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Shakespeare et les traducteurs or: Shakespeare in French

The French Nation celebrates its National day on 14th July, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Andrew Thomas, Digitisation Officer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, sheds light on the French translations held in the Trust's library collection.

Andrew Thomas

During the C18th and C19th the country was subject to intense social and political upheaval; the Revolution beginning in Paris 1789-99, the end of the reign and execution of Louis XVI, proclamation of the First Republic in 1792, the Restoration of a Bourbon Monarchy in 1815, the July Revolution in 1830, proclamation of the Second Republic in 1848, a coup d’état in 1851 followed by the creation of the Second Empire by Napoleon III; the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870, and the Siege of Paris by the Prussians ending with the exile of Napoleon III. It is worth considering how Shakespeare was received in France during these tumultuous times, as many of the ‘les traducteurs’ were prominent literary and political figures caught up in these events.

“Je suis le premier qui fait connaitre Shakespeare aux Française. J’en ai traduit des passages il y a quarante ans”.  (Voltaire).

Although a French library is thought to have acquired a copy of the First Folio at the end of the C17th, Shakespeare remained almost unknown in France until the 1730s. The playwright, novelist, and member of the Académie Française, known as Voltaire (1694-1778), was the first person to write about Shakespeare in France. He learnt the English language while staying in London between 1726-1729 and would have read a new edition of the Complete Works published by his friend, Alexander Pope, in 1725.  Voltaire also regularly attended theatre performances in London.  On his return to Paris he began to make the first translation of any of Shakespeare’s plays into the French language with his adaptation of Julius Caesar: ‘Brutus, la Mort de César’ in 1731, a play in five acts written in Alexandrines. Later, he translated and published the first three acts of Julius Caesar; and in one of his ‘Lettres Philosophiques’ he offered the first translation of Hamlet into the French language, with two versions of the ‘To Be or not To Be’ speech.  Voltaire wrote that “nothing is easier than to exhibit in prose all the silly impertinences which a poet may have thrown out; but that it is a very difficult task to translate his fine verses…Pardon the blemishes of the translation for the sake of the original; and remember always that when you see a version, you see merely a faint print of a beautiful picture.” For Voltaire a literal translation of the English would never render the spirit of the original adequately. His difficulties about how to translate Shakespeare’s prose and the language of Tudor England would preoccupy all subsequent translators. 

Voltaire’s opinions about the plays ensure he is forever connected with Shakespeare. While acknowledging the greatness of Shakespeare’s writing he was still able to say: “Shakespeare boasted a strong, fruitful genius. He was natural and sublime, but he had not so much as a single spark of good taste, or know one rule of Drama. I will now hazard a random, but, at the same time true reflection, which is, that the great merit of this Dramatic Poet has been the ruin of the English Stage”. French theatre before the Revolution was very different to the London stage. Voltaire could not accept, for example, that in Hamlet, the grave-diggers should be drinking and singing on stage; or that in Julius Caesar shoemakers and cobblers appear on stage before Brutus and Cassius. In Pre-Revolutionary French society plays offered an elevated and ideal view of the world. In Shakespeare’s plays the lowliest characters often make fools of kings. Shakespeare remained, for Voltaire, a uniquely English dramatist, and thought his works would need to be adapted to make them more suitable to a French audience.

Voltaire’s translations are reproduced in a modern publication (1) but the Trust's library collection is highly representative of all the French translations published since the 18th century. 

Le theatre anglois (1746-49)
Le theatre anglois (1746-49) translated by by Pierre Antoine de la Place SR 47/French

Le Theatre Anglois’ by Pierre Antoine de la Place (1707-1793) was published between 1746-1749.  The series of 10 volumes about the English Theatre begin with the plays of Shakespeare. Two volumes were initially published; the first contained the ‘Discourse sur le Théâtre Anglois’ and the ‘Vie de Shakespeare’.  The first play included is Othello with Henry VI Part 3. The second volume contains King Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Volume 3 contains Cymbeline, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The final Volume dedicated to Shakespeare includes Timon of Athens, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The remaining volumes were dedicated to Johnson, Rowe, Dryden and other English writers. Richard III was the only play that he attempted to translate the entire work. The third and fourth volumes contain the plays that were not translated in the form of a précis or summary of the drama.

The increasing popularity of Shakespeare encouraged Garrick to visit the Salons of Paris in 1763 and 1765. Just as in England, Paris celebrated the Jubilee of 1769. ‘Le Mercure de France’ commemorated the Garrick’s Jubilee celebrations with special editions.

Jean-Francoise Ducis (1733-1816) and Pierre Letourneur (1737-1788) were two writers working in the same period with very different approaches to making translations. Jean-Francoise Ducis was a playwright who was elected as a member of the Académie Française on the death of Voltaire. His works were published between 1769-1792 and created without knowledge of the English language. His skill was to adapt the plays using existing translations by La Place and Letourneur. These were often quite dramatic and radical re-workings of the plays but they did popularise Shakespeare’s plays in France and remained in use on the French stage until the mid-nineteenth century.

Pierre Letourneur‘s ‘Shakespeare traduit de l'anglais’ was published as a set of 20 volumes and dedicated to King Louis XVI. This royal favour required the approval of the Official Censor. In March 14th 1776 he presented the King, Queen and Royal family with the first two volumes. In the preface he wrote that ‘he wanted to undertake a complete translation, the most faithful possible of Shakespeare’s Theatre’. It’s possible that he used the English editions published by Rowe and Pope as the basis for his translations. Without trying to emulate the Folio he began with the Tragedies; Volume 3, for example, contains Coriolanus and Macbeth and Volume 5 has Hamlet paired with King Lear. Most of the Histories are in Volumes 11-13. This is the first time that an attempt was made to translate a significant body of Shakespeare’s plays into a form we would recognise as such today. Royal patronage ensured the works would be read and led to a surge of interest in Shakespeare following the publication.

ŒŒuvres complètes de Shakspeare (1821)
Œuvres complètes de Shakspeare (1821) translated by l'Anglais par Letourneur.

François Guizot (1787-1874) was a prominent historian and occupied several Ministerial Posts in Government. He spent a number of years in exile in England before retuning to France where held a professorship at the Sorbonne and a chair in Conseil d’Etat. During the summer of 1830, he was in office while the ‘July Revolution’ forced king Charles X from power and was Minister of Foreign Affairs under the new constitutional Monarch Louise-Philip in the ‘July Monarchy’. Honoré Daumier quoted Guizot in a lithograph published in 1834; “Dieu mène la France” (God leads France) in which the hated king forcibly drags the figure of ‘France’ over rubble and a corpse in the aftermath of a revolt. In 1848 revolutionary unrest saw Guizot removed from office before the Monarchy collapsed and the Second Republic was declared.

His works were first published in 1821 and are essentially reprints of Letourneur’s translations. He added a complete translation of Pericles and two poems: ‘Venus and Adonis’ with ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. An introduction and notes also accompanied each play. His introduction includes a long essay ‘Vie de Shakspeare’ where he is perhaps the first to consider Shakespeare in a wider context. Looking beyond the texts as pure literary drama he set out how theatre survives in its historical and social context. He began by denouncing Voltaire and the Classical traditions of French theatre and ended his introduction by reflecting on the revolutions in French society. Shakespeare’s ability to write about the human condition and include characters from all levels of society had parallels in a new age of ‘Liberty’.

When Letourneur published his translations there was a surge in interest in Shakespeare and all things English during the 1820s. The early 1820s also saw the rise of a new movement in artistic and literary circles called ‘Romanticism’. Inspired by the Revolution it was felt that the old Classical ideals were incapable of representing life through art. A call for a freedom of language and choice over subject under the banner ‘Liberté dans l’Art’ was as much a political movement as an aesthetic one. Eugène Delacroix was fascinated by Hamlet, he saw a performance at the Théâtre de l’Odéon and from 1830 began a series of lithographic prints based on the play; the same year that he painted ‘Liberty leading the People’. In 1848 a competition to paint a figurative representation of the French Republic was announced. Writers such as Victor Hugo took up these ideas.  An early play, called ‘Hernani’, provoked outrage when it was performed at the Comédie-Française because it was a tragedy about a weak King employing very down to earth language and set in very ordinary surroundings.

The most important translation written in the C19th was by François-Victor Hugo (1828-1873) son of the novelist Victor Hugo; it is regarded as one of the greatest works of French translation.  Victor Hugo’s family were living in exile during the Second Empire, first of all in Jersey before residing at Hauteville House, Guernsey, in 1852.  François-Victor joined his father when the newspaper L'Événement was closed down and he was condemned to prison for his political views.

François-Victor’s translation gave rise to an important work by Victor Hugo himself. ‘William Shakespeare’, published in time for the Tercentenary celebrations of 1864, was as an introduction to the translations that expanded into a significant work in its own right.  Written in three parts it offers a Life of Shakespeare, a history of the plays and opinions and thoughts on the Nature of Genius. Most of the book considers the ‘Nature of Genius’ and Hugo placed Shakespeare into the pantheon of every great writer from Æschylus, Dante to Kant. For Hugo this was a monument to Shakespeare’s Glory as well as providing himself with a role model for his own work. It is written as a manifesto against the Second Empire and a celebration of the Romantic Movement; it also celebrated his son’s translations and the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864. Our edition of this volume contains a dedication to ‘M. Hepworth Dixon du comité pour le jubilé de Shakespeare’. The French Government sent Alfred Mézières, a leading Shakespearian scholar, to represent l'Université de Paris and the French State at the celebrations in Stratford, while Victor Hugo remained in exile.

William Shakespeare (1864) by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo's autograph

At the beginning of the book Hugo recounts a conversation he had with François-Victor ten years previously on a wet and windy November day while living in Jersey at Marine Terrace.  Considering what they might do in their exile, the father said, “I shall look upon the Ocean”, François-Victor replied, “I shall translate Shakespeare”.

François-Victor’s ambitious undertaking is an important landmark in the translation of Shakespeare’s works into the French language – first of all because he translates from original texts; secondly, he includes the collaborative plays, or Shakespeare Apocrypha. As he says in the introduction it was different from its predecessors: “non sur la traduction de Letourneur mais, sur la texte du Shakespeare.” In the preface Victor Hugo wrote “Shakespeare est un des poëtes qui defendant le plus contre le traducteurs (2) but it was to be as exact and as complete as possible; in the spirit of the times he declared that a new revolutionary language was required to do justice to Shakespeare’s texts.

William Shakespeare (1864) by Victor Hugo
William Shakespeare (1864) by Victor Hugo

In 1857 he began working on the translations. The Complete Works are set out in 15 volumes and were published between 1859-1866. Each play has a detailed introduction with extensive notes just like our modern editions.  Individual volumes contain just two or three plays and they are grouped together in categories or themes devised by Hugo and not in the original order of the Folios. Volume 1 is dedicated to Hamlet, or rather two Hamlets, because he translated from the First Quarto Edition of 1603 that was owned by the Duke of Devonshire and from a copy of the Second Quarto, 1604. The 2nd volume is dedicated to the plays associated with ‘Les Féories’ or Spirits, Midsummer Nights Dream and The Tempest‘Les Tyrans’ or Tyrants contains Macbeth, King John and Richard III. ‘Les Jaloux’, or Jealousy, covers volumes four and five and includes Othello, The Winter’s Tale and Troilus and Cressida. ‘Les comédies de l’amour’ contains All’s Well That Ends Well, Loves Labour’s Lost and The Taming of the Shrew. ‘Les Amant Tragédies’  has Romeo and Juliet with Antony and Cleopatra. ‘Les Amis’, or Friendship contains The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. Volume nine is dedicated to ‘La Famille’  with King Lear and Coriolanus. Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar are in ‘La Société’. The remaining History plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, Henry V and Henry VI (Part 1 and Part 2) are included under ‘La Patrie’ in volumes 11, 12 and 13. The Merry Wives of Windsor, Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, the popular comedies are considered under ‘Les Farces.’  The final volume contains the Sonnets and Poems; here for the first time are The Yorkshire Tragedy, Edward III, Arden of Faversham, Thomas Cromwell and Locrine etc.

Œuvres complètes de W. Shakespeare (1865-73) translated by Francois-Victor Hugo
Œuvres complètes de W. Shakespeare (1865-73) translated by Francois-Victor Hugo

During this period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) the upsurge of interest in Shakespeare that occurred in the 1820s and 1830s had dissipated. The Tercentenary was a major event that revived interest in Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon. Victor Hugo remained in Guernsey but was involved with the Tercentenary as Honorary Vice-President of the London Committee and Honorary President of the French Shakespeare Committee. We know that François-Victor Hugo was able to visit Stratford just prior to publication of the first volume of his Complete Works. The Register records his visit made to the Birthplace on 3rd July 1858. (3)

Francois-Victor Hugo's signature in the visitors' book (1858)

There is a dedication in ‘Les Féories’ to his brother ‘A celle Qui est Restée en exile, son Frère qu l’aime et qu l’adore’  (to he who is staying in exile, his brother who is loved and adored).(4) Victor Hugo would only return to France with his family when the new Republic was declared in 1870.  It is a rather sad coincidence that François-Victor Hugo died of tuberculosis in 1873, the year our edition of his great work was published.

On this day, in 1870, Victor Hugo planted an Oak in the garden of Hauteville House, the tree representing the United States of Europe! (5)

Vive Shakespeare!  Vive les Traducteurs!  Vive la France!


1. Studies on Voltaire and the C18th, Ed. Theodore Besterman, Vol LIV. ‘Voltaire on 

    Shakespeare’, Institute et Musee Voltaire, Les Delices, Geneva, 1967.

2. 47/French 1865-73. ŒUVRES COMPLÈTE, Tome I. Third Edition, Paris 1873.

3. TR/35/1/3. p168.

4. Charles, who died in 1871.


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