‘Beyond too much’: Shakespearean excesses in the 18th century

From the mid-1750s an unprecedented Anglophilia took hold of Europe. It manifested itself throughout Germany from the mid-1770s onwards with the rampant ‘Hamlet fever’, which succeeded and fed on an earlier ‘Werther fever’. It also became apparent in the many creative interactions with Shakespeare’s plays in the works of Goethe, Schiller and Kleist. Roger Paulin speaks of Germany in the 1770s as a ‘Shakespeare-haunted culture’, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, in 1827, diagnoses a ‘Shakespearomania’, James Joyce’s Ulysses later calls the phenomenon ‘Shakespeare made in Germany’.

French texts played a crucial role in disseminating English writing about the theatre in Germany. Diderot and Voltaire acknowledged the art of David Garrick, and Voltaire’s own intense engagement with Shakespeare carried many nuances. He regarded Hamlet’s monologue ‘To be or not to be’ as theatrical raw material: ‘un diamant brut’, but he also launched into a number of famous invectives against Shakespeare, as for instance in his Essai sur les mœurs, et l’esprit des nations: ‘C’est dommage qu’il y ait beaucoup plus de barbarie encore que de génie dans les ouvrages de Shakespeare’.[1]

Shakespeare Denkmal

Shakespeare Denkmal, by Otto Lessing (1846-1912), the only Shakespeare monument on the European mainland, in Weimar.

There is a great sense of abundance in Shakespeare’s plays themselves. To many readers and audiences, his works convey a sense of copious richness of themes, ideas, characters and possibilities of language. His characters continuously cross boundaries into excess. Antony and Cleopatra dream of an ‘Egypt without bounds’, the melancholic Orsino starts Twelfth Night by saying: ‘if music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it’, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet realises: ‘my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth’. King Lear expounds a self-surpassing dynamic of negative excess when Goneril purports to love her father in a manner that goes ‘beyond all manner of so much’.

Yet, it seems paradoxical that the texts of one of the most glorified poets in Germany, France and England could be least tolerated in their original form. What with all the enraptured admiration for Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre, editors and translators could not bear to stage them without extensive alterations. Eighteenth-century criticism and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays for the German stage like the adaptations of D’Avenant, Dryden, Tate or Cibber in England, were by no means guided by the principles of truth to the original, nor did they present a Shakespeare verbatim, but they rather delivered a tamed and domesticated version of the original.

Franz Heufeld’s highly successful Hamlet in Vienna (1773), for instance, dispensed with Fortinbras, Laertes, Rosencrantz and the gravedigger, leaving out the play’s political background and, instead, focused on the Danish family drama. He changed Shakespeare’s Latinate names into such that he considered more apt to the Danish setting: Polonius became Oldenholm, Horatio became Gustav, etc. Most importantly, he changed the ending of the tragedy, which as a consequence was no longer tragic. Quite unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that ends in a bloodbath, in Heufeld’s Denmark law and order as well as a kind of poetic justice are restored. Such ‘taming of the bard’ on German and Austrian stages operated on the basis that closeness to the original meant taking risks with the audience’s reactions. Indeed, fainting, collapse, and even premature labour were registered among the effects caused by a performance of Othello (1777) by Schröder, the ‘German Garrick’, in Hamburg.

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth, 1745.

The question ‘Shakespeare yes or no, and if yes how?’ rapidly rose to a question about the ‘right’ conception of contemporary drama. To German and French criticism and theatre in the eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s works were too much, too disturbing, too complicated, too confusing, too terrifying if not utterly devastating, bloodthirsty and gruesome. And yet, it seems that his plays fascinated their directors, actors, critics and audiences not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. Their reception reveals ambivalences about the rationale of a late-Enlightenment, bourgeois morality and its claim to art.

Voltaire invited the suitably flattered Garrick to visit him in Ferney, but alas, the meeting never took place. Voltaire died in May 1778 and Garrick outlived him by only eight months. What if they had met? Would Garrick have succeeded, as he had planned, in converting Voltaire fully to his own dramatic faith?

– Claudia Olk

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.25 (2012), p.293-94.

A la portée de tout le monde

That was then: d’Holbach in print…

That was then: d’Holbach in print…

When I came upon the baron d’Holbach in the early 1960s – my undergraduate senior thesis was on d’Holbach’s atheism and the response of Voltaire and others to the Système de la nature, a choice of subject that played a not insignificant role in my scholarly life – there were few secondary sources to guide me, and there were precious few of his works accessible from a university library. As a graduate student studying his salon, his atheism, and his relationships, the only passage to his writings required taking a paper number in the waiting room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, rue de Richelieu, praying for a siège to open up, and waiting patiently for tomes that might or might not be the right editions to be delivered to my desk. Where was this extraordinary digital resource when I most needed it?

The secondary works about d’Holbach still cited by scholars of the Enlightenment when I began my research had been written in 1875, 1914, 1928, 1935, 1943, 1946, and 1955. There was a near universal consensus that it would be in the coterie holbachique that I would find the major movement of organized atheism in the Enlightenment (there were indeed a handful of atheists there, but the vast majority of devotees of the salon were not), and, for most scholars, diversely conspiratorial efforts to bring down the Ancien Régime. As each of these operational hypotheses dissolved in the light of the evidence – to my great disappointment at the time – I understood that one must learn to read texts, archives, correspondence, and contemporaneous records without prepossessed ideas about d’Holbach or his world, however ‘settled’ the scholarship appeared to be. Too many historians, claiming d’Holbach for a particular ideological camp, cited and presented him selectively and tendentiously, leaving one wholly unprepared for and startled by the dimensions and aspects of his work that they did not address or explicate. This narrative extended to the coterie itself.

… and this is now: screenshot from Tout d’Holbach.

… and this is now: screenshot from Tout d’Holbach.

D’Holbach’s salon was not a collaborative conspiracy or undertaking, pace many a historian and literary historian. The recent release of the truly collaborative Tout d’Holbach database coupled with the Voltaire Foundation’s project to create a digital scholarly edition of d’Holbach’s works (Digital d’Holbach) will allow debates about d’Holbach’s meanings and intentions to engage a large number of scholars and students in a variety of fields, informed by the array of texts on religion, superstition, philosophy, ethics, politics, and happiness that he bequeathed to his contemporaries and to us. Claims about his scepticism or dogmatism, elitism or egalitarianism, pessimism or optimism, happiness as contentment or happiness as hedonistic pleasure, for example, now can receive truly critical reception based upon unfiltered access to his actual works. Those of us who wrote about these matters might well have hoped that readers and students would go beyond our own claims and citations, testing the value of these by setting what we explicated in the context of the larger text and intellectual context, but now that is possible on a whole new scale. It is an exciting opportunity, and it is not only à la portée de tous ceux qui s’y intéressent, but it will expand such interest sizably and noticeably.

– Alan Charles Kors
Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History, University of Pennsylvania

Quarantine and Enlightenment: ‘Following the science’ in eighteenth-century Europe

Danilo Samoilovich (Samoïlowitz), Mémoire sur la peste

Danilo Samoilovich (Samoïlowitz), Mémoire sur la peste (Paris, 1783), title page.

‘Nous étions au XVIIIe siècle, qui est celui des Sciences et des Arts’, proclaimed Danilo Samoilovich in his Mémoire sur la peste (Paris, 1783, p. xviii). Dedicated to Catherine the Great, it was an account of his experiences as a physician during the great plague of Moscow in 1770-1771. It was also a tribute – in the most ‘enlightened’ of all centuries – to ‘the enlightened doctors of Europe’ who had discovered that plague was contagious, and could only be caught by contact with infected persons or substances. As a result, and under the guidance of an enlightened ruler, quarantine lines had been erected around plague-stricken Moscow. They had contained the disease there, and protected St Petersburg from infection. Once a cordon sanitaire had been established, Samoilovich concluded, plague ‘could not cross the limits fixed for it by the government’.  Containment worked when backed by ruthless political action.

When I came across this passage while working on plague in the eighteenth century, I thought it might interest historians of the Enlightenment; and I was reminded of it again when I read the recent blog by Cindy Ermus on ‘Leadership matters…’ (3 April 2020) which focuses on the plague epidemic of Marseilles in 1720-1721. The Moscow example certainly shows that leadership mattered there, but the Marseilles plague is also relevant because it demonstrated that Samoilovich was wholly wrong to think that all the enlightened doctors of Europe agreed that plague was contagious and quarantine necessary. In the 1720s physicians in France were deeply divided between contagionists and anti-contagionists, many of the latter from the famous medical school of Montpellier, and several of those who worked in Marseilles were eager to air their disagreements in print. Consequently, when Gabriel-François Venel came to write the authoritative article on ‘Contagion’ in volume 4 of the Encyclopédie (first published in 1754), he was compelled to declare that there was no issue more uncertain and divisive ‘in medicine than the existence or non-existence of contagion’.

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the plague year

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the plague year (London, 1722).

It had been equally divisive in England in the 1720s in debates between advocates and critics of a new Quarantine Act, introduced by Walpole’s government to be implemented if plague arrived from Marseilles. There should be a military cordon sanitaire around London, and the infected and their contacts were to be moved from their homes and isolated elsewhere. Under public pressure the most intrusive parts of the Act had to be repealed, but that did not stop a major controversy in the public press between contagionists and their opponents, in which Daniel Defoe proved his stature as journalist as well as novelist by not only writing a journal of an earlier plague year, but seeing the virtues and vices of both sides. It had to be accepted, Defoe insisted, that ‘a public good’ sometimes justified ‘private mischief’. In a plague, something had to be done by government to prevent more death and disorder.

It was the presumption of contagion, therefore, rather than the proof of it which provided political authorities with what ‘scientific’ justification they had for action in eighteenth-century Europe. It seemed plausible enough, given the concentration of disease in identifiable households and neighbourhoods, and that was sufficient to justify elaborate and expensive efforts at containment, not only in France and Russia, but in Germany and Scandinavia where there were major epidemics in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Like their predecessors in the seventeenth century, rulers of empires, kingdoms and city states were all eager to show that they were doing more than their neighbours and doing it more successfully. As in the present pandemic, subjects and citizens were assumed to need reassurance that their rulers were more effective, and indeed more ‘enlightened’, than their rivals.

A plague doctor, in Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste

A plague doctor, in Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (Geneva, 1721), frontispiece. (Google Books)

This is not to say that they did not have some reputable medical authorities on their side, of course. In the 1720s, for example, the advocates of contagion included a major authority on plague, Jean-Jacques Manget of Geneva, who published a short treatise expounding his case. It had as its frontispiece one of the earliest illustrations of the protective uniform worn by plague doctors, in France and elsewhere. With its mask complete with a beak for holding herbs, it was a powerful statement about infection. According to Manget, it was worn by some of the anti-contagionist physicians from Montpellier in Marseilles, and something very like it was recommended for the confirmed contagionist physicians in Moscow in 1771. Like quarantine, masks as ‘personal protection’ against contagion have a long history.

As long as plague remained a real and present threat to Europe, the presumption of contagion and all it implied remained powerful. Early in the nineteenth century Russia was erecting land and maritime quarantine stations in the Black Sea region in order to defend its empire from infection from further East. In western Europe, which had scarcely seen plague for half a century, some governments felt better able to relax their vigilance, partly at least because they were under pressure from commercial interests wanting less quarantine not more. Even so, the relaxation was a very slow process.

Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Legros

Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Legros (1804).

One significant marker of changing perspectives is the famous picture of 1804 showing Napoleon in a plague hospital in Jaffa in 1799. He is portrayed touching the plague bubo of a patient, a gesture probably copied from one of the Montpellier-trained physicians practising in Marseilles in 1720, who wanted to prove that contagion held no terrors. In 1804 it was no doubt intended to show the superiority of Western science, and that plague presented no threat at all, at least to Europeans. Bonaparte had nothing to learn from modern world leaders about the political utility and propaganda value of a grand gesture, preferably supported by a little modern science.

In present circumstances some politicians in the UK claim to have been ‘following the science’ in their policies against a pandemic. That has never been as easy as it sounds. The history of plague is full of disputes where the experts – physicians in this case – were deeply divided. Since nothing at all was known about how plague was transmitted, about its dependence on rats and fleas, for example, argument was inevitable. In the case of Corona, the scientists know vastly more about their target. But even then they cannot always be unanimous in their judgements on the balance of probabilities when it comes to interventions whose outcome depends upon the behaviour of crowds as well as individuals. Then all action is political, and when the experts are divided about appropriate action, as they must often be, the quality of political leadership matters all the more.

– Paul Slack

Artifex quidam nomine Newton

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium

Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium, t.1, page de titre. (Google Books)

Dans la première réédition des Lettres philosophiques parue en 1739, Voltaire a remplacé la dernière phrase de la XVIe Lettre ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ par les lignes suivantes: ‘Il était encore peu connu en Europe quand il fit cette découverte. J’ai vu un petit livre composé environ ce temps-là dans lequel, en parlant du télescope de Newton, on le prend pour un lunetier: Artifex quidam Anglus nomine Newton. La renommée l’a bien vengé depuis.’[1]

Gustave Lanson avait cherché en vain la source du syntagme latin que Voltaire répétera à chaque nouvelle édition jusqu’en 1756. Nous savons désormais qu’il l’a déniché dans l’ouvrage très technique d’un savant prémontré (et non jésuite, comme il l’écrira en 1756[2]), le bavarois Johann Zahn (1641-1707), publié à Würzburg en trois tomes en 1685-1686 sous le titre Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive Telescopium. Dans cette nouvelle fin de la XVIe Lettre, Voltaire observe avec étonnement que la renommée de Newton, déjà bien établie en Angleterre grâce à son télescope et ses recherches sur la lumière publiées en 1672 et 1675, était encore inexistante sur le continent au moment où Zahn publia son ‘petit livre’ – un in-quarto de 181 pages tout de même. Alors que Voltaire a consacré, dans la première version de 1734, pas moins de trois lettres aux grandes découvertes de Newton, mentionnant comme en passant son invention du télescope à réflexion, cette invention acquiert de plus en plus d’importance dans les versions ultérieures grâce à l’immortelle formule du prémontré bavarois: Anglus quidam artifex Newtonus (Oculus artificialis, t.3, p.151).

Newtonian telescope

Réplique du télescope que Newton présenta à la Royal Society en 1672. (Wikimedia Commons, © Andrew Dunn)

De 1739 à 1756, ce syntagme latin revient avec insistance, mais la signification symbolique dont il est chargé change selon le contexte. En 1739, Voltaire peut se flatter d’avoir contribué à la renommée dont Newton commence à jouir sur le continent, mais un patriotisme étroit et borné continue de rejeter les découvertes du savant anglais pour des raisons mesquines de fierté nationale. Attaqué par le cartésien Banières d’être mauvais Français, Voltaire répond dans l’édition de 1742 que la renommée du ‘lunetier’ n’est plus à faire.

En 1751, Newton a définitivement gagné la partie mais l’affrontement entre les philosophes et leurs adversaires a commencé. Ceux-ci sont loin de confondre Newton avec un lunetier, mais lui intentent un procès en athéisme. Au moment où paraît le Discours préliminaire de D’Alembert, il ne s’agit plus de défendre Descartes contre Newton ni la France contre l’Angleterre, mais la nouvelle philosophie, dont les hérauts s’appellent Newton, Locke, Clarke et Leibniz.

En 1756, Voltaire modifie les lettres sur Newton une dernière fois, et de façon radicale: toute la partie scientifique est supprimée. Face au triomphe de Newton en France, il estime probablement que ses explications ne font plus le poids. Qui plus est, Voltaire a commencé à prendre ses distances avec la ‘métaphysique’ de Newton, attitude qui s’accentuera dans les années qui vont suivre.[3] Dans un court morceau intitulé sobrement ‘De Newton’, les trois découvertes du savant anglais sont ramassées dans un court paragraphe, puis Voltaire passe à l’invention du télescope à réflexion, à laquelle il accorde deux fois plus de place qu’au calcul infinitésimal, à l’attraction et à la lumière.

Ce qui reste, c’est l’ouvrier Newton, le faiseur de lunettes, artifex quidam. Voltaire avait le don de repérer et d’exploiter le détail qui fait mouche: après la pomme et le prisme, l’artifex quidam du prémontré bavarois Zahn s’est taillé une place de choix dans l’imaginaire scientifique voltairien.[4]

– Gerhardt Stenger

[1] Lettres philosophiques, suivies des Derniers écrits sur Dieu, éd. Gerhardt Stenger (Paris, 2006), p.170, var. b.

[2] Ibid., p.293.

[3] Voir l’introduction à notre édition des Lettres philosophiques, p.50-57.

[4] Voir notre article ‘Artifex quidam nomine Newton: à propos de la XVIe Lettre philosophique de Voltaire’ à paraître dans la Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France en novembre 2020.