Conquering the Continent
As Shakespeare is generally considered one of the most English playwrights, it is quite astonishing that his plays travel so well. After all, why should, for example, the story of a Scottish king like Macbeth be of any relevance to people in India or in China?
Shakespeare’s works hit the road abroad as early as the 17th century in the shape of travelling players. They went from England to the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Poland, amongst other countries and were performed at several courts, so some of his plays would have been known on the continent during Shakespeare’s lifetime and shortly afterwards. However, the first widespread engagement did not happen until the middle of the 18th century, when scholars – quite often poets and influential writers in their own right – started to translate Shakespeare. The earliest sets of the complete works in translation in our library date from the 1740s (into French and Italian); the Dutch and German translations followed shortly afterwards.
Translations form the basis of any significant engagement with Shakespeare in foreign countries, as they allow a much wider range of people to read the plays and poems, to perform them, and to make them their own. In their English original these texts were almost exclusively accessible to highly educated and multilingual people, so translations were crucial for the development of any popular interest in Shakespeare abroad.
National cultural identities
In the 18th and 19th century, the fascination with Shakespeare in Europe needs to be seen in the larger context of developing national cultural identities. As Shakespeare was considered the national poet of England, his works became models for other national literatures, particularly in Germany, where the idea of a national culture was just developing. Their literary and philosophical elite couldn’t get enough of the Bard, like the philosopher Herder, and the two literary giants Goethe and Schiller. The tercentenary of his birth in 1864, saw the middle classes become so obsessed with him that historians speak of a proper Shakespeare mania.
The tercentenary celebrations in 1864 saw the foundation of the oldest Shakespeare Society still in existence – in Weimar. Many more Shakespeare appreciation societies sprang up about the same time in other parts of the country, and the wreath from the Frankfurt English Society is testimony to one of them. Presented to us in 1864, this wreath was made to be displayed in the Birthplace as a token of German adoration of the sweet Swan of Avon. What is particularly intriguing about it are the colours of the ribbon – the black, gold and red we now identify as Germany’s national colours. However, in 1864, a unified German nation was not yet a political reality, so why choose these colours?
Shakespeare, the national poet of England, was simply considered by the Germans as one of their own, alongside their classical writers Goethe and Schiller. As such, he joined the nationalist movement under the black, gold and red flag. “He was not of one country, but for the whole world”, as the academic Karl Elze put it in his anniversary speech in 1864.