[Paleopsych] Telegraph: Bard of the boulevards

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Thu Apr 7 16:46:30 UTC 2005

Bard of the boulevards 
    (Filed: 20/03/2005)

    Our most English playwright doesn't always travel well. Jonathan Bate
    reviews Shakespeare Goes to Paris, a "marvellously learned, witty and
    wide-ranging survey" of attitudes to Shakespeare in France.

    The French have always cared more for the authority of tradition than
    have the empirical English. That is one reason why they undergo
    revolutions - political and cultural - while we muddle happily through
    with evolution, surprising ourselves with our social mobility and
    cultural fluidity.

    There is no better case in point than the drama. It may be argued with
    perfect seriousness that one of the reasons France had revolutions in
    1789 and 1848 and Britain did not, is that they had Racine and we had
    Shakespeare. In London popular theatre provided a safety valve for
    popular opinion, whereas in Paris the drama of class confrontation was
    acted out on the streets with real blood.

    Racine wrote for the court of the Sun King according to the
    prescriptions of neo-classical dramatic theory. The authority of
    tradition was as absolute as that of the monarch. The ancient Greeks
    had kept comedy out of their tragedies, restricting tragic matter to
    elevated characters and themes, so the French did the same. Their
    poetic drama used a limited vocabulary, bounded by decorum, and was
    aimed at a limited audience, bounded by the court. The wider populace
    was excluded from the realm of high art.

    From the French point of view, nothing could be more vulgar than the
    counter-example of Shakespeare: he wrote for a public theatre, mingled
    verse and prose, high emotion and rude puns, kings and clowns,
    funerals and drunkenness. Most shockingly of all, he allowed trivial
    domestic objects - things that a classical French author would never
    dream of mentioning - to play a significant role in his plots. Othello
    turns on a misplaced handkerchief. A humble mouchoir: quelle horreur!

    Voltaire, a great Anglophile, visited London in the early 18th century
    and was deeply impressed by the social mix he encountered in the
    theatre. He learned English by sitting nightly in the auditorium at
    Drury Lane, and came to wonder at the sublimity of Shakespeare's
    tragedies while simultaneously professing himself disturbed by the
    presence of drunken, quipping grave-diggers in Hamlet.

    In this marvellously learned, witty and wide-ranging survey of
    attitudes to Shakespeare in France from the 18th century to the
    present, John Pemble tells of how in later life Voltaire came to
    regret his praise of Shakespeare. The growth of a new French taste for
    the "provincial clown" from across the Channel marked "the end of the
    age of reason". By the early 19th century, Shakespeare was
    inextricably linked with the new generation of Romantics. "What is
    classicism?" asked Stendhal in his manifesto Racine et Shakespeare.
    Classicism (ie Racine) is "the art that appealed to our
    great-grandfathers". What is Romanticism? It is "the art that appeals
    to youth and to the present".

    That art was Shakespeare's. When a company of English actors played
    Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the Odéon, all the young Romantics -
    Delacroix, de Vigny, Victor Hugo - were there to cheer them on. Hector
    Berlioz saw the play and his world was turned upside down: he fell so
    deeply in love with Shakespeare that he promptly married Harriet
    Smithson, the actress who played Juliet and Ophelia.

    Victor Hugo, meanwhile, wrote an epic book that praised Shakespeare as
    a force of nature and proposed that the Bard of Avon should become
    Poet Laureate of the United States of Europe. His son translated the
    complete works, furnishing them with formidably learned footnotes.

    Pemble also introduces us to some splendidly Bardolatrous eccentrics,
    including Gaston Baty, who argued, completely against the grain of the
    opinion of his time, that the only truly authentic text of Hamlet is
    the one traditionally known as the "bad quarto" (ironically enough,
    today's avant-garde textual scholars are coming close to endorsing
    this position).

    The story continues through the 20th century, with cameo appearances
    from an array of leading French intellectuals, including André Gide,
    whose plan to translate Hamlet led Lytton Strachey's sister to offer
    her assistance: "Couldn't we go somewhere for two or three days -
    anywhere - to work on it together?"

    Translation comes to the heart of the matter. Shakespeare's favoured
    medium of expression was the five-beat unrhymed iambic line, whereas
    French classical poetry was built of rigorous hexameter (six-stress)
    rhyming couplets. The twain could never meet.

    As for poetic vocabulary, the French insistence on decorum meant that
    translators always struggled with the sheer promiscuity of
    Shakespeare's imagery. The first complete translation was undertaken
    by Pierre Le Tourneur in the 18th century. He struggled not only with
    Desdemona's handkerchief, but also with Shakespeare's menagerie of
    metaphors. "How now, a rat?" asks Hamlet as Polonius stirs behind the
    arras. Rats were not allowed in French poetry, so Le Tourneur
    translates "Comment, un voleur?" ("What, a thief?").

    It is sometimes hard to work out why one term is allowed and not
    another. The sentry in the opening scene of Hamlet whispers that not a
    mouse is stirring. Mice were unmentionable, but it was acceptable for
    Le Tourneur to say that not an "insect" is moving.

    Even in the 20th century problems of this sort persisted in more
    moderate form. "Distilled/Almost to a jelly with the act of fear" says
    Horatio in response to the ghost of old Hamlet. "Jelly is a French
    word (gelée) and it has the same sense in both languages," notes
    Pemble, but for the distinguished poet and translator Yves Bonnefoy
    "it seemed inappropriate for a French text because it had been lifted
    straight from life - as a Frenchman, he required language that was
    called 'noble' or 'literary'."

    Shakespeare is a mirror in which every culture sees itself with
    astonishing clarity. This is a book not just for Shakespeareans but
    for anyone interested in la différence between us and the French.

    Let us hope that its enterprising publisher will commission similar
    titles along the lines of "Shakespeare goes to Berlin" and
    "Shakespeare goes to Moscow". The material would prove equally

      Jonathan Bate is Professor of Literature at Warwick University.

    Shakespeare Goes to Paris: How the Bard Conquered France
    John Pemble
    Hambledon & London, £19.99, 256 pp

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