Among the videos of performances in our current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a puppet production of Der bestrafte Brudermord (âFratricide Punishedâ), a slapstick version of Hamlet. Its origins and its relationship to Shakespeareâs text are still matters of debate among scholars, but it seems to have been known and performed by travelling players in Germany from the early 17th century onwards.
German speakers who wanted to see Hamlet played in a formal theatre under Shakespeareâs own name had to wait until 1773 when the Court Theatre in Vienna put on a stage version by Franz Heufeld. This was based on Christoph Martin Wielandâs translation, the first attempt at a major translation of Shakespeare into German, covering 22 of the plays and published between 1762 and 1766 (8 vols, British Library 11762.c.14.). However, although Heufeldâs Hamlet lacked the slapstick of Der bestrafte Brudermord, it still was hardly a faithful version of Shakespeareâs play.
Wielandâs translations were in fact not entirely complete or faithful. He made some cuts and, most notably, rendered the plays in prose, something that would give the young writers of the âSturm und Drangâ generation an exaggerated idea of Shakespeareâs ânaturalnessâ compared to the formal verse of classical French drama. But Heufeld took much greater liberties cutting many characters and episodes and Germanising many of the names: Horatio becomes âGustavâ and Polonius âOldenholmâ. The most surprising omission is the character of Laertes, leaving Hamlet nobody to duel with in the the final act. Instead, the Queen (neither Gertrude nor Claudius is named here) still drinks poisoned wine, but makes a dying confession of her own and the Kingâs guilt. Hamlet kills the King and is apparently left to become the new ruler of Denmark.
Heufeldâs abbreviated and Germanised cast list for Hamlet, from Hamlet, Prinz von DĂ€nemark (Vienna, 1772) 1607/2063
For all its infidelities, Heufeldâs Hamlet helped to start a boom in German productions of the play. The actor and theatre director Friedrich Ludwig SchrĂ¶der saw a production in Prague which inspired him to prepare his own version. His translation follows Heufeld in many ways, but he restored Laertes to the action, although there is still no duel and Hamlet and Laertes are reconciled.
More radically, SchrĂ¶der also restored the gravediggersâ scene, something generally frowned upon by critics and included only reluctantly by Wieland. However, although the scene appears in the first published edition of his translation, which is fleshed out to 6 acts in order to accommodate it, the gravediggers do not appear in the cast list printed there, so may not have made it into actual performances. Nor is the scene present in later published editions of SchrĂ¶derâs translation.
SchrĂ¶derâs Hamlet was the sensation of the 1776 theatre season in Hamburg and made a star of Franz Brockmann who played the title role (SchrĂ¶der himself played the Ghost). It added huge momentum to the interest in Hamlet sparked by Heufeldâs work. No doubt thanks to this early enthusiasm, as the German passion for Shakespeare grew over the following decades, a particular fascination for Hamlet and identification with the Prince himself became one of its hallmarks.
The British Library holds first editions of Wielandâs, Heufeldâs and SchrĂ¶derâs translations. However inadequate they may seem today as renderings of the original, they played a key role in bringing Shakespeare and Hamlet to Germany, and helped to pave the way for Schlegelâs verse translation, first staged in Berlin in 1799, nearly a quarter of a century after Schroder's triumph in Hamburg.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
The British Libraryâs European and Americas Collections are holding a study day, âAll the Worldâs a Stageâ, on 10 June, looking at Shakespeareâs cultural presence in Europe and the Americas. For a full programme and booking details see: http://www.bl.uk/events/all-the-worlds-a-stage-shakespeare-in-europe-and-the-americas