[Paleopsych] Telegraph: Bard of the boulevards
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Thu Apr 7 16:46:30 UTC 2005
Bard of the boulevards
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
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
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
Hambledon & London, £19.99, 256 pp
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