- German Shakespeare Studies at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
Perhaps some readers of Shakespeare Quarterly will not remember that Germany's preoccupation with the Bard has a long and venerable history, dating back at least to Lessing's association of Shakespeare's work with popular drama. In our own time, one might judge that German Shakespeare studies are thriving, from the vigorous life in each annual volume of the widely read Shakespeare-Jahrbuch with its essays, theater and book reviews, and reports on relevant cultural events. But what is "German," anyway? Shakespeare-Jahrbuch and other relevant sources regularly offer articles by English-speaking scholars publishing in Germany such as Barbara Hardy, Kate McLuskie, or Juliet Dusinberre. Yet the University of Delaware Press offers a nice reflection of scholarly and cultural globalization in its series "International Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries"—so why not Germany? Christa Jansohn, the author of several books on Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence, has seized the opportunity to assemble translations of a few recent articles "that otherwise would not reach an international readership" (9).
Such an undertaking, it seems to me, harbors perhaps unavoidable anomalies. Anyone expecting contributions from such internationally well-known writers as Robert Weimann or, for that matter, other authors with origins in East Germany (the former German Democratic Republic), will not find them here; like it or not, the East is clearly extinct. Likewise, the title "Studies" indicates that we will not hear "the voices of translators, actors and directors, composers, painters, and reviewers" (9). More surprising, perhaps, is the general impression that it is an older generation that feels at home in such a field: seven of the book's fifteen contributors are emeriti, and Jansohn herself calls some of the not-yet-retired authors "older academics" (10), while younger ones include short bits on Shakespeare en passant within wider thematic concerns. Are German Shakespeare studies old hat? Somewhat wistfully, Jansohn herself laments a slippage in English departments away from major authors toward "noncanonical writers, mass culture, videos, cartoons, 'cyberpunk,' and 'soap-operas'" (10), perhaps hoping that the book might help redress the balance. If so, it would seem to me that, while acknowledging that Jansohn has a point, readers would be better advised to turn to such internationally available sources as the Jahrbuch or the annual proceedings volume Anglistentag (Jahrestagung des Deutschen Anglistenverbandes) for a somewhat more balanced view of the varieties of Shakespeare research actually going on in Germany.
As it now presents itself, the collection contains articles originally published between 1986 and 2004, several in the Jahrbuch. This suggests that one of its [End Page 267] chief advantages could be (as it were) intertextual, to call attention to such major sources, as an asset in itself. At any rate, the focus is at times less directly on the Bard or his works: the children's fiction writer Mirjam Pressler recreates the early modern Venetian Jewish community to rewrite The Merchant of Venice; one of the book's four parts narrates the history of the German Shakespeare Society, surely a monumental enough institution in its own right—yet a part which might, regrettably, meet with more attention in Germany than outside. The other parts each have focuses of their own. The first is headed "Culture, Memory, and the Natural Sciences in Shakespeare," a kind of grab bag for thematic and image studies ranging from the dramatic role of memory in the histories to animal imagery in King Lear. The second part, "The Appropriation of Shakespeare," offers discussions of musical and literary adaptations, as well as a survey of antecedent texts for Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. The third part, "Venice, Shylock, and the German Reception" focuses mainly on a single play, The Merchant of Venice, most likely because of its troubled relation to recent German history (it was thought unperformable for some time in a country that had tried to exterminate the European Jews).
First, then, an overview...