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Theater 30.2 (2000) 164-168

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Book Review

Their Shakespeare

James Leverett


Shakespeare on the German Stage: The Twentieth Century by Wilhelm Hortmann. 1998: Cambridge University Press.

There is no nation, not even the British, which is more entitled to call Shakespeare its own than Germany. Shakespeare's characters have become part of our world, his soul has become one with ours: and though he was born and buried in England it is in Germany that he is truly alive.

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Thus Gerhart Hauptmann, arguably the preeminent modern German playwright prior to Brecht, answered the members of the Shakespeare-Gesellschaft when they posed the question, "Is the cult of Shakespeare, whom an English mother bore, still permissible in Germany?" Both question and answer resound with Teutonic arrogance made more comprehensible, if not more sufferable, by the context of the exchange. It was 1915; the Great War was on; a common greeting from Elbe to Danube was, "May God punish the English!"

If we can lower the rhetorical volume for a moment, however, and stifle the historical shudder that talk of German soil and German soul must now summon up, perhaps we can find some justification for Hauptmann's claim, some core of fact, if not unassailable, at least occasionally accurate. The first recorded English-language performance in Germany--most probably of Shakespeare--was by a troupe of traveling players before the Elector of Saxony in 1586; the first complete German translation of a Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar by C. W. von Borck in 1741. Performances and translations became more frequent, but it was only beginning in the 1760s, through the critical advocacy primarily of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, that the supreme creator of English drama (can't we say of English culture itself?) ascended to a comparable status among the Germans.

At that time, however, there was no Germany, but only a hodgepodge of disunited city-states, principalities, bishoprics, and other entities, if not answering to France through direct political allegiance, certainly under French sway in all matters of cultural expression, even of language itself. If the Germans were going to unite as a nation and culture, they would have to throw off this foreign hegemony--but to replace it with what? Most of their literature was Gallic imitation and their stages were hemmed in by the neoclassical prohibitions of Corneille, Voltaire, and their epigones. Although Shakespeare was also foreign, Lessing and others maintained, he was northern European and temperamentally much more congenial to the German sensibility. Moreover, what was then regarded as the formlessness of his dramaturgy defied French feudal [End Page 164] formality. With him resided all energy, freedom, nature itself; with the French, only regulation and restraint.

The first page I read of him made me his own for the rest of my life, and as I finished the first play I stood like one who has been blind from birth being given the gift of sight by a miraculous hand. I understood, I felt in the liveliest way how my existence extended to infinity, everything was new to me, unknown, and the unaccustomed light hurt my eyes.

Thus the young Goethe described his first encounter with what seemed to him a Promethean genius, a demigod. He and the even younger Schiller set the tone for the Sturm und Drang generation, the group of artists who were to give initial shape, substance, and direction to a culture--including a literature, a drama, and a theater--that would be dominant in Europe for the next century. Shakespeare was their avatar and their avant-garde.

With the emergence of romanticism in the nineteenth century, Germany took the center not only in Shakespearean critical and theoretical thought, but also in stage production. Ludwig Tieck was revered in England alongside Coleridge for his knowledge and insight, and it was he, together with August Wilhelm Schlegel, who was responsible for what are certainly the first modern translations of Shakespeare, the standard by which all others in any language are measured. Along with the dramatist, dramaturg, and director Karl Immermann, Tieck attempted, for the first time anywhere in Europe since the seventeenth...


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