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Shakespeare in Swedish

Karin explores a translation of Hamlet's iconic speech to mark Sweden's celebration of Midsummer Eve

Karin de Figueiredo

Today is Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden, an annual national celebration in honour of the longest day of the year. Even though technically the longest day of the year is the 21st June, we conveniently move the celebration date to make sure it falls on a Friday every year (Swedes like things to be neat and orderly). We always celebrate on the “eve” in Sweden; Midsummer’s Eve, Christmas Eve, Valborg Eve (Walpurgis) etc. My mother used to say it’s because Swedes are impatient (which is about as good a theory as any). Celebrating Midsummer is a quintessentially Swedish activity and embedded in our national psyche, much as Shakespeare is proudly held aloft as the UK’s greatest bard and both are important aspects of our national identities.

Shakespeare was first introduced in Sweden in the late 1700s but his blank verse was problematic to the educated Swedish elite, who were committed to more classical and structured styles of poetry. However, little by little, he was introduced into Swedish theatres and stages but as there were no published manuscripts of Shakespeare in Swedish, a new translation had to be written for each production (with varying degrees of success/poetic license).

The first published Swedish translation of a Shakespeare play was Macbeth in 1813 by Eric Gustaf Geijer (1783 – 1847), a copy of which is held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT). The first full translation of Shakespeare’s complete works was produced by Carl August Hagberg (1810 – 1864) and published between 1847 and 1851.

While perusing the many book in SBT’s substantial collection of Swedish translations (over 30 volumes) I noticed that several books had a curious stamp on the title page that read “Lilla Sällskapet” (The Little Society) which made me curious about their origins. After some research, I discovered that Lilla Sällskapet was a gentlemen’s club in Stockholm from 1814 – 1840. Their building included a library, making it likely that these books originally came from their collection. How they made their way here remains a mystery. 

Lilla Sallskapet stamp detail
“Lilla Sällskapet” (The Little Society)

With so many volumes in Swedish to choose from it was hard to narrow it down to a specific play or passage to comment on in this blog post. I eventually settled on Hamlet and the infamous “to be or not to be” speech, partly because it is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic and well-known passages and partly because there were several translations of the speech from different time periods, which made for an interesting comparison.

In total I chose three different translations of the play. The earliest is by Carl August Hagberg published in 1861. Hagberg was a gifted linguist studying Latin, Greek and Arabic before becoming a language professor at Lund University. While travelling across Europe as a young man he attended his first ever Shakespeare play in Germany and forged connections with many authors across the continent, including Victor Hugo. 

Hamlet (1861)
"Hamlet" in "Shakespeare's Dramatiska Arbeten" (1861)

Hagberg’s translations of Shakespeare’s plays have become the most accepted and widely distributed versions of the play and several of his translated expressions have become commonly accepted phrases in Swedish. For instance “mycket väsen för ingenting”, a translation of the title Much Ado About Nothing, is used to describe exactly that scenario, when much noise and kerfuffle is made about something which is really unimportant or did not amount to much in the end. Another phrase is “eftertankens kranka blekhet”, a translation of the phrase “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” from the “to be or not to be” speech. Hagberg was a talented linguist and translator however he was still a product of his time. He often edited Shakespeare’s language, subduing the racier jokes and double entendres to allow the works to be read in more polite social circles. However his language skills and rich imagination allowed him to breathe life into his translations, ensuring their longevity.

The second volume I studied was published in 1861. The text is based on Hagberg’s translation but has been re-worked by Andreas Wilhelm Bolin (1835 – 1924). The subtitle of the volume reads “with reference/in consideration of theatrical productions and reading in the home” and particular changes have been made to accommodate this audience. Bolin was a professor of philosophy at the University of Helsinki and a native Swedish speaker with a keen interest in theatre. The book is a large, embossed, red-leather volume in large type and is beautifully illustrated throughout. The illustrations are based on engravings by British illustrator Sir John Gilbert and truly bring the scenes to life. 

Illustration by Sir John Gilbert
Illustration by Sir John Gilbert

This “to be or not to be” speech retains Hagberg’s original translation but Bolin has added several stage directions. In the original translation, the speech is simply preceded by the words “The king and Polonius leave, Hamlet enters”. However Bolin has added “The King and Polonius hide behind a pillar to the right. Hamlet enters from the left, worried”. Although Hamlet’s mood seems plausible given the overall tone of his monologue it is interesting to note that the author has decided to make it clearer to the reader. Perhaps the additional directions, such as specifying where the King and Polonius hide, are meant to help the listeners or readers to imagine the scene. There are also additional stage directions at the very end of the monologue which replace the final lines of the speech, so that it reads:

. . . And lose the name of action. – Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia!
(She sits down to the right, still absorbed in her book. Hamlet stands behind the chair).- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d. 

The last volume is from 1982 by Margreta Söderwall (1912 – 2009) and is adapted for schools. Söderwall was a drama teacher in Umeå and Huddinge and founded the Umeå Shakespeare Society in 1952, responsible for over 40 student productions in 20 years. The group also toured the UK in 1959 with a performance of August Strindberg’s The Saga of the Folkungs and again in 1969 with Master Olof. The text in this volume is also based on Hagberg’s original translation but the language has been updated and modernised and several lines and scenes have been edited or cut out entirely to make it easier for students to read and follow the story. This volume is also illustrated with photographs taken from one of the productions by the Umeå Shakespeare Society. 

Hamlet (1982)
"Hamlet" (1982) A school edition

The first noticeable change is that the monologue has been condensed into several paragraphs rather than a column of lines. This might partly have to do with the layout of the publication but also aids the reader by making the sentence structures and endings more familiar. Also a great deal of both stage direction and additional commentary has been added to this volume. The “to be or not to be” speech is preceded by a long paragraph explaining the mood of Hamlet as he enters and how the following scene with Ophelia is of particular importance, as it is the only time the lovers think they are alone and thus can express themselves freely. These changes have been made to help the students more easily understand the characters and scenes.

Several words have also been spelt in a phonetic rather than grammatically correct way. In particular the words for you, me, himself/herself which are spelled “dig, mig, sig” but pronounced “dej, mej, sej” are sometimes spelt as such to help with reading aloud. 

Shakespeare continues to be studied and performed in Sweden in both Swedish and English. Although Hagberg’s translations have stood the test of time, particularly his monologues, new translations continue to be produced in an effort to draw closer to the original language. The difficulty in translating the meaning, while imbuing the language with the same poetry as in the original works, requires true craftsmanship and skill, as well as a vivid imagination and a love of words. 


“Att skapa med Shakespeare och andra klassiker” by Margareta Söderwall in Journal of Research in Teacher Education issue 4, 2001 available online: <accessed on 22/06/2017>

“Att översätta Shakespeare” by Roland Heiel  in Shakespeare Issue 1, 2001 available online: <accessed 22/06/2017>

“Bolin, Andreas Wilhelm” available online: <accessed on 22/06/2017>

“Carl August Hagberg, 1810-1864”by Karin Monié available online: <accessed 22/06/2017>

“Hamlet Prins av Danmark” translation by Carl August Hagberg edited by Margareta Söderwall, published 1982

“Shakespeare and Scandinavia: A Collection of Nordic studies” edited by Gunnar Sorelius, published 2002.

“Shakespeare’s Dramatiska Arbeten” translated by Carl August Hagberg, published 1861

”Shakespeare’s Dramatiska Arbeten” translation by Carl August Hagberg edited by Wilhelm Bolin, published 1880

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