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23 April 2014

Whose Shakespeare?

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In the film Star Trek VI, a Klingon ambassador claims that Shakespeare can only be appreciated ‘in the original Klingon’. This is a clever reference to the way in which many countries have adopted Shakespeare’s works as their own but, since the imaginary Klingons have the kind of militaristic society and guttural language often associated with Germany in Anglo-American popular culture, I suspect that the scriptwriters had Germany particularly in mind, for few nations have claimed ownership of Shakespeare as enthusiastically as the Germans. Since the  late 18th century German writers have shown an admiration sometimes bordering on idolatry for Shakespeare’s work, and it is often claimed that his plays are more frequently performed in Germany than Britain (although this statistic no doubt owes something to Germany’s larger number of flourishing provincial theatres).

What one critic described as ‘Shakespearomania’  really took off in the 1770s when the young writers of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ embraced Shakespeare’s ‘naturalness’ and freedom from strict Aristotelian unities as a contrast to the French classical drama then upheld as an ideal. These angry young men may have taken their understanding of Shakespearean freedom to extremes, but the interest in his work which they aroused was influential and survived after they had burned themselves out or settled into less wild literary pursuits.

The torch was taken up by the Romantics. Like the ‘Stürmer und Dränger’, they admired the truth to nature they found in Shakespeare, but they also began to engage more seriously and critically with his works and to try and improve on the available translations. It was a group of writers associated with German Romanticism – August Wilhelm Schlegel, Ludwig and Dorothea Tieck and Wolf Heinrich von Baudissin – who created what became the classic German translation of Shakespeare.

Ludwig Tieck represents the two main strands of 19th-century German Shakespeare reception: a creative, emotional response and an academic interest. As a writer he admired and was influenced by Shakespeare’s work, and his involvement in the translation was driven by the desire for a high-quality German version of the plays for reading and performance. But he also took a scholarly approach, researching Shakespeare’s world and the theatre of his age, and travelling to England in 1817 to pursue his studies. The visit included meetings with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a significant mediator of German literature in England, and the two men later corresponded. 
Ludwig Tieck
Ludwig Tieck, from the frontispiece of Ludwig Tieck’s sämmtliche Werke (Paris, 1837) British Library RB.23.b.864

The British Museum Library bought a number of books from the sale of Tieck’s library in 1849, among them an edition of Shakespeare’s works with Tieck’s handwritten annotations. Most of these were made not in the plays themselves but in the preliminary volumes which contain studies of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage; this is Tieck the critical scholar at work rather than Tieck the romantic author reading for aesthetic pleasure. His copious comments are difficult to read, but he often appears to take issue with the critical opinions expressed and sometimes simply expresses his disapproval with an exclamation mark or a comment like ‘Unsinn!’ (‘nonsense!’). 

Tieck annotations
Manuscript notes by Tieck in vol. 2 of The Plays of William Shakspeare. With the corrections and illustrations of various commentators. (Basel, 1799-1802) C.134.dd1.

As the 19th century continued Shakespeare flourished in Germany, both in performance and as a subject of academic study, and came to be regarded as Germany’s ‘third classic poet’ alongside Goethe and Schiller. In 1903 the German critic Theodor Eichhoff entitled his study of the Bard Unser Shakespeare (‘Our Shakespeare’), and just over a decade later, with Germans encouraged to boycott foreign culture after the outbreak of the First World War, the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann claimed an exception for Shakespeare, declaring that ‘[Shakespeare’s] soul has become one with ours … Germany is the land where he truly lives’. Unsurprisingly this drew furious responses from Britain.

But this is to start moving beyond the period of our survey of Anglo-German relations, and besides, the use of literature for national propaganda in time of war is not the best way to consider the significance of Shakespeare in the wider world. After all, the British should be proud rather than defensive when their national poet transcends national boundaries so triumphantly that even a race of fictional aliens wants to claim him! And if we want a happier image of the ‘German Shakespeare’, how about Tieck enthusiastically engaging with the plays and their criticism, and discussing them with Coleridge? If we want to ask ‘Whose Shakespeare?’  there are many possible answers from all over the world, and ‘Tieck’s Shakespeare’ is among the most positive of them.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading

Theodor Eichhoff, Unser Shakespeare. Beiträge zu einer wissenschaftlichen Shakespeare-Kritik. (Halle, 1903) 011765.h.32.

Gerhart Hauptmann, ‘Deutschland und Shakespeare’, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Jahrgang 51 (1914), pp. vii-xii. Ac.9423/5.

Hansjürgen Blinn, Der deutsche Shakespeare = The German Shakespeare : eine annotierte Bibliographie zur Shakespeare-Rezeption des deutschsprachigen Kulturraums (Berlin, 1993) 2725.g.2308

Roger Paulin, The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914: Native Literature and Foreign Genius (Hildesheim, 2003) YD.2005.a.2139

Geoffrey West, ‘Buying at Auction: Building the British Museum Library’s Collections in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century’, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (ed.) Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections (London, 2009), pp. 341-352. YC.2010.a.1356 [For information on books from Tieck’s library now in the BL]

Edwin H. Zeydel, Ludwig Tieck and England: a Study in Literary Relations of Germany and England During the Early Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1931)


21 April 2014

‘Church, not Chocolate’: Easter eggs in Eastern Europe

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The British are not, it must be said, especially inventive when it comes to Easter egg traditions. Possibly the most ancient of these is the Lancashire custom of ‘pace-egging’ (‘pace’  deriving from the Latin Pascha, not an allusion to the speed with which the decorated eggs roll down the hill in Avenham Park, Preston, where crowds still gather on Easter Sunday to watch the ritual). The Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere houses a collection of elaborately decorated eggs which the poet (or more probably Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson) prepared for young John, Dora and William junior.  Originally these eggs were wrapped in onion-skins and boiled to give the shell a rich golden marbled colour which, sadly, would have been ruined when they were rolled to see whose would go furthest without cracking. Now, unfortunately, this tradition, like that of the ‘pace-eggers’ with their disguises and blackened faces, performing a mumming play in return for eggs or funds to purchase them, has largely died out, though those eager to hear the original ‘pace-egg’ song can do so through various versions in the British Library’s sound archives.

Elsewhere in Europe, though, things are very different. The sumptuous creations of Carl Fabergé for the Russian Imperial court are famous, but in confecting these masterpieces in jewels, pearls and fine enamelling he was continuing a much older tradition found not only in Russia but in Ukraine and throughout Central Europe. Nor were eggs the only items decorated at Easter; in Northern Europe, as in Bohemia, birch or pussy-willow boughs were gathered and festooned with ribbons and feathers for use in playful switching rituals which originated in much older fertility rites and Christian penitential practices, a tradition still observed on ‘Whipping Monday’ in the Czech Republic, where the boys who run from house to house with their pomlázky  are rewarded with Easter eggs from the girls (who take revenge by dousing them with water the following day).

Over the years the methods used to decorate these eggs have become increasingly complex and  sophisticated. Those wishing to experiment for themselves can consult Marie Brahová’s České kraslice  (‘Czech Easter eggs’; Prague, 1993: BL shelfmark YA.2002.a.1656), which gives illustrated instructions on how to achieve striking effects with batik, beads and relief as well as the more familiar techniques of painting, etching patterns with a nail on a fine coat of wax or paint, or even the use of humble mud or clay, readily available in even the poorest village. As well as flowers and abstract patterns, favourite motifs included pictures of Christ and the saints, or views of local scenes, as in the splendid collection of the Moravské museum in Brno, described in Eva Večerková’s Kraslice (Brno, 1989; X.0410.137).

In Ukraine the decorated eggs, painted with equally intricate designs, are carried in baskets to church to be blessed by the priest, together with the traditional kulich, a rich fruited bread which, like the eggs, represents the return to feasting after the strictures of the Lenten fast, Ukrainian decorated eggwhen Orthodox believers abstain not only from meat and sweet things but from dairy produce of any kind. Here the eggs are covered with detailed geometrical motifs echoing those of the red and black cross-stitched embroideries on the cloths with which the baskets are draped, as well as with stylized images of birds, fish and animals (right) reflecting the pre-Christian animistic beliefs of the ancient Slavonic peoples as well as the rural way of life. Colourful photographs of these may be seen in O. H. Solomchenko’s Pysanky Ukraïns’kyckh Karpat  (‘Pisankas of the Ukrainian Carpathians’, Uzhgorod, 2002; YA.2003.b.1092).

Easter, a season of rejoicing and reconciliation, is also a time to remember the traditions which unite the peoples of East and West, however we may celebrate, and to admire the wealth of invention which brings such beauty within the reach of the poorest peasant. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor of China with his artificial nightingale, the Tsars with their elaborate Fabergé eggs were no richer than the humblest of their subjects who were proud to possess examples of such fine workmanship created with the resources of Nature itself.

Susan Halstead Curator, Czech and Slovak Studies

Ukrainian decorated eggs
Ukrainian decorated eggs

17 April 2014

What price freedom? An author’s thoughts

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In a guest post for European Literature Night, featured author Jonas T. Bengtsson from Denmark muses on society and freedom, concepts which inform his latest novel.

Has anybody ever met society? Shaken hands with society, yelled at society. Gone on a three day bender with society, or made sweet love to society?

Coming from the cold north one of the themes that so often pops up when books are being discussed or reviewed is the author’s take on society. Or criticism towards society. Like the author’s main job is to scrutinize society, thinly veiled and in a slightly more entertaining way than an angry letter to a newspaper.

A friend asked me if he should sell his apartment, his small boat, his car. If I thought that was the right thing to do. He and his girlfriend were considering travelling the world for as long as the money would last. 

I asked him to stay put. When they returned from Goa or Vegas or the Australian outback they would feel just as constricted and unfree as before the trip. They would continue life in much the same way as they had done previously.

 I asked him to find freedom where he was. By realizing that where he was in life was a choice. And that if there was anything he wanted to change he should probably just do it. Everything he did would come with a price, and if he wasn’t willing to pay it, that would be a choice as well.

So why this rant? Jonas T Bengtsson, A Fairy Tale

In my latest novel A Fairy Tale I write about a father who couldn’t care less about society. Or put in a different way, he is not at all concerned about changing it. He knows that freedom is not something that will be granted him by anybody else. It is something he has to take for him self.  So what is the price for freedom, and is it too high?

A Fairy Tale was originally published as Et eventyr in Copenhagen in 2011 (British Library shelfmark YF.2013.a.5667). The translation is published by House of Anansi Press. The British Library also holds Jonas T. Bengtsson’s first novel Aminas breve (‘Amina’s Letters’, Copenhagen, 2005; YF.2006.a.28994).