Dr Gagik Stepan-Sarkissian is a retired biochemist. He has taught and led research groups at Teheran State University and the University of Sheffield before moving to the private sector working in biotechnology and agribusiness across Europe. He developed the first Armenian syllabus for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and taught there over several years. He is an Administrator at the Armenian Institute in London, where he is also the Institute Librarian, Research Advisor and East Armenian teacher.
My first encounter with Shakespeare was through Hamlet. I was 5 years old. There were two Hamlets in my Armenian kindergarten. There were further three Hamlets among my parents’ acquaintances. In all the time that I have lived in the country of the Bard I have yet to meet an Englishman called Hamlet.
What is the reason for the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragic figure – or at least his name – among Armenians in Armenia, in the former Soviet Union and also in Iran?
According to some reports Shakespeare and his plays were first mentioned in an Armenian book published in the late 1600s. In his autobiography published in 1792, Joseph Emin, one of the pioneers of the Armenian liberation movement, mentions Shylock and Othello. Emin also knew David Garrick and refers to him in one of his letters to Elizabeth Montagu.
The first piecemeal attempts to translate Shakespeare into Armenian were made in the early 1820s in India. Excerpts were translated from The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream followed by Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Translations of complete plays started appearing in the 1850s with the publication of The Comedy of Errors in Smyrna in 1853.
There followed a plethora of Armenian intellectuals, novelists and poets who tried their hand at translating Shakespeare’s most popular plays. By the end of the 20th century there were no fewer than 6 translations of King Lear and 5 translations of Hamlet with fewer renderings of other plays.
Among all the existing translations those by Hovhannes Massehian are considered to be by far the most refined. Born in Teheran, Massehian entered the Persian diplomatic service and served as Minster Plenipotentiary in Berlin and London before becoming the first Persian Ambassador in Japan. In 1916 he represented Persia at Shakespeare tercentenary celebrations in London. Massehian began translating Shakespeare in the early 1890s and continued publishing the plays into the 1920s. Altogether he produced translations of 9 tragedies and 5 comedies, strangely avoiding the histories.
The Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play performed in Armenian in 1866. The popularity of this and other plays soared among audiences in the 19th and 20th centuries wherever there was an Armenian theatre, and most particularly in the Caucasus and adjacent regions, which somewhat explains the ubiquity of Armenian Hamlets in these areas.