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04 May 2016

The 'Shakespearomania' of Karl Marx

Karl Marx's magnum opus Das Kapital (Hamburg, 1872; British Library C.120.b.1.) may have a reputation as an exceedingly dry and difficult book (causing William Morris to suffer acute ‘agonies of confusion of the brain’ in his reading of the great critique of political economy), but the toil is lightened by his frequent and often comic allusions to classical and European literature, from Aeschylus to Cervantes and Goethe.

His favourite though was always Shakespeare. Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, described Shakespeare’s works as the Bible of the household, ‘seldom out of our hands and mouths’, and the German socialist biographer of Marx Franz Mehring pictured the whole family as practising ‘what amounted practically to a Shakespearian cult’. Marx reportedly read Shakespeare every day, and the family would entertain themselves on the walk back from their regular Sunday picnics on Hampstead Heath by dramatically reciting extracts from Shakespeare’s plays.

Marx’s friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, co-author of the famous Communist Manifesto (London, 1848; C.194.b.289), displayed a similarly fierce passion for the bard in a letter to Marx, with characteristic invective, after the German dramatist Roderich Benedix  criticized Shakespeare’s overwhelming popularity:

That scamp Roderich Benedix has left a bad odour behind in the shape of a thick tome against ‘Shakespearomania.’ He proved in it to a nicety that Shakespeare can't hold a candle to our great poets, not even to those of modern times. Shakespeare is presumably to be hurled down from his pedestal only in order that fatty Benedix is hoisted on to it…


Marx and Benedix: United by the beard, divided by the bard. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Much has been written of Marx's use of the ‘old mole’ from Hamlet as a metaphor for revolution in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (for an interesting discussion of this theme see the article by Peter Stallybrass cited below), but also noteworthy is Marx’s repeated use of a passage from Timon of Athens which, he says, shows how ‘Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money’:

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist! ...
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
... Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: This is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the rout of nations.

ShakespeareMarxTimon1829 watercolour by Johann Heinrich Ramberg depicting Timon 'laying aside the gold'. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, original at the Folger Shakespeare Library).

Many literary critics have written interpretations of Shakespeare from a Marxist perspective, and several prominent commentators on Shakespeare (like George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht) drew on Marxian ideas in their understanding of his body of work. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, unusually steeped in European literary culture for a Bolshevik, sought to explain what was so interesting about Shakespeare to Marxists:

In the tragedies of Shakespeare, which would be entirely unthinkable without the Reformation, the fate of the ancients and the passions of the mediaeval Christians are crowded out by individual human passions, such as love, jealousy, revengeful greediness, and spiritual dissension. But in every one of Shakespeare’s dramas, the individual passion is carried to such a high degree of tension that it outgrows the individual, becomes super-personal, and is transformed into a fate of a certain kind. The jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, the greed of Shylock, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the arrogance of Coriolanus, the spiritual wavering of Hamlet, are all of this kind…

For Trotsky, Shakespeare represents the birth of modern literature by placing the individual man, his own personal desires and emotions, in the centre of the narrative, symbolizing the equally progressive and destructive aspirations for personal emancipation characterizing the bourgeois revolt against feudalism. After Shakespeare, he writes, ‘we shall no longer accept a tragedy in which God gives orders and man submits. Moreover, there will be no one to write such a tragedy.’

Mike Carey, CDA Student


Julius Roderich Benedix, Die Shakespearomanie (Stuttgart, 1873) 11766.g.14.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (London, 1970). X.519/4753.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, On Literature and Art (Moscow, 1976). X.809/42007.

Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (London, 1936). 010709.e.52.

Peter Stallybrass, ‘“Well Grubbed, Old Mole”: Marx, Hamlet, and the (Un)Fixing of Representation’, Cultural Studies 12, 1 (1998), 3-14. ZC.9.a.1419

Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York, 1925). 011840.aa.17.

The British Library’s current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

02 May 2016

The challenge of translating Cervantes’s Don Quixote

‘Every great book demands to be translated once a century, to suit the change in standards and taste of new generations, which differ radically from those of the past’. So wrote the translator and biographer, J. M. Cohen, whose 1950 Penguin Classics version of Don Quixote served as many an Anglophone’s introduction to Cervantes’s mad knight.

Penguin in fact waited less than half a century before commissioning John Rutherford to write a new translation of the two-part, 1000-page novel. And Rutherford’s effort, as it turned out, was just one of five new English versions done between 1995 and 2006, bringing the total of full English translations of the work to nearly twenty. The other four recent Quixotes – by Burton Raffel, Edith Grossman (the first woman to translate the work), Tom Lathrop and James H. Montgomery – are all written in American English.

 The opening of the first chapter of Part I of Don Quixote in Thomns Shelton’s translation (London, 1612) British Library C.57.c.39.

 In some practical ways the challenges facing the translator of Cervantes’s text today – with the exception of the need for perseverance and stamina – are not so great as they were for Thomas Shelton whose version of Part I appeared in 1612, just seven years after the original was published in Madrid. He had limited tools at his disposal and relied upon his good knowledge of Spanish, basic dictionaries, his general cultural awareness and his wits. The mistakes Shelton made because of gaps in his knowledge are easy for a translator to remedy today.

John Minsheu’s Spanish and English dictionary of 1599. 434.c.15.(1.)

In other ways the challenges with which the modern translator must grapple are greater, however. The first of these is created by the daunting shadow of Cervantes, the canonical writer, father of the modern novel. In Shelton’s translation of Don Quixote the barely-known Spanish author’s name did not even appear on title page, but today the canonicity of the text can act as a curb on creativity, prompting a conservative desire to reproduce a classic along expected lines rather than to take risks and attempt to be, in Rutherford’s words, ‘as boldly playful a writer as Cervantes’.

The title page of Shelton’s translation

The passage of 400 years is also a problem: does the modern-day translator pepper the English version with explanatory footnotes about historical, cultural and linguistic matters, or make use of parenthetical explanations, as Raffel has done? Does it matter that we are unlikely to have read the popular romances of chivalry which addled Quixote’s brain and which are parodied particularly in Part I? What about the role of previous versions in English, what Rutherford calls the ‘predomestication’ undergone by the novel? Sometimes past errors by translators, such as the name given to Sancho Panza’s ass, Dapple, have become cherished parts of the furniture of the novel. And what of the overall tone of the work? Any translator’s version is likely to reflect one or other of the two dominant critical trends that developed in response to the work, the ‘funny book’ or the ‘Romantic’ approach. How seriously is the translator to take Cervantes?

Sancho places on his ass the packsaddle his master has seized from the barber. (Part I, ch. 21) From an edition published Madrid, 1780, 673.k.13-16.

All of these issues – the iconic status of the novel, the legacy of its interpretation in the Academy, its in-jokes – require judgement and thought from modern-day translators before they even arrive at the rendering of words.

And when it comes to the words themselves, throughout Don Quixote there are myriad challenges for the translator, of which two stand out: the variety in Cervantes’s language and register and the novel’s comic complexion. English versions in the past have often failed to distinguish adequately between the voices of Don Quixote and his side-kick, Sancho, and the many individuals they meet. It is true that they sometimes encroach into each other’s linguistic territory but translators have not often reflected fully the characterisation inherent in the language Cervantes employs or the comedy involved in the stylistic contrasts with which he played, particularly in the dialogue.

A text such as Cervantes’s masterpiece requires an artful translator and a bold writer.

Jonathan Thacker, Professor of Spanish Golden Age Literature, Merton College, University of Oxford

References/Further Reading:

Cohen, J. M., English Translators and Translations (London, 1962) W.P.9502/142.

Rutherford, John, ‘The Dangerous Don: Translating Cervantes’s Masterpiece’, In Other Words, 17 (2001), 20-33. ZK.9.a.4292

Thacker, Jonathan, ‘Don Quijote in English Translation’, in James A. Parr and Lisa Vollendorf, eds, Don Quixote’, second edition (New York, 2015) 1580.560000

As part of this year’s European Literature Festival, the British Library will be holding a ‘Don Quixote Translation Joust’ on Monday 9 May. More details and booking information are available on our website 

28 April 2016

The Trebnyk (1646) of the Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and its artistic design

This year marks the 370th anniversary of the famous Trebnyk (Euchologion), created by the prominent reformer, Petro Mohyla  and his associates, and published in the printing house of the Kyiv Monastery of Caves (Lavra).

In the first part of the 17th-century book printing flourished in Ruthenia (now Ukraine), then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Skilfully produced books from the Ukrainian printing houses were in great demand at home and abroad, in Muscovy, Bulgaria, Moldova, Wallachia and Montenegro. The printing-house of the Monastery of the Caves played a leading role in this. Founded in 1606-1615 by Archimandrite Elesei Pletenets'kyi, it worked intensively in the 1620s-1640s under the new Archimandrite Petro Mohyla, who introduced systematic printing in Polish and Latin as well as Cyrillic.


Metropolitan Petro Mohyla (1596-1647) on Stamp of Ukraine (from Wikimedia Commons)

Mohyla studied in the school of the Lviv Dormition Brotherhood and then in the universities of Western Europe. After his appointment as Archimandrite of the Monastery of the Caves (in 1627) and Metropolitan (in 1632), in his own words, he promised to God to use his family’s wealth and the church income for the repair and reconstruction of vandalized churches for founding schools in Kyiv (the future Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), and for the spiritual enlightenment and education of the Ukrainian people. One of the great liturgical needs of the Ukrainian Orthodox church at this time was an authorised edition of the sacraments, known as the Trebnyk or Euchologion.


Title page of Ev̇khologīōn albo Molitvoslovʺ ili Trebnikʺ (Kiev, 1646). RB.23.c.594

According to Arkadii Zhukovs'kyi, in the preparation of the Trebnyk Mohyla and his associates used the Greek and Church Slavonic manuscript Euchologia, and also the Roman Catholic Euchologion – Rituale Romanum Pauli V Pontificis Maximi. Some parts of Mohyla’s Trebnyk were discussed and approved at the Kyiv Church Council of 1640. The book includes three main parts. The first contains the seven main sacraments and some minor ones; the second includes rites for consecration, and the third prayers for different occasions. In Fedir Titov’s opinion the sacrament of marriage was definitely prepared by Mohyla himself. It was originally published in the printing house of the Monastery of Caves under the title Mowa duchowna (1645) and dedicated to the marriage of Janusz Radziwiłł  and Maria, the daughter of the Hospodar Vasile Lupu, celebrated by Mohyla in Iaşi in 1645.

Mohyla delegated the artistic design of the Trebnyk to his close associate, the monk Ilia, well-educated, gifted and the most prolific engraver in Ukraine at this time. Ilia was originally a monk in the Monastery of St Onuphrius in L'viv and from 1639-1640 worked in the Monastery of the Caves. In 1641-1642 he also spent time in the printing-house of the Trei Ierarhi monastery in Iaşi, founded with Mohyla’s help. 

The earliest date on Ilia’s engravings is 1637, the latest 1663. At the beginning of his career the artist signed himself Ilia ANAKZNOZ [sic], from the Greek ‘anaksios’ (‘unworthy’). Later he probably took the highest monastic vows (skhema), which is why from 1651 С, СХ or СК (abbreviations for ‘skhymnyk’) appeared next to his name.

The construction and artistic design of the Trebnyk are subordinated to the concept of the book as a whole. Special attention was paid to the border of the title-page, a masterpiece of Ukrainian Baroque art, which forms an exact summary of the book’s contents. The sides of the woodcut are filled with miniature scenes. At the top is the Crucifixion, where blood from Christ’s wounds flows down to seven medallions depicting the Sacraments. Between them are twelve smaller ovals with pictures of the Passion. Christ’s passion and death will expiate original sin; his blood sanctifies the sacraments. The border is very closely engraved. Ilia leaves hardly any empty space, surrounding miniature scenes with delicate background ornament. He makes use of various methods of cutting the surface of the block to achieve a decorative richness. At the foot of the block on the plant leaves is the engraver’s signature in Latin: ‘Helias.a+Rok+16+46+Oktob+7’.


Discussing the publications of Mohyla’s period, Titov noted that previous engravers of the Monastery of the Caves printing-house, probably supervised by the Archimandrites, followed their own iconographic patterns, but later appear to have an obvious attraction to Western European sources. A clear example of this tendency is Ilia’s full-page illustration of the Crucifixion (1644), which has no analogies in earlier Ukrainian art. Its iconographic programme follows the patterns of Italian Renaissance painting where branches supporting flowers with circular scenes in their centres spread from the cross with the crucified Christ. In the spaces between them, however, Ilia used traditional floral motifs, very similar to those of native folk art, creating a fine example of 17th-century Ukrainian engraving.

At the beginning of each of the seven main Sacraments there is a detailed half-page illustration. Some of them, like the Eucharist (above), resemble the parts of an ornate Baroque iconostasis, with flamboyant woodcuts surrounding the circular images of traditional iconographic patterns. Others like the Funeral (below), initially created by Ilia, present a story developing in time, with a funeral procession, where some people are dressed in rich contemporary clothes, starting in the town and concluding outside the walls with the lowering of the coffin into the grave. A striking impression is made by a naked footless beggar asking for charity and the group of weeping women in the cemetery.

The Trebnyk was the culmination of Mohyla’s printing programme; he died two weeks after its completion. His sudden death, and the war which soon erupted in Ukraine, affected the work of the Monastery of the Caves printing-house for a long time.

Dr Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith, former curator of the National Museum in Lviv

References/further reading:

S. Golubev. Kievskii mitropolit Petr Mogila i ego spodvizhniki. Vls 1, 2. (Kiev, 1883, 1898).

Epyskop Syl'vestr, Lubens'kyi ta Myrhorods'kyi (Prof. S. Haevs'kyi). Zapovit mytropolyta Petra Mohyly (1647). (Na chuzhyni, 1947).

Lohvyn, H.N. Po Ukraini. (Kyiv, 1968). X.429/3575. 

Trebnyk Petra Mohyly. Perevydannia z oryhinalu, shcho poiavyvsia u drukarni Kyevo-Pechers'koi Lavry 16 hrudnia 1646 roku. Uporiadkuvav Arkadii Zhukovs'kyi. (Canberra, Munich and Paris, 1988).

Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith.  ‘The monk Ilia – illustrator of seventeenth-century Ukrainian and Romanian books.’ Solanus, 1999, vol. 13, pp. 25-43. 2716.a.2.

Fedor Ivanovich Titov. Tipografija Kievo-Pečerskoj Lavry = Die Druckerei des Kiever Höhlenklosters. Als Reprint eingeleitet und herausgegeben von Martin Erdmann und Walter Kroll. (Cologne, 2000-). ZA.9.a.11845(15).