‘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.

The world’s a revolving stage

Voltaire wrote on most subjects under the sun but his particular area of expertise in his own eyes – and one about which he probably felt more entitled to offer an informed opinion than almost any of his contemporaries – was undoubtedly literature, and more specifically theatre. For although the modern reader will be familiar with the great man’s œuvre chiefly through his contes, his dramatic output far exceeded that of his tales. Consequently Voltaire saw himself first and foremost as a dramatist and a poet.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

In this context, his Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (1761) makes fascinating reading. This text, just like another Appel launched by another great Frenchman almost two centuries later, is a call to national resistance. But in Voltaire’s case the invaders are not of the military but of the literary kind and they come not from outre-Rhin, but from outre-Manche.

Essentially what Voltaire aims to do in his Appel is to reassert France’s status as the leading nation for theatrical excellence, and to try to nip in the bud what he sees as a wave of rather irritating Anglomania spreading through French literary circles. His main target is none other than Shakespeare himself, whom, ironically, he had helped to popularise in France. Voltaire the Anglophile, who is usually more inclined to play down the virtues of the French nation than to extol them, is piqued into action by the seemingly unstoppable English success on the world stage – unlike France, England is having a very good Seven Years War – and he is therefore determined to defend France’s supremacy on the theatrical stage.

Voltaire duly sets out to analyse passages in Hamlet and Othello and to denounce the author’s unforgivable lapses in good taste and his disregard for the rules of classical theatre. Shakespeare, he concludes, is not without his merit or even genius, but he is too quintessentially English ever to rival the great Racine and Corneille – whose appeal is truly universal – on the stages of Europe.

For the modern reader, a certain pathos emerges from the pages of the Appel in view of how unprophetic it turned out to be. Voltaire’s spirited defence of his own conception of what theatre should be could not turn the tide of the ongoing shift in public taste, and one has a sense that, even in 1761, he was probably fighting somewhat of a rearguard action.

One can only wonder what he would have made of the recent adaptation of his Candide for the stage, by an Englishman, in a production full of sound and fury, performed in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oh the irony!

–Georges Pilard