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  • Transplacing Ophelia:Woman and Nation in the Earliest Russian Hamlets
  • Daria Chernysheva (bio)

Shakespeare's Hamlet has always been accompanied by international politicization. As early as 1605—within a couple of years of the play's publication in England—an anonymous English author described the contemporaneous deposition of the government of Boris Godunov, a Russian tsar, as being "a first [tragedy], but no second to any Hamlet."1 Centuries later, in 1828, Ludwig Borne turned to Shakespeare in an attempt to explain Germany's destiny; he linked the country's failure to take political action with Prince Hamlet's famous hesitation.2 And in China of the 1930s, Lao She's New Hamlet parodied what was called the "Hamlet complex," or China's "inability to act at a time of national crisis."3

This tendency to superimpose the eponymous hero's idiosyncratic traits atop political phenomena, in any country or culture, has only strengthened across the centuries, so that terms such as "Hamlet complex" and "Hamletism" have come to exist in multiple languages. In Russia's case, the country's association with the play has been a long and ever politically charged one. Famously punctuated by figures such as Turgenev, Stalin, Pasternak, and Kozintsev, perhaps this association had truly begun, unbeknownst to Russia, with the aforementioned observations of the Englishman in 1605.4 Yet, when the Romantic actor Pavel Mochalov presented "an ideal theatrical signifier of authentic Russianness" in his portrayal of Prince Hamlet, or when Grigorii Kozintsev criticized the oppression of the Soviet state in his 1964 film, these were not foreigners who superimposed the Hamlet narrative onto a real account of political turmoil because they saw a resemblance.5 Rather, Hamlet served as a foreign lens through which the refraction of a domestic vision was possible. [End Page 188]

This introspective appropriation of the English play is particularly notable in the two earliest versions of the work to appear in the Russian language. Aleksandr Sumarokov (1717–77), a translator and pioneer of classical theatre in Russia, presented the first Russian Hamlet as Gamlet in 1748.6 It was not until the next century, in 1810, that a second play appeared, a Gamlet written by Stepan Viskovatov (1786–1831), who worked as a translator under the direction of St. Petersburg theatres.7 Despite this chronological gap—and Viskovatov's profound obscurity when compared to Sumarokov's lately bourgeoning popularity among scholars of Russian literature—the two Gamlets behave in similar ways. By having the characters confront those questions of authority, faith, and passion such as were relevant to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russia, these plays domesticize Shakespeare's narrative, as well as the French intermediaries by means of which the Russian playwrights accessed that narrative. Sumarokov, it is known, worked from the adaptation of Shakespeare first performed by the editor and writer Pierre Antoine de la Place (1707–93), while Viskovatov turned to the translator and dramatist Jean-François Ducis (1733–1816). Even as the Gamlet plays boast of such a multicultural heritage, they ultimately articulate local, Russian concerns.

Sumarokov, as the better-known playwright, has received considerable scholarly attention with respect to the politics of his dramatic corpus, including the ways in which his Gamlet behaves on Russian soil. By reworking the defining indecisiveness and melancholy of the English prince, Sumarokov is read as having created a new Prince Gamlet, a character who provides insight into political themes ranging from divine and autocratic justice to the coup d'état.8 Sumarokov's Gamlet has thus been identified as an equal contender with other moments in history that seek to use Shakespeare's prince to explain local political preoccupations, moments which give rise to concepts such as "Hamlet complex" and "Hamletism."

But what if, in reading the earliest Gamlet plays in their political contexts, we were to move past the traditional politicization of Hamlet with its narrow emphasis on the Prince of Denmark? Political readings of literary works can tend to focus their analysis of authority and power on masculine characters, especially if these characters are also the eponymous heroes. The early Russian Gamlet plays invite a different approach, [End Page 189] however, by rewriting the Hamlet...


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