1674), had reinterpreted Aristotle's differentiation of genres according to the motif, means, and kind of mimesis, and instituted them as rigid generic boundaries. For Aristotle, persons either above or below the standard norm constitute the motif or theme of poetic representation—a distinction that comes to account for the difference between tragedy and comedy. The different means of representation, dramatic dialogue or narration, indicated the differentiation between drama and epic. In his Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (1624), Opitz relies on Aristotle's thematic differentiation to outline further classifications: the heroic poem has to represent gods, heroes, and wars; tragedy is to show royal will, murder, and despair; comedy has to present bad characters and lowly persons; and lyrics or songs at weddings or births are to depict courting, dance, banquets, gardens, and vineyards. The themes and motifs of literature, and the respective delineation of genre borders, were thus still modeled on social hierarchies and ranks. Gottsched systematized the earlier, often [End Page 505] haphazard and merely additive criteria for generic classification in his Critische Dichtkunst (1730), basing his poetics on an understanding of mimesis that went beyond Aristotle, but continued to abide by the traditional hierarchy of genres. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, normative and systematic classification increasingly give way to a new understanding of history and historical emergence, an awareness that leads Herder in particular to reconceptualize the relationship between the general rule and the individual literary phenomenon, between ahistorical invariance and historical variation. The zealous reception of Shakespeare in eighteenth-century Germany—emerging surprisingly late and at a time when European theater had already abandoned Renaissance spectacle for more refined aesthetic sensibilities—must be understood against the backdrop of this turn towards intrapoetic autonomy.

The first translation of Shakespeare into German, Kaspar Wilhelm von Borck's rendition of Julius Caesar in 1741, had provoked Gottsched's scathing judgment. Even the popular theatrical spectacle ("Haupt- und Staatsaktion") Gottsched had banned from the stage he now maintained was preferable to Shakespeare's gross violation of dramatic rules.1 Johann Elias Schlegel countered Gottsched's stock accusation by differentiating between the representation of action and the representation of character in drama, defending the bold strokes with which Shakespeare portrayed characters true to history or nature. While Schlegel's response thus already set the tone for the subsequent revival of Shakespearean drama, he also remains indebted to the decorum of his time when criticizing Shakespeare's inclusion of "bad language" or overstated metaphors as a shortcoming that cannot be excused as "nature."2 Friedrich Nicolai similarly states in his Briefe über den itzigen Zustand der schönen Wissenschaften in Deutschland (1755) that Shakespeare, even though he ignored rules, order, and lacked erudition, crafted powerful, many-sided characters that could serve as a model for the renewal of German theater.3 Lessing clearly favors strong character over dramatic regularity, "The most rigid regularity [End Page 506] cannot compensate for the smallest misconception of character,"4 and urges for a translation of Shakespeare's works into German. Shakespearean theater with its bend towards the great, the terrible, and the melancholic, Lessing believes, has more affinity with and more effect on the German disposition than French classicist theater, and the availability of Shakespeare in translation would have propagated an altogether different rejuvenation of national theater than Gottsched's institution of Corneille and Racine since. As Lessing succinctly states, "only genius can spark off genius."5

Only two years later, in 1761, Christoph Martin Wieland stages The Tempest with sweeping success in the Biberach theater he directs, for the first time crediting Shakespearean drama with its author's name in a performance...


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pp. 505-513
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