The Making, Framing and Translating of Shakespeare, the German National Poet

The story of Shakespeare’s rise to become one of Germany’s national poets has often been told, and this process more often than not framed against the background of locating a “true Shakespeare”. One which needs to be safeguarded against the corrupting influence of translators, adaptations, and stage and film directors.

Few collections are better placed than those of Senate House Library to cover the history of Germany’s very own “German” Shakespeare from the eighteenth century onwards, during which time Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel and Tieck, among others, appropriated the playwright for projects of literary and ideological education.

The Library’s language, literature and performing arts collections cover the entirety of Shakespeare textual scholarship, but the supplementation of this superlative research apparatus through the Germanic Studies Library, with its focus on literary Shakespeare’s reception in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, warrants a special mention.

The German enthusiasm for Shakespeare and his adoption as a specifically German classic was engendered after 1770, and to this day shows no sign of abating, having metamorphosed numerous times. In the twentieth century alone, the Third Reich and GDR ideologies conscripted respective Shakespeare interpretations for the purposes of indoctrination. The National Socialists, unsurprisingly, concentrated on Shakespeare’s portrayal of Führerfiguren, while in the classrooms of the GDR, the emphasis of Shakespeare reception shifted to his humanism and realism, from whence GDR socialist literature traced its evolution. As a result, Shakespeare’s plays were read as critical responses to a social, political and economic reality defined by class struggle, following among other thinkers, Karl Marx. Marx had written an analysis of Timon of Athens, particularly its portrayal of the special properties of cash, memorably declaring that it was “the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations”.

In the beginnings

When Goethe and other German intellectuals discovered “their” Shakespeare in the mid eighteenth- century, they found much to learn, much to translate and above all, much to imitate and mythologisze. German intellectuals saw in Shakespeare a fraternal spirit who would help them to free themselves from a stifling French influence. Unlike other countries who adopted Shakespeare, Germans “naturalized” him and attributed an affinity with their own new national character. The first complete translation of Shakespeare’s plays into German, held here in Senate House Library, was published between 1775 and 1782 and from then onward, the “naturalization” and adaptation of Shakespeare’s work was inextricably bound up with the art of translation.

After an initial strong resistance from proponents of French Neoclassicism, Shakespeare soon became an indispensable part of German culture and a part of the German canon. French Classicism had been represented above all by the works of Corneille and Racine and had been acknowledged by European intellectuals as the most legitimate successor to the Graeco-Roman tradition. The new assertion of a uniquely German access to the Hellenistic past undermined the supremacy of French classicism and led to bitter scholarly disputes during which the philosopher, author and critic J.C. Gottsched (1700-1766) would dismiss Shakespeare as a barbarian, whilst J.E. Lessing would proclaim Shakespeare the model for all Germans. The first mention of Shakespeare’s adoption as a specifically German classic took place in the so-called Schlegel-Tieck translations of the late eighteenth century and from then on it followed that German poets wishing for a tradition of their own must cease to follow the French example but establish a German tradition, preferably through adaptations and translations of Shakespeare. In 1833 Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) published the last volume of the Schlegel-Tieck translations which would, despite its often puritanically squeamish renderings of Shakespeare’s earthy language, remain a classic. Efforts to revise and improve upon this canon with editions which would resonate more with contemporary audiences began even before the publication of the concluding volume.

The increasing rhetoric of nationalist appropriation found its full expression in the nineteenth century through works such as Ferdinand von Freilingrath’s “Deutschland ist Hamlet” (which needs no translation) of 1844 and in 1864 the founders of the German Shakespeare Society coined the term “nostrification” for the concept of German Shakespeare appropriation.

The twentieth century saw the publication of Friedrich Gundolf’s tremendously influential “Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist” in 1911, and Gerhart Hauptmann’s address of 1915 “Deutschland und Shakespeare”. While the Shakespeare reception of the Romantic period had focussed on translations with the aim to release creative energies that would shape a supra-national literature that happened to be German, later works such as that of Gundolf saw Shakespeare as an asset of Germany’s cultural capital and as a vehicle for nationalistic rhetoric. Gundolf’s work marked a culmination of this tendency and a turning point in German language and literature studies.

German admiration for Shakespeare had remained unaffected by the Great War and Shakespeare’s cultural status continued undiminished under the National Socialists, who attempted to shape Shakespeare into a Nordic genius. Joseph Goebbels had been a student of Friedrich Gundolf in Heidelberg in the early 1920s, while writing his doctoral dissertation on a minor 19th century romantic dramatist. In 1935 Goebbels decreed that the canonical Schlegel-Tieck version of 1797-1833 would be the only permissible edition on the German stage. The Nazis’ search for a new national drama gave a boost to its own classics, but the works of Goethe and Schiller only crowded out Shakespeare for a short while. In 1937, the convention of the German Shakespeare Society announced proudly that the Bard was still very much part of Germany’s cultural heritage. Having remained exempt from being classed as an “enemy dramatist” during both World Wars, Shakespeare’s works continued to be performed throughout Germany until the closure of all theatres in 1944.

After the Second World War, a steady stream of translations tried to improve upon and replace previous versions: Rudolf Schaller (1891-1984) was one of the most prolific East German translators of Shakespeare’s work. Schaller had started his professional life as a journalist, but his activities had brought him into conflict with Joseph Goebbels’ censorship. He had settled in East Germany where he became well known and was publicly funded as a translator of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre. Initially only enjoying success in the GDR, Schaller’s translations soon established a firm position on both sides of the divided Germany and its stages. In an article dated 1950 entitled “Gedanken zur Uebertragung Shakespeares in unsere Sprache” (Thoughts concerning the translation of Shakespeare in our language), Schaller laments that Shakespeare translators are considered superfluous to the needs of contemporary society. In in order to justify yet another translation of the Bard’s work, he detects a certain “Unruhe” (restlessness) emanating from Shakespeare’s texts which previous translators in his view had failed to convey adequately. He argued that the plays needed the services of a translator imbued with the height of rational analysis that society had attained only during the second half of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, in the West, Heiner Muller (1929-1995) a German (former East German) dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and theatre director, often described as “the theatre's greatest living poet” since Samuel Beckett, breathed new life into postmodern theatre with his so-called "enigmatic, fragmentary pieces", producing many Shakespeare-inspired plays, such as Hamletmaschine, Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome A Shakespeare Commentary and Macbeth. Muller elaborated on his approach in prose, such as in his address Shakespeare A Difference.

Such a survey can only be indicative, but not only has the German appreciation of Shakespeare proved extremely long-lived, he remains to this day a staple of German theatres, schools and libraries. Continually interpreted, re-interpreted, and translated, his prevalence as a device to explore shifting contemporary concerns lends Shakespeare a unique cultural status in Germany, paradoxically approaching that of national poet.

Andrea Meyer Ludowisy is Research Librarian for Western European Languages at Senate House Library. The Shakespeare: Metamorphosis exhibition runs until 17 September 2016.

Blog post details

  • 20 Apr 2016

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