Share this page

Shakespeare in Russian: Konstantin Konstantinovich’s Hamlet

Kelsey Ridge, PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute and library volunteer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, investigates the custodial history of a Russian Hamlet translation held in the Trust’s library collection.

Kelsey Ridge

One of Russia’s most important translators of Shakespeare was the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, grandson of Czar Nicholas I, who styled himself as KR. KR, himself a poet, also undertook the translation of Schiller and Goethe, in addition to serving as President of the Russian Academy of Science and one of the founders of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinskij Dom).

KR’s desire to translate Hamlet into Russian seems to have been inspired by his cousin, Czar Alexander III, who had reread Hamlet after visiting Helsingør with his Danish in-laws and found the existing Russian translations lacking. Indeed, this edition is reverently dedicated to Emperor Alexander III. In addition to a translation of Shakespeare, the work also appears to include an original poem by the poet-translator from 22 May 1899, which is a poetic dedication to the Czar, who had died prior to the translation’s completion. In this poem, K.R. expresses his hope that his cousin will be able to appreciate his translation from heaven.

Russian Hamlet dedication page
Dedication to Emperor Alexander III

His translation, the fourteenth translation of Hamlet into Russian, was completed in 1899, using Horace Howard Furness’s 1877 from Philadelphia, America as a source text. KR had travelled to the United States during his time in Russia’s navy. The translation comes in a two volume set. Volume one contains his translation, English on the left and Russian on the right. Volume two contains critical analysis and a discussion of the text’s history from Konstantin Konstantiovich himself. It also contains translated letters from actors, including Sarah Bernhardt. KR did not reproduce Furness’s abundant on-page notes, as a convenience to actors and readers, but included ample secondary material, in the second volume. Several amateur performances were mounted using KR’s translation as a playing text. Konstanin Konstantinovich himself played the title role.

Russian Hamlet binding
Hamlet translated into Russian by Konstantin Konstantinovich

KR presented a copy of his bilingual edition, printed in St. Petersburg in 1899, to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1900. This edition appears to have been bound by the printing press of the Academy of Science, which makes sense considering his relationship with the institution. Each of the two volumes bears a ribbon: volume one in the colors of the French flag and volume two in the colors of the German flag. These ribbons may be a nod to the translator’s linguistic abilities. The German may also be a reference to the fact that Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, was born in Germany.

'To be or not to be' in Russian translated by KR
Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech translated into Russian by KR

KR died in 1915, overcome by grief at the death of a son in World War I. Pursuant to his wishes, his library, including his translations and analyses of Shakespeare, were donated to Pushkinskij Dom, which retains them to this day.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs