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Honouring Shakespeare and German unity

To mark German Unity Day, Helen Hopkins explores the importance of Shakespeare to the unification effort of nineteenth-century Germany.

Helen Hopkins

On 3rd October Germany has a national holiday to commemorate the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. German Unity Day is hosted by a different city each year and is a festive celebration with concerts, fireworks, speeches and community events.

Reunification ended the partitions put in place at end of the Second World War, when Germany was divided by the ideologies and principles of the capitalist West and communist East. This was in accordance with the terms of the peace treaties which allocated portions of the country to Britain, America, and France in the west, and the Soviet Union in the east. Shakespeare straddled these divisions throughout, remaining as constantly and consistently apparent on German stages as he had been since before the first unification of Germany in 1871. 

In the mid-nineteenth century the writers and philosophers of the Sturm und Drang movement aligned Shakespeare with Schiller (1759-1805) and Goethe (1739-1832) making Shakespeare their third national poet. Germany had for many years felt strong affinity for Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet in particular, but this was a key move in the cause for unification of the German states and principalities. Without a national cultural identity, there would be little beyond shared language to hold a unified Germany together. The intention was to strengthen the foundations of German cultural identity through the cultural capital and authority of Shakespeare’s long historical significance. As Emily Oliver points out, “before the Germans had a state, they had a national theatre tradition and a Shakespeare Society[1]”.

Rommel poem
Poem by Ernst Rommel (ER1/46)

This blog looks at a letter and poem from the SBT’s collections to consider the part Shakespeare played in the original unification of 1871.

The poem was sent to London in April 1864 by Ernst Rommel, a Library Secretary from Hannover, just before the Tercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare’s birthday. On this occasion the Goethe-Haus of Frankfurt (the Goethe birthplace) sent a wreath and a written address which celebrated common British and German origins, and the influence that Shakespeare had had upon Goethe. April 1864 was also the moment of the establishment of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft [The German Shakespeare Society] which had been set up in Weimar, the former home of both Goethe and Schiller. 

Greetings to the green and pleasant London not far from cliffs!
Ruler of oceans, free people of Britain!
You powerful people, related to the German spirit,
Soon to be filled with happiness
Sending silent messages that move mankind,
Does your serious spirit search for truth?
Go to him, so that his word will reach you;
And listen to love’s magical song!
Who sang like Him of love’s joy and pain!
Do you wish to join the spirits’ magical kingdom?
Look! They are waiting for a sign from you.
They step out from imagination into life
To move or elevate you
Do you wish to see life’s long gone days?
Would you like to witness how the Romans fought and celebrated?
And watch Coriolanus’ and Caesar’s demise?
How the rulers fell and at the same time
In the heat of the moment, a new era begins
The fierce war of the red and white roses
The greatest spirits’ strength and guidance
Elevates everyone who is touched by him
Yes, Shakespeare is mankind’s constant champion,
Where people congregate to search for light and truth
Immortal poetry and guidance
To honour him – means to strive for greatness![2]

The poem draws upon the popular contemporary concept of Britain as “related to the German spirit”, i.e. separated by the sea but originating from the same mother-country: a notion that follows the German sense of recognition in, or affinity with, Shakespeare’s works and prompted the idea of unser [our] Shakespeare. This concept is seen in many of the artistic responses to Shakespeare from Germany in this period. Included in these is the address which accompanied the commemorative wreath, which uses tree-imagery to enhance the notion of familial ties: “Sprung from one stem, two separate branches have developed into a separate and perfect growth” – one being “the English tongue which enabled the greatest poet and painter of the human heart” the other the “German mother tongue” of Goethe. 

1864 wreath
A wreath of oak leaves and acorns which was placed upon a bust of Shakespeare at Frankfurt, during the 1864 Tercentenary celebrations. (STRST : SBT 1868-3/1054)

These alignments serve the notion of Shakespeare ‘saving’ Germany from French neo-classicism by re-invoking the old Teutonic modes that Britain and Germany share. Rommel then extends the idea of Shakespeare as saviour into Christian imagery, as he is deified as “mankind’s constant champion” whose “strength and guidance / Elevates everyone who is touched by him”. His “immortal poetry”, his work, which is “Where people congregate to search for light and truth” becomes the bible and the church. Once Shakespeare’s authority is established in this way, Rommel takes examples from the tragedies, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, and the War of the Roses history plays to evoke the hopes of pre-unification Germany for the fall of the ruling system to make way for a new - unified - era. The “truths” perceived in these plays thus cast Shakespeare as the prophet set to guide Germany to its goal.

The letter that accompanied the poem expressed the “hope that my verses will be seen a worthy inclusion at the patriotic celebration of the greatest poet of mankind”. Rommel’s understanding of the celebration as patriotic is a sign of the tight association of Shakespeare with the national cultural identity of Germany. National cultural identity had been so important to the unification efforts in part because of the dominance of French artistic influences in the 18th century. Without anything to bridge them, the German states and principalities had for many years accepted the strictures of neo-classicism which ruled much of Europe. But as opportunities to travel increased and Shakespeare’s works circulated more freely, the great thinkers of the time identified in Shakespeare something akin to the Germanic folklore that had been pushed out by French cultural-colonialism, and decided that Shakespeare could be the escape for German writers and artists. Eventually, in literary circles as least, what it was to be German could be explained through Hamlet: confusion about identity, uncertainty about rulers, indecision (about unification), and the threat of nearby states were all relatable. All of this was projected onto the British celebration of Shakespeare by Rommel, as he was evidently unable to imagine the separation of Shakespeare from nation – whether that be German or British.

The similarities between the sentiments of Rommel’s letter and poem and those of the address that was given with the 1864 wreath pose further hither-to unanswerable questions. Goethe had also been a library secretary, as well as Germany’s national poet; could the Shakespeare-enthusiast and poet-librarian Rommel have wished to become the next Goethe and announce his arrival at the Tercentenary?  Did Rommel, and by implication, Hannover, want to emulate the links between Stratford and Frankfurt that were being forged by the Goethe-haus delegation’s presentation at the Stratford celebrations?  Or even the links between Stratford and Weimar as the home of the German Shakespeare Society? With unification still some years away (seven, as it turned out) did Hannover resent the absence of representation in German Shakespeare studies at that time?

Although I am unable to answer these questions and ascertain whether Rommel’s poem did play any part in the tercentenary celebrations as he hoped, what can be determined from the presence of this poem and its accompanying letter in the SBT’s German collection is the importance of Shakespeare to the unification effort of nineteenth-century Germany, and the legacy of this: that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust remembers and celebrates with Germany today.

2018 wreath
2018 wreath presented by the Goethehaus, Frankfurt to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

[1] Emily Oliver, Shakespeare and German Unification: The Interface of Politics and Performance (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017), p. 2
[2] Translated from German by Mareike Doleschal

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