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  • The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich
  • Susannah Heschel
The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich. By Rodney Symington (Lewiston, The Edward Mellen Press, 2005) 310 pp. $119.95

Symington's fascinating study examines productions of William Shakespeare's plays during the Third Reich to see how Nazi ideologues attempted to appropriate the preeminent playwright of Western culture. Adolf Hitler was savvy about the cultural transmission of master narratives. Rather than ban Shakespeare's plays outright, the Nazis attempted to reinterpret them for their own propagandistic purposes. Thus, they reconceived the figure of Hamlet not as a protagonist with a conscience but as a proto-German warrior. The Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer turned Hamlet the play into a narrative of Germany, likening "the crime that . . . deprived Hamlet of his inheritance" to the Treaty of Versailles and "Gertrude's betrayal [to] that of the spineless Weimar politicians" (190).

The German literary canon had long appropriated Shakespeare as central, following the translations of August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck; the Nazis rejected Hans Rothe's later translations as part of their larger repudiation of literary modernism (97). Nazi leaders presented Shakespeare not as an English writer but as a German, expressing Nordic racial values and tied to Germans through bonds of blood (169). Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced in 1939 that Hitler himself had permitted the staging of Shakespeare productions (172).

In similar manner, the Nazis rendered George Bernard Shaw acceptable by viewing him as an Irish writer opposed to England and his plays as propaganda against England (174). Shaw's published articles opposing the English government and his sympathy for eugenics led Hitler to issue orders to "protect" Shaw, making him, as Symington writes, "the most successful living dramatist [in] the Third Reich[;] . . . the number of productions of his plays actually increased in wartime" (173). Symington notes that Hitler enjoyed both of the productions of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra that he saw (173).

The regime, however, banned Shakespeare's historical plays. By March 1941, formal permission from the Reich Dramaturgy was required for any production. The result was a drastic drop in the performance of Shakespeare's plays: 1,034 productions were mounted in the 1932/33 season, 1,263 in 1940/41, but only 831 in 1942/43 (167, 175). Symington reports that most of them were comedies. The most useful play for Nazis was The Merchant of Venice, which was broadcast on radio shortly after Kristallnacht, and given a command performance in 1943, [End Page 290] commissioned by the Baldur von Schirach, SS Gauleiter of Vienna, to celebrate that the city had become Judenrein. According to newspaper accounts, when Werner Krauss, the Nazis' leading actor, first appeared on the stage of the Burgtheater as Shylock in 1943, he made the audience shudder: "With a crash and a weird train of shadows, something revoltingly alien and startlingly repulsive crawled across the stage."

Resistance to Hitler via productions of the plays did not occur (268). Yet even though the Nazis did not attempt to influence the scholarly study of Shakespeare, academics usually "played right into the hands of the regime" by viewing the plays as reflections of the Nazis' own "heroic age" (269).

Symington notes the irony that Shakespeare's work, which emphasizes the complexity of the individual, conscience, and interiority, would be appropriated by Nazis, but concludes that ultimately his great plays were immune to manipulation and propaganda. The classics retained their power. In Symington's words, "the most seditious reactions in the theatres resulted from productions of classical plays" (270).

Susannah Heschel
Dartmouth College


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pp. 290-291
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