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  • Affecting Grace: Theatre, Subject, and the Shakespearean Paradox in German Literature from Lessing to Kleist by Kenneth S. Calhoon
  • Stephan K. Schindler
Kenneth S. Calhoon. Affecting Grace: Theatre, Subject, and the Shakespearean Paradox in German Literature from Lessing to Kleist. University of Toronto Press 2013. xii, 282. $65.00

Over the last centuries Germans have engaged in a complex and complicated interaction with Shakespeare’s works. Starting in the 1750s, poets used his plays and poetry as a means to cultivate the art of poetic translations (Christoph Martin Wieland, August Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Stefan George, Paul Celan, and Erich Fried). In 1864 German academics founded one of the oldest still functioning literary societies (the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft). Still today, state-subsidized theatres continue to celebrate the Elizabethan playwright by incorporating his works into their repertoire; in the city of Neuss, these plays are even performed in a replica of the historical Globe theatre. Kenneth S. Calhoon’s study adds a new perspective to this multi-faceted German engagement with Shakespeare by analysing how canonical German authors—Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche—have adapted and reinterpreted certain theatrical constellations from plays such as The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear, and Henry V as well as from Shakespeare’s [End Page 397] poetic works. At first glance, this rediscovery of Shakespeare and the theatricality of his plays seem to pose a paradox given the anti-corporeal spirit of the eighteenth century in the discursive constitution of the modern subject. However, Calhoon is quite convincing in demonstrating that the “self-exteriorizing theatricality of the Elizabethan stagecraft” is absorbed into the “modern self-sufficient subject.” Some Shakespearean constellations such as the dynamics among judge, accuser, and accused reverberate clearly in his close readings of Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson and Nathan der Weise and Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug. Affecting Grace, however, goes far beyond interpreting Shakespearean “influence” in eighteenth-century German drama by expanding the analytical readings into realms of different cultural productions. Calhoon investigates the role Meissen porcelain, especially the miniature figurines, plays in envisioning the modern subject that displays a sovereignty grounded in innocence; he reads topographical paintings (Bernardo Bellotto) and Goethe’s “Baukunst” essay as manifestations of the development of the modern gaze that projects the self onto the aesthetic object; and, reading Schiller’s elegy “Der Spaziergang,” he discovers the anticipation of Roland Barthes’s concept of “sovereign innocence” in the description of the naive spectator.

Eighteenth-century German literary, philosophical, and aesthetic discourse attempted to overcome the limits and fragility of the physical body by inscribing an omnipotent soul into the modern subject, a soul that becomes the place for imagined wholeness and enjoyment but also self-discipline and lack. Calhoon’s surgical precision in interpreting the body-soul dialectic comes to fruition when he dissects the aesthetic nomenclature of disavowal that culminates in the term grace and its many German equivalents (Anmut, Zierde, Grazie, Gnade, Unschuld, etc.). By dispossessing the absolute baroque ruler of his sovereignty, the modern subject had to cultivate a sensibility that allowed seeing beyond the obvious so inherent in theatrical acts of representation. One of Calhoon’s analytical strengths is his uncanny ability to reveal the vulnerability of the modern subject exactly at the historical point when it is aesthetically constructed. As the ungraceful scar on judge Adam’s forehead (Der zerbrochene Krug) or the boy’s physical inability to reproduce the grace of Adonis (“Marionettentheater”) demonstrates, the body resists the reign of the modern subject’s new vision, a vision that, according to Calhoon, is already subverted in its textual construction.

What makes this monograph such a fascinating and informative read is its author’s depth of knowledge of the intellectual discourses that shaped eighteenth-century Europe, his ability to connect threads of cultural history beyond the limitations of historical time and geographical space, and his elegant writing style that invites the reader to follow the author on a tour de force of far-reaching associations. The scholarly density of the text, its interweaving of interpretations of canonical texts and [End Page 398] aesthetic objects with discussions...


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pp. 397-399
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