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"The Classical German Shakespeare" as Emblem of Germany as "geistige Weltmacht":  Validating National Power through Cultural Prefiguration

Delivered at the 1991 MLA

[This paper is accompanied by a series of illustrative quotations, referenced in brackets. Bibliographic citations and notes are indicated by superscripts.]

Who owns Shakespeare? One of the things the division of Germany made clear was that this is not an idle question. Shakespeare is a valuable property, worth fighting over, not just among publishers but among political ideologies and even nations: thus the two competing Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaften. Writers like Shakespeare are valuable politically, both because of the prestige that attaches to them and because how we interpret and celebrate them helps to define our national values and identity.

German scholarship has on occasion been interested in issues of who lays claim to whom and with what benefit, at least as early as Franz Mehring's Lessing Legende of 100 years ago. Anglo-American scholarship may have come to these questions later, but came with a vengeance: in the last decade or so much of the most important British and North American Shakespeare criticism has been devoted to investigating Shakespeare reception as a competition of political and social forces for possession of Shakespeare's authority. What I would like to do this morning is to extend this recent English work on Shakespeare to late 19th-century German literary history.

Despite its undeniable appeal, I do not want to concentrate on that fascinating question, "Was Shakespeare really more German than English?" Generations of otherwise sober and intelligent people have asserted he was so insistently that for our purposes today we might take their word for it. [Look, for example, at quotations 3 and 4.] What I am more interested in are the questions "When did Shakespeare become a German?" and "What kind of German did he become?"

From the outset I want to acknowledge other people who have been working along these same lines: Werner Habicht (Würzburg), for many years president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West and currently editor of its Jahrbuch, and Manfred Pfister (Passau).1

It is likely that for most of us, the words "Shakespeare in Germany" naturally turn our thoughts to Lessing's 17th Literaturbrief, to Goethe, Herder, and Schiller--in short to the late 18th century. The most brilliant formulation of this history is Friedrich Gundolf's 1911 tour de force, Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist, in which he shows how in Germany's discovery of Shakespeare, the Germans in fact discovered themselves. Gundolf concludes his book with a combined apotheosis of German Shakespeare understanding and of the German spirit itself in Romanticism, declaring that all German Shakespeare reception after Romanticism is epigonic and unworthy of serious study. Hardly anyone today would accept Gundolf's Geistesgeschichte, but I believe that the outlines of his argument still largely govern our picture of Shakespeare in Germany--and that this picture, with its focus on the late 18th century, curiously obscures the uses to which the Germany of the 19th century and of Gundolf's own time put Shakespeare.

It is possible to find the words "unser Shakespeare" already in the 18th century,2 but I believe that in general the Germans who "discovered" Shakespeare were excited by him precisely because he was so different from anything they had ever experienced. Admittedly, for Herder and others, there was consanguinity in a common Germanic origin. But except in the more extravagant polemics of the Sturm und Drang it would scarcely have occurred to anyone to call Shakespeare a German poet in the strict sense, one among other German poets.

Only in the 19th century did Shakespeare become "naturalized" in Germany, a fixture of the cultural landscape so self-evident as to be a non-issue for nearly all subsequent scholarship. One finds evidence of this naturalization in every facet of German culture: the theater, publishing, education. By 1849 Gervinus [quotation 1] describes his book on Shakespeare as "eine nothwendige Ergänzung" of his history of German literature. His language here--wir haben uns Shakespeare ''erobert"--is worth noting. As the century goes on, particularly from the time of the Austro-Prussian war in the mid-1860s, military metaphors become more and more frequent, and there is noticeably less willingness to "share" Shakespeare with the English [as Koberstein still does in quotation 2]; Shakespeare has become the object of what one might call "cultural imperialism." Thus Ulrici [quotation 3] wants to "entenglisiren" Shakespeare, and Oechelhäuser [quotation 4] devotes his entire lecture to showing how Shakespeare is more "deutsch-national" than English. /Exp. 2/

If this sketches my answer to "when did Shakespeare become a German?" the more interesting question remains: "what kind of German did he become?" Here I return to Gundolf, but with a difference. I would argue that Gundolf's narrative of the progressive discovery of Shakespeare in the late 18th century, paralleling the rise of German literature to its zenith, is brilliant mainly in its formulation; in its substance, I believe it can be shown that Gundolf recapitulates a story that had already been told time and again throughout at least the last half of the 19th century--a story that, following Mehring, one could call the Shakespeare "legend," and that Habicht has described as the Shakespeare "myth."3 Decades before Gundolf this legend had already constructed a Shakespeare that was neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, but rather "klassisch": a contemporary of Goethe and Schiller.

If one had asked in the late 19th century, "where in Germany does Shakespeare belong?" there could have been only one answer: in Weimar. At the latest by the 1860s it seems to be nearly impossible to mention Shakespeare without saying Goethe and Schiller in the same breath: as Dingelstedt would have it in his prologue [quotation 5], the dioscuri of German literature have now become the triumviri. There were practical as well as symbolic reasons why the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft was founded in Weimar and remained there, but virtually no one questioned the appropriateness of the fact that [quotation 7] the society should be planted "mitten in den klassischen Hain echt deutschen Geisteslebens, dicht neben die Dichtergräber Schiller's und Göthe's." Shakespeare was, after all, as both Dingelstedt and Oechelhäuser say, "der dritte im Bunde."

Of course Shakespeare was connected to the other Klassiker [as in 7] through the "Schlegel-Tieck" translation, begun in the last years of the 18th century. But as I have argued elsewhere, the rise of "Schlegel-Tieck" to preeminence during the course of the 19th century is a symptom of the association of Shakespeare with the "classical age of German literature" as well as a cause of it.4 One must keep in mind that the "Tieck" portion--more than half of the plays--was done 30 years after Schlegel's, as one of the eight competing Shakespeare translations of the 1820s and '30s.5 New translations continued to appear throughout the 1840s, '50s, and '60s. It was only when the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft gave its imprimatur to "Schlegel-Tieck," first in a revised edition edited by Ulrici (1867-71), and two decades later in a reissue of the original texts, edited by Oechelhäuser, that "Schlegel-Tieck" achieved its incontestable, canonical status. The desire for the authentically "classical" texts led Bernays to publish his long study of Schlegel's manuscripts [quotation 8] and two editions of "Schlegel-Tieck" in which he restored Schlegel's readings even in cases where he admitted they mistranslate Shakespeare; it is now "der klassische deutsche Shakespeare" that is most important, not the (unclassical) English one.

Why did it matter so much to locate Shakespeare in the late 18th century as a contemporary of Goethe and Schiller? What was to be gained? I would argue that the answer is in the uses the 19th century, particularly from the mid-1860s on, made of the classical German heritage altogether--a heritage to which Shakespeare was a valuable acquisition.6 It is noteworthy how frequently texts of Shakespeare scholarship from this period draw a parallel, sometimes implicitly, sometimes quite clearly, between the cultural greatness of the "classical age of German literature" on the one hand and the industrial, political, and military greatness Germany was now in the process of achieving on the other. [Here I'd like to look closely at quotations 10-12.] In the Oechelhäuser passage [quotation 10] there is a subtle but characteristic relationship of culture and politics, of "früher" and "jetzt": "Wenn früher kein Vorwurf öfter gegen die Deutschen erhoben wurde, als daß sie des nationalen Selbstgefühls entbehren... so dürfen wir jetzt sagen, daß er uns weder auf dem politischen noch dem Gebiete der Wissenschaft und Kunst, seit Lessing's Zeiten wenigstens, mit Recht träfe." Now Germany no longer has reason to lack self-esteem either culturally or politically. Lessing's name here evokes its own associations: in a number of texts of this period his polemics against neo-classicism are made to seem to be a precursor of the current political and military struggle against France; the Franco-Prussian War becomes a kind of Fortsetzung des 17. Literaturbriefes mit anderen Mitteln.

In the passage from Bernhard Suphan [quotation 11] the time of "neue Jugend," seems at first to refer only to the literature of the late 18th century, when "alles Große sich vorbereitete, was unser Stolz ist"; but the next clause, "und so lange allein unsern nationalen Werth bezeichnet hat" makes clear the precursor function of this "new youth" and "greatness." Suphan goes on in a series of remarkable comparisons to make the relationship of the literary events of the 1760s and '70s to the political and military events of the 1860s and '70s explicit: 1766 foreshadows 1866, which ushered in "die entscheidende Wendung in unsern staatlichen Verhältnissen"; 1770 prefigures 1870, "das...dazu ausersehen war, Deutschlands Größe zu bezeichnen."

Finally, the quotation from Bernays' "Nachwort" to his 1891 edition of "Schlegel-Tieck" [quotation 12]: "Als ... deutsche Literatur die Kraft gewann, sich zu einer geistigen Weltmacht aufzuschwingen ...." The concept of an "intellectual world power" is interesting to contemplate. As with the passage from Suphan, the sentence at first seems to be no more than a description of certain literary events in the late 18th century. But at the latest the word "Weltmacht" jolts us into awareness that we are dealing here with another time frame as well, and that other words in the sentence ("Volk," "Selbstbefreiung," "Kraft") function simultaneously in both time frames: this is not only a description of a 90-year-old literary text, but also of a new political reality, or rather program; the one--the "geistige Weltmacht," of which Shakespeare is made a central participant, along with Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller--prefigures, validates, and legitimizes the other: the political, industrial, and military "Weltmacht."

What can one learn from all this? That the Germans writing Shakespeare criticism in the late 19th century were bad people or bad scholars? Not at all. But it seems safe to say that they probably would have been unwilling or unable to articulate the ways they used Shakespeare and the "legend" they created of the German discovery and subsequent "possession" of Shakespeare in the service of the political agenda of the Gründerzeit. Among other things, I hope that this paper gives a sense of how much work there is to be done in revising the picture of Shakespeare in Germany, which I believe is still significantly shaped by these 19th-century ideas.

As a sign of respect to the recent Anglo-American Shakespeare criticism I mentioned at the beginning, I would like to close with a sentence from a fine article by Marion O'Connor, which she modestly buries in the middle of a paragraph. I would like to give it more prominence, and apply it to the late 19th-century cult of "der klassische deutsche Shakespeare":

"The celebration of the past turns out to be a justification of the present."7


1Werner Habicht, "Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century Germany: The Making of a Myth," Nineteenth-Century Germany: A Symposium, ed. Modris Eksteins and Hildegard Hammerschmidt (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1983) 141-57; also (for aspects of 20th-century Shakespeare reception) see Habicht, "Shakespeare and Theatre Politics in the Third Reich," The Play Out of Context: Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture, ed. Hannah Scolnicov and Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989) 110-20; Manfred Pfister, "Germany is Hamlet: The History of a Political Interpretation," New Comparison: A Journal of Comparative and General Literary Studies 2 (Autumn, 1986): 106-26.

2Bernhard Suphan, "Shakespeare im Anbruch der klassischen Zeit unserer Literatur," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 25 (1890): 8.

3Habicht describes Gundolf's role as "consciously or unconsciously summarizing, though transcending in verbose abstraction, evaluations that had evolved between 1815 and the time before the first world war in which Gundolf was writing" in "Shakespeare in Nineteenth-Century Germany," 143. He explains his use of the word "myth" 141-43.

4Kenneth E. Larson, "The Origins of the 'Schlegel-Tieck' Shakespeare in the 1820s," The German Quarterly 60 (1987): 19-37.

5Larson 20, 33.

6For the political uses of the classical period of German literature by the late 19th century see Klaus L. Berghahn, "Von Weimar nach Versailles: Zur Entstehung der Klassik-Legende im 19. Jahrhundert," Die Klassik-Legende. Second Wisconsin Workshop, ed. Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand (Frankfurt/M: Athenäum, 1971): 50-78.

7Marion F. O'Connor, "Theatre of the Empire: 'Shakespeare's England' at Earl's Court, 1912," Shakespeare Reproduced. The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York and London: Methuen, 1987) 91.

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