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Much Ado about Someone

April, 2014
By Anthony Marshall

Standing at the tram stop, I saw a poster advertising Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Two performances only, one performer only: his name, Bernd Lafrenz. I'd never heard of him, but I'm a sucker for one-man shows (how on earth will he manage to keep my attention for an hour or more? And play a dozen different characters?) and I’m a sucker for Shakespeare. What's more, I know The Merry Wives of Windsor pretty well: at least in its original English version. I once played the part of Doctor Caius, the mildly lascivious French physician who has set his sights on Anne Page, teenaged daughter of one of the merry wives. She, quite understandably, will have none of him.  In one of the best lines of the play, she says that rather than succumb to him, she would prefer to be planted in the ground like a ninepin and have turnips bowled at her head.

Later in the day I bought a ticket for the Saturday evening performance: Row 17, Seat 156. Not a great seat but the show was practically sold out. And I refused to buy a seat in the front row. I know enough about one-man shows not to sit somewhere where the one-man can pounce on you and drag you on stage. Being Scottish, and having paid eighteen good euros and thirty-five cents for my ticket, I was darned if I was going to perform for free for the benefit of anyone else.

I discovered that the Friday night performance was pretty well sold out too. Which meant that nearly 400 people in Freiburg were prepared to give up an evening's television or whatever, to view a live, but necessarily attenuated, performance of one of Shakespeare's less celebrated plays. It does not surprise me. Shakespeare is enormously popular in Germany.  Last summer, I attended an outdoor performance of Koenig Lear at Breisach, part of a summer festival which this attractive small town overlooking the Rhine puts on every year. It was a sell-out. German theatre-lovers had flocked from near and far to support what was a fine performance. As apparently they had throughout the festival.  Earlier, in Munich, I went to another outdoor performance, Hamlet done in English by a touring company from England. I thought most of the audience would be English-speaking tourists like me, but it was clear that the audience was predominantly German: educated, intelligent and reactive. And not even a downpour in the middle of Act 3 dampened their enthusiasm. At the end, the audience stood up to applaud and generous clapping echoed round the Brunnenhof of the Residenz, as the actors took numerous curtain calls. These people really "got" Hamlet, in the original English. Remarkable.

The love affair of Germans with Shakespeare goes back a long way. While Shakespeare was still alive, anonymous German translations of two of his plays were published: Von Romeo undth Julitha (1604) and Der Jud von Venedig (1611). These were the first plays by Shakespeare to be translated into any foreign language.  Later, in the 1700s, English repertory companies regularly toured Germany with Shakespeare's plays.  It was late in the 18th century that Shakespeare's reputation in Germany was firmly established. In Frankfurt, in 1771, Goethe, the golden boy of German letters, organized a Shakespeare Jubilee, much as David Garrick had done in Stratford-upon-Avon a few years before. He gave a speech which championed Shakespeare as a “modern” playwright, embodying the spirit of the new age of Romanticism. He described how he felt after reading his first Shakespeare play: “When I finished the play, I stood like a man born blind who has suddenly and miraculously been given sight.”

Goethe's friend, Friedrich von Schiller, was similarly captivated. He translated Macbeth into German, and had it performed (1800-1): and his three historical dramas about Albrecht Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland and Mecklenburg, were strongly influenced by his reading of Shakespeare's historical plays. These plays, Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod (1796-99) are described collectively as “the greatest historical drama in the German language.” I confess to never having heard of them, and I suspect that, among native speakers of English, I am not alone. But then, I confess that I have never read, or seen, Goethe's masterwork Faust either – nor any of his other plays.  I clearly have much work to do.

Another friend of Goethe, Christoph Wieland, was the first to translate extensively works of Shakespeare into German (1762 – 1766) and in following years, many more translations of the plays were made, the best of which (by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Ludwig and Dorothea Tieck, and Wolf Graf von Baudissin) were published in 1833 as an edition of Shakespeare's collected works.

It is appropriate that the small city of Weimar, home of Goethe, Schiller, Wieland and Herder (another admirer of Shakespeare) was the birthplace of the first academic Shakespeare society in the world: Die Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft, founded in 1864. Weimar honours Shakespeare with a statue, alongside those of its German-born celebrities. A fine example of cultural ecumenism. It is hard to imagine any town in England, or even in the United States, erecting a statue of Goethe in a public place.  (However, the editor has informed me that in Syracuse, NY, there are statues of Goethe and Schiller in Schiller Park on the north side of the city). It is also hard for me to play a popular German game, in which you have to discuss the question: is Goethe Germany's Shakespeare?  The answer to me is simple: no, he isn't.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and Goethe is Goethe and they are as different from one another as a couple of writers, and a couple of men, could be.  Enough already!

The Shakespeare boom in this country seems to continue.  Germany has its own modern replica of the Globe Theatre, situated in Neuss, a town near Duesseldorf, and it is calculated that in any given year there are more productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany than anywhere else in the world, including England.  No wonder that Germans sometimes claim Shakespeare as their own: “Shakespeare ist ganz unser” claimed August Wilhelm von Schlegel (“Shakespeare is completely ours”), who translated 17 of his plays.  And “Deutschland ist Hamlet!” wrote Ferdinand Freiligrath in his poem Hamlet (1844).  In which case, you may say, God help Deutschland.  But he didn't.  It is a good poem, about the freedom that Germans yearned for, and fought for in 1848: but which they failed to achieve.

Not all educated Germans fall down before Shakespeare.  My friend and travelling-companion, Dr. Bierbrauer, shudders at the mention of his name. “I spent too many hours in the classroom, wrestling with his impenetrable English,” he says, “and understanding nothing.”  I entirely sympathise.  Native speakers of English have enough difficulty making sense of Shakespeare: for foreigners it must be hell. It should be illegal to subject German teenagers to Shakespearean English.  Let them read or see Shakespeare's plays in German. When you can read or view Shakespeare in intelligible, modern or modern-ish German translations, why wouldn't you?

We native English speakers do not have that luxury: we must hack our way through the thick undergrowth of the original, often arcane, Elizabethan language. Update Shakespeare into modern English?  Heresy!  But it can be done.  And certainly has been. But the result for purists like me must be something like reading the New English Bible when you have lived your life with the Old English Bible, in the version authorized by King James. Thin gruel after thick stew.

Simone is another German Shakespearean unbeliever. She declines gracefully to come with me to any Shakespeare play, whether in English or German. But she sympathises with my bardolatry: and even nurtures it. She gave me a wonderful book for Christmas: Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor  (Allen Lane 2012), a handsome case-bound copy, which I note, with pleasure, was printed in Germany.   I have just finished reading it.  I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, follows his book A History of the World in 100 Objects with this book which is a survey of Shakespeare's world in 20 objects. I quote the blurb, which says it “uncovers the extraordinary stories behind twenty objects to recreate Shakespeare's world and the minds of his audiences. The objects range from the rich (such as the hoard of gold coins that make up the Salcombe treasure) to the very humble, like a worker's woollen cap. Each of them allows Macgregor to explore one of the themes which defines the Shakespearean age – globalization, reformation, plague, Islam, magic and many others.”  Which it does, admirably.

Chapter Twenty contains a relevant story.  In January 2012, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's leading literary critic and then aged over 90, addressed the Bundestag, the German parliament.  He related his experience in 1942, when as a twenty-two year old German-Polish Jew in Warsaw, he realized he must immediately marry his fiancee Teofila, to prevent her being deported to the concentration camp in Treblinka. “When I told her we would be married she was only mildly surprised and nodded in agreement.....The ceremony did not last long. I cannot recall whether in all the excitement I actually kissed Teofila, I don't know.  But I well remember the feeling that engulfed us, a feeling of fear, fear of what would happen in the coming days.   And I still remember the Shakespearean line that occurred to me at the time: ‘Ward je in dieser Laun’ ein Weib gefreit?’ ”

“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” The quotation is from Shakespeare's Richard III. Macgregor writes: “It is an astonishing thing for a young German Pole to think of at such a moment.  At the point of supreme agitation , the words that came to Marcel Reich-Ranicki's were Shakespeare's....For hundreds of years now, people like (him) have found in Shakespeare the words to express their own deepest feelings.”

Many of Shakespeare's words, and phrases, in their German translations, have become part of German culture. “Sein oder Nichtsein.” Almost any German can finish off this most famous line of Hamlet's with “das ist die Frage”. Educated Germans can quote this line in full in English, and a lot more besides.

See if you can identify the following quotes:

Was ist ein Name? Was uns Rose heisst, wie es auch hiesse, wuerde lieblich duften.

Etwas ist faul im Staate Daenemark!

Alles ist nicht Gold, was glaenzt.

Ein Pferd, ein Pferd, mein Koenigreich fuer ein Pferd!

Brutus, auch du?

Wenn Musik die Nahrung der Liebe ist, so spielt fort.

Die Welt ist meine Auster.

Die ganze Welt ist Buehne, und alle Frauen und Maenner blosse Spieler.

Leben ist ein wandelndes Schattenbild.

Fort, verdammter Fleck, fort, sag ich!

Wir sind aus solchem Stoff wie Traeume sind, und unser Kleines Leben ist von einem Schlaf umringt.

Der Rest ist Schweigen.

The first to send in correct answers to the editor may possibly receive a prize, but please don't count on it.

I never got to see the one-man show.  I felt unwell on the evening in question, so stayed at home.  A great shame.  But Bernd Lafrenz will doubtless be back again, as this was his ninth visit to Freiburg, each time with a different Shakespeare play. So he must be good. In any case, I re-read The Merry Wives of Windsor, and enjoyed it very much.  I had forgotten that Germans feature briefly in the play.  Bardolph says to the innkeeper, the Host: “The Germans desire to have three of your horses: the duke himself will be tomorrow here.”  Later he reports that said Germans have run off with the horses: “They threw me a slough of mire; and set spurs and away, like three German devils, three Doctor Faustuses.” The Host over-rules him: “They are gone but to meet the duke, villain: do not say they be fled; Germans are honest men.” Oh yes? Tell that to the marines! The groundlings would have hooted at this line.  And they would have been right: the Germans did rustle the horses.  For my part, I was interested to know, from a learned footnote, that the duke in question probably was modelled on the Duke of Wuerttenberg, who visited the English court shortly before the play was written.  Interesting for me, who lives in Freiburg, which once sat within his dukedom.

In the meanwhile, I have plenty of other Shakespearean fare to feast on.  As you must know, 23 April 2014 is (approximately) the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.  Germany is celebrating it with gusto.  Newspapers and magazines here are bursting with articles and features about this honorary German playwright.  Die Zeit has this week published a 40-page supplement devoted to William S., which will keep me busy for a while.  No doubt the Weimar Shakespeare society will be celebrating its 150th anniversary too.  And plays and concerts and readings, all paying homage to Shakespeare, will proliferate there, and else in Germany,  throughout the summer.

What I will certainly not do is read a 595-page book Der Mann der Shakespeare erfand  (The Man Who Invented Shakespeare) by German writer Kurt Kreiler, published by Insel Verlag in 2011.  I am absolutely uninterested in, and bored by, the lunatic proposition that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but was in fact Christopher Marlowe or Sir Francis Bacon or Sir Walter Raleigh or Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), or one of any number of other posh aristocrats with literary leanings.  But there are crackpots, and learned crackpots, everywhere.  Even in Germany.

I can say all this with some authority because I have deciphered a message to me – cryptically encoded – from the great man himself.  I have discovered that his name WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE is a cunning anagram, one unremarked by even the acutest conspiracy theorist:  I KEEP A. MARSHALL WISE.   Thanks, Wilhelm, for this.  And for everything.   And from all of us here in Germany – Happy Birthday!

Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. This bookstore was co-founded in 1986 by Keith Richmond, now co-owner of Weiser Antiquarian Books, York Beach, Maine and author of several books including "Wanderings in Lower Dolpo" (Francestown, NH 1998), a search for traces of the Bon religion practised in this part of the Himalayas.  Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).