Share this page

Shakespeare in Swiss German

On the occasion of the Swiss National Holiday, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust period interpreter Paul Avery explores the Trust's Swiss connections.

Paul Avery

My connections to Switzerland come from my mother and her family.  Mum grew up in the high alpine region of the Grisons canton, close to the source of the River Rhine.  Through visits to Switzerland over the years, as well as quite a bit of background reading, I have gained an extensive appreciation of what the country is like, and of its history and traditions.

 Above all else, Switzerland is a place where variety and diversity are words which shape day to day life.  Four national languages are spoken within its borders (German, French, Italian and Romansh) - this in a country roughly one sixth the size of the UK.  As if that wasn't enough, a fifth language, Latin, is used to identify the country internationally, with the letters CH (Confederatio Helvetica) so often seen on car bumper stickers and internet domain names.  Amidst all this variety, there is one occasion which is treated with equal importance no matter where in the country people may be: the celebration of the National Holiday on 1st August.

CH car bumper sticker
car bumper sticker

While the 1st August may only have been celebrated on a regular basis since the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless recalls an event in the more distant past, 726 years ago, when the first three cantons which make up the country we know today pledged to protect one another from external aggression by any of their neighbours "at the beginning of the month of August, in the year of our Lord 1291".  Gradually in the following centuries, many neighbouring communities joined the three founding cantons in their alliance, initially as a loose association, then after 1848 as a federal state.  Today celebrating the National Day is partly formal, with an official speech, and the singing of the National Anthem, and for the most part informal, with a party including of course the playing of folk music, singing and dancing.  Extra work went in to creating a more lasting legacy after the 700th anniversary in 1991, with the creation of a special Swiss Path/Weg der Schweiz around part of the shoreline of the Lake of Lucerne.  Each canton has a pro rata share of this path according to its population; with its position on the path determined by when it joined the inter-cantonal alliance I referred to a little earlier.  A monument to mark Switzerland's 700th anniversary was even unveiled in Central London! 

monument to mark Switzerland's 700th anniversary
Monument to mark Switzerland's 700th anniversary

An awareness of Shakespeare and his plays has existed in Switzerland since Shakespeare's lifetime, when on 21st September 1599, Thomas Platter the Younger from Basel saw a production of Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre!  The first occasions of travelling players performing any of Shakespeare's works in Switzerland date from the late 18th century,  in some cases with interesting variations to the original storylines - Hamlet surviving and taking charge of the government,  for instance,  and a new play "Justice and Revenge" based on "Measure for Measure".  German language translations of Shakespeare's works were also published at this time, the first complete translation of the works appeared in Zürich in the late 1770s.  The third such translation, which appeared at the turn of the 18th/19th century, is perhaps of rather more interest, as  a copy of it is held in the SBT library (further details in the footnotes to this blog).

 During the 19th century in Switzerland, it is the tercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare's birth in 1864, and the three decades or so thereafter which are of particular significance.  The first performance of "Timon of Athens" in Switzerland took place in 1899.  As the 20th century unfolded, there was an increasing tendency to see Shakespeare performed in school theatres, as well as by professional actors.

 One way in which Shakespeare has been made more accessible to local audiences in Switzerland, as has already been mentioned, has been through translation of his work, a useful first step towards inspiring people to read original versions of his work in due course.  The following extract from Orsino's speech at the beginning of "Twelfth Night", translated into Swiss German, will perhaps serve as an illustration of this.

Paul Avery
Paul Avery

"Waenn Musig s'Fueter isch fuer d'Liebi, schpiled
Schpiled, Fraessgelage, dass de Gluscht
Vor luter Inebiige chrank wird und verschtickt.
Das Schtuck namal, es isch so schoen verfloge
Ou, s'isch me ine wien en laue Wind
Wo ueber volli Veeielibeetli schtriicht
Und Parfuem schtilt und schaenkt."

"If music be the food of love, play on
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die
That strain again! it had a dying fall
O, it came over my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets
Stealing and giving odour"

Sources used:   Shakespeare und die Schweiz  (Theater Kultur Verlag, Bern 1964)  Shakespeare auf Mundart von Sylvia Zysset (Basler Zeitung Magazin 10/11/2001)  Wikipedia (Swiss National Day), as well as more personal recollections and observations gathered over the years

 Material in the SBT Library: German complete works published 1798-1805 in Zürich.  Translated by Joachim Eschenberg, Donated by Theodore Martin, Reference SR47 German/1798-1805.  Owned by the RSC

Title page Swiss edition
German translation of Shakespeare's works published in Zurich

Recommended blogs

See all blogs