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06 May 2016

The Bard, the Bear and Bohemia: Shakespeare and the Czechs

Travelling home from a screening of the recent Kenneth Branagh /Judi Dench Winter’s Tale in Oxford, I overheard a conversation between two other passengers who had also attended it. ‘Were there really bears in Bohemia?’ one of them was earnestly asking her neighbour, referring to one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions as Antigonus meets his fate: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. We could, of course, have debated this and concluded that it was indeed entirely possible that Antigonus might have encountered such a creature in the territory which we now know as Bohemia, but that would have missed the point. As soon as Antigonus addresses the Mariner who has brought him to this desolate spot to abandon the infant Perdita on his king’s instructions, it is clear that we have been transported beyond the realms not only of Leontes’ Sicilia but of reality itself: ‘Thou art perfect, then, our ship has touched upon / The deserts of Bohemia?’

This glaring geographical error – attributing a sea-shore to the landlocked territory of Bohemia – has frequently been cited as an instance of Shakespeare’s ignorance of Central European topography, and provided Derek Sayer with the title for his study of the Czech lands, The Coasts of Bohemia: a Czech history (1998; YC.2000.a.2603). Attempts have even been made to suggest that ‘Sicilia’ is a mistaken substitute for ‘Silesia’ – though this only compounds the mystery of why Antigonus would need to travel by sea to another area with no coastline.

Instead, we might do better to consider the growth of Shakespeare’s reputation in the real Bohemia and the contribution which he made to the development of theatre within Czech culture, from the earliest translations and imitations to the growth of the Prague Shakespeare Company and Summer Shakespeare Festival.

Fittingly, The Winter’s Tale was performed as part of the entertainments surrounding the wedding of James I’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector Palatine, in 1613. Six years later, life would imitate art as the young princess did in reality become Queen of Bohemia when her husband ascended its throne. However, the title of the play was tragically applicable to their situation, as the reign of the ‘Winter King’ and his consort lasted only a few brief months before they went into exile. These events raised awareness of Bohemia and its place in European politics with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, and it is possible that plays by Shakespeare were performed by the members of an English company which visited Bohemia in 1617 and again in 1619-20, though concrete evidence that Shakespeare’s works were known there cannot be found before the later years of the century.

Czech Shakespeare travelling theatre
A Czech travelling theatre of the kind that took Shakespeare to audiences around the country until the late 19th century. Picture by  by Adolf Kaspar, reproduced in Miroslac Kačer & Mojmír Otruba Josef Kajetan Tyl (Prague, 1959) British Library 10601.y.6.

However, in the course of the 18th century the permanent stage theatre gradually arrived in Prague, with the opening of the V Kotcích theatre in 1738 and the Estates Theatre  (Stavovské divadlo) in 1783. Performances there were usually in German or, in the case of opera, Italian, but in 1786 the Bouda (or ‘Shed’), a wooden theatre, was constructed in Wenceslas Square. Here audiences could see regular performances in Czech, including two plays published in 1786 by Karel Hynek Thám – adaptations of Schiller’s Die Räuber and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, followed in 1791-92 by Hamlet and King Lear.

  Czech Shakespeare JKTyl
Josef Kajetan Tyl, who translated and performed in Shakespeare plays in the 19th century. Portrait from Voytěch Kristián Blahnik J. K. Tyla had z raze (Prague, 1950). 10794.c.37.

The bad luck traditionally associated with the ‘Scottish play’ did not appear to affect the Bouda – if one discounts the fact that the theatre was knocked down after only three years – or halt the growing enthusiasm for Shakespearean drama. The poet Karel Hynek Mácha was an enthusiastic amateur actor and joined the dramatic society founded by Josef Kajetan Tyl which performed at the Cajetan theatre in Malá Strana (1834-37), including plays by Shakespeare in its repertoire. Other major literary figures of the 19th century were also profoundly influenced by Shakespeare. Josef Jiří Kolár (1812-96) translated a number of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice; 11762.bbb.25), while Jan Neruda (1834-91) drew on his writings as a rich source of quotations and references to support his own opinions. Like other members of the ‘May generation’ (Májovci) he prized the optimism and vigour which he saw in Shakespeare’s writings, and frequently reviews performances of his plays in his capacity as a drama critic. Although he did not learn English until much later, he was already reading translations of Shakespeare as a schoolboy in 1851, when only four published examples in Czech existed (Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, Othello  and Romeo and Juliet). As a journalist, he used Shakespearean phrases to upbraid the Old Czech members of the National Assembly whom he felt were betraying the country’s interests by their lassitude and torpor.

Czech Shakespeare Merchant of Venice
Title-page of Josef Jiří Kolár’s translation of The Merchant of Venice (Prague, 1883) 11762.aa.6.

The timeless relevance of Shakespeare’s works provided an invaluable resource in times of political and ideological repression, allowing writers to use his plots and characters as a means of commenting on contemporary situations. Vladimír Holan (1905-80), unable to publish his poetry in print, reflected in Noc s Hamletem (‘A Night with Hamlet’, 1964; X.908/5000) on the paradoxes and uncertainties of human and political existence in a work which would become the most translated poem in Czech. Similarly Václav Havel (who launched the Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle in 1990) returned to play-writing after many years when his energies had been claimed by his political duties with Odcházení (‘Leaving’, 2007; YF.2008.a.17785), in which he acknowledged the influence of King Lear in his portrayal of ex-chancellor Vilém Rieger’s reactions to the crisis which follows his relinquishment of political power.

Shakespeare’s ‘Bohemia’ may not exist on any map, but in a broader sense it does not have a sea-coast because it is also without boundaries and frontiers. It is a single part of a limitless world which claims as its citizens all those who prize the power of words to inspire, to portray the human predicament and to bring together people of every language and nation.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

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. A study day, ‘All the World’s a Stage’ on 10 June will look at Shakespeare’s cultural presence in Europe and the Americas.

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