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From Fat Falstaffto Francophile Fop: Russian Nationalism in Catherine the Great's Merry Wives Lurana Donnels O'Malley In his anonymously published General Observations Regarding the Present State ofthe Russian Empire (1787), Sir John Sinclair, English visitor to St. Petersburg, calls Catherine the Great "a hero in petticoats," who knows the French Belles Lettres perfectly, and, anno 1786, was reading Shakespeare in the German translation. She also writes comedies herself; and in any part of the world would be accounted, in private life, a most accomplished woman.1 Over the course of her reign (1762-1796) Catherine wrote over two dozen comedies, historical dramas, and operas, the majority ofwhich, like most Russian drama ofthe period, was modeled on French neoclassicism. French dramaturgy, however, was not the sole influence on Catherine's writing style. Not only was she reading Shakespeare in 1786 as Sinclair notes, but she also wrote four plays influenced by a Shakespearean aesthetic that same year. Catherine humbly subtitled This 'tis to Have Linen and Buck-Baskets, her version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, as "a free but feeble adaptation." With this comedy, the first Russian play to credit Shakespeare's influence, Catherine contributed to a growing Russian trend of the 1780s: a lively interest in English fashion, language, and literature to replace the former domination of French culture.2 As literary historian Marcus Levitt has noted, "The question to consider is not how eighteenth-century writers misunderstood or corrupted Shakespeare but how they adapted him to meet specific needs of their own."3 By imitating Shakespeare rather than Moliere or Racine, Catherine probably rejected the French model, an act with both cultural and political connotations. The approbation of Shakespeare had the potential to express simultaneously pro-English and anti-French senti365 366Comparative Drama ments, all in the name of Russian nationalism. This article will examine how, despite her conscious attempt to follow a Shakespearean model while satirizing Francophilia, Catherine instead ultimately crafted a neoclassical comedy still strongly influenced by the French mode. Although Russian imitations of French neoclassical drama were prevalent in the mid-eighteenth century, there was also some Russian interest in Shakespeare. Russian writers were aware of the debates on the merits of Shakespeare's style by Western European theorists such as Voltaire and Lessing. As early as 1748, Aleksandr Sumarokov, the first professional Russian playwright, had written an adaptation of Hamlet. Although he preserved the play's basic plot, he transformed the play into a neoclassical tragedy, complete with confidants, and did not credit Shakespeare's influence. Although English was not a wellknown language among Russian courtiers and writers, readers of French had access to summaries of Shakespeare plays in La Place's editions (1746—49).4 A German speaker living in Russia could read Shakespeare in German translation from sources such as Wieland's 1762-66 edition of twenty-two plays, or later in Eschenburg's twelve volumes ofthe complete Shakespeare plays (1775-1782).5 In 1772 the first Russian translation of part of Shakespeare's work appeared: a single speech from Romeo and Juliet. It was not until 1783 that a full play, Richard HI, was translated. In 1 786 Karamzin published a Russian translation of Julius Caesar .6 In September of that year, Catherine wrote to her correspondent Friedrich Melchior Grimm that she had "gobbled up" the German translations by Eschenburg.7 This rapid consumption seems to have inspired her to depart in varying degrees from the prevailing French neoclassical style in 1786 by writing four Shakespearean scripts. Although Catherine wrote primarily comedies or light operas , three of her 1786 Shakespearean experiments were serious dramas. The Beginning of Oleg's Reign [Nachal'noe upravlenie Olega] and From the Life ofRiurik [Iz zhizni Riurika] were historical plays modeled on the English chronicle play structure and set in ninth-century pre-Christian Russia. Riurik is a drama; Oleg, with its many songs and choruses, is most often classified as an opera. Both scripts bear the same self-conscious inscription : "noapaacaHHe IüaieecnHpy . . . 6e3 coxpaHeims TeaTpajibHbix oôwKHOBeHHbix npaBHJi" [an imitation of Shakespeare . . . without preservation of the usual theatrical Lurana Donnels O 'Malley367 rules].8 Catherine experimented at a time when neoclassicism still...


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