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Culture

London's Globe Theatre honors Shakespeare's German connection

For many, Shakespeare is synonymous with all things English, yet Germany has a history of claiming the bard as "ganz unser" - their "very own." This season, the Globe Theatre pays homage to this special relationship.

Portrait of Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Germany has been in love with Shakespeare for centuries

Blasphemous as it might seem at first glance, the Globe Theatre's current program serves to highlight a rather special bond between the world's most famous writer and a whole country.

"What I am discovering more and more is how deeply [Shakespeare] entered into the German psyche from the 18th century on," said Patrick Spottiswoode, education director for the Globe Theatre and curator of the season.

And Shakespeare's German connection has strong credentials. For starters, there are more performances of Shakespeare in Germany in any given year than in England. German was the first language Shakespeare was ever translated into; and the first Shakespeare society in the world was founded in Germany.

"The Germans in the 18th and 19th century regarded him as 'ganz unser' - entirely ours," added Spottiswoode.

Translating frenzy

The notion of "ownership" over Shakespeare was propagated by a wealth of translations that began to appear as early as 1766 - 150 years after his death - with Christoph Martin Wieland's prose translation of 22 of The Bard's plays.

Annick Massis, left, as Ophelia and Jean-Francois Lapointe as Hamlet in a production in the Grand Theatre de Geneve

Germany is Hamlet, said Ferdinand Freiligrath

"To translate the whole works of Shakespeare is quite a task”, said Spottiswoode, "and there were successive translations of the entire works in the 18th and 19th centuries."

Between 1818 and 1839 alone, eight separate translations of the entire works of Shakespeare were published. Some even say that this helped to "improve" the German language, as new words had to be invented to complete the task.

It was the Schlegel-Tieck edition of 1833 that set the gold standard for Shakespeare translation and laid the foundations for successive generations of German writers to attempt their very own versions.

A constant contemporary

"From Wieland and then Fontane down to Heiner Mueller in the post-war period, you have a spectrum of writers of different kinds that all contributed crucially to insuring that every other generation of German readers and viewers would have their very own Shakespeare in a new translation," said Professor Ruediger Goerner, director of Anglo-German relations at the University of Queen Mary in London.

"Shakespeare has always been a contemporary author for German audiences," he continued. This continual element of newness has seen a wealth of unusual and avant-garde interpretations of Shakespeare come out of Germany.

"I think there's that sense that as soon as you translate him, you are freeing him," said Spottiswoode.

The Goethe factor

One of Shakespeare's greatest advocates was Germany's favorite literary child himself. In 1771, a 22-year old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave an impassioned speech on the merits of his "friend" across the North Sea.

Spottiswoode commissioned a translation of this lecture into English, sparking the entire "Shakespeare is German" season at the Globe Theatre.

"It's a very beautiful, lyrical, passionate avocation of Shakespeare and how he could be important and how German culture and theater could learn so much from Shakespeare," commented Spottiswoode. "He was going to free Germany from the shackles of French-style drama."

Shakespeare's plays did not adhere to the classical unities of action, place and time as was common practice in French theater. Goethe once said of these unities that they were "as oppressive as prison." Shakespeare represented a breath of fresh air and offered a whole new world of creative possibilities.

The Globe Theatre

The Globe is a reconstruction of the theater built by Shakespeare's company

Focus on nature

"He was regarded as a new writer more than anything else, rather than a historical writer, a new type of writer and poet who would clearly bring poetry back to nature," said Goerner. This idea married well with the principles of German Classicism, and slowly Shakespeare became an intrinsic part of a very German literary movement.

By 1849, the writer Ferdinand Freiligrath famously proclaimed "Germany is Hamlet," revealing the extent to which Shakespeare had infiltrated the German psyche by that time. The legacy of this close bond with the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon can still be seen in German classrooms today.

"There is indeed an affinity between the German language and the kind of poetic demands Shakespeare makes," said Goerner. "German, in that sense, is incredibly adaptable and you can mould German to capture the Shakespearian vein, both in terms of his poetic approach and the sheer drama of the soul."

Everyone's favorite son

If you think Germany is alone in claiming Shakespeare as its own, then think again.

"I had a Moroccan film crew coming over they said 'our viewers at home think Shakespeare really was an Arab!'" said Spottiswoode.

He pointed out that The Bard set his plays all over the world, taking his original London audiences on faraway travel. It's only fitting that his work has since gone around the world and been translated into some 90 languages.

"Shakespeare seems to touch everybody," added Spottiswoode.

Author: Sarah Stolarz

Editor: Kate Bowen

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