Along with Sunday roast dinners, Stonehenge and the Royal family, William Shakespeare is synonymous with British culture. If England was a stick of rock then Shakespeare would be the word running through its pepperminty centre. Shakespeare is England. He is its history as well as being one of its most well known historical commentators albeit one who used a heavy dose of artistic license. The great British bard is not confined to this little island, he is one of the countries biggest literary exports and Germany is his greatest fan.
Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into over 80 languages including into Klingon, the language of the Klingons from Star Trek. The very first language of these was German – Germany was the first country outside of Britain to lay claim to Shakespeare.
In the 17th century roving groups of players crossed the channel to put on plays in Europe. Romeo and Juliet is thought to have been the first play translated into German in the early 17th century. The first complete translation of the works of Shakespeare was published between 1775 and 1782 with many more versions following this.
It was the Sturm und Drang ( storm and stress) movement of the 1760’s which made Shakespeare supremely popular in Germany. The movement was championed by the great literary figures of the time, Goethe, Schiller and Klinger whose 1777 play gave the movement its name, sought to move away from rationalism. The poets, thinkers and writers of the time believed that characters should have real emotional responses to situations, they should have outbursts of rage or descend into floods of irrational tears. Audiences were confronted with raw emotions and they were often shocked. The Sturm und Drang movement fell in love with Shakespeare and Hamlet became their most adored play. Shakespeare’s themes of revenge, madness and love sat well within the group’s ideology. The 22 year old Goethe famously said of the bard that ‘The first page of his I read put me in his debt for a lifetime.’
Over the years Shakespeare’s plays have been translated by numerous poets and writers. Unlike the English versions of the plays which are usually published in Elizabethan English , German translations tend to use more contemporary language which makes them easier to understand. The original plays are difficult to understand for native English speakers because the language has changed so much with time. As in English many German phrases are borrowed from Shakespeare. ‘Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht’ which translates to ‘age does not protect from foolishness’ is from a translated version of Anthony and Cleopatra. Many German people probably don’t even realise that some of the everyday phrases they use are taken from the works of Shakespeare.
In Germany theatres are heavily subsidised by the government and people visit the theatre on a much more regular basis than in the UK. This explains why there are more productions of Shakespeare’s plays each year in Germany than there are in Britain. Germany even has its own Shakespeare company – die Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft . The DSG as it is known as is based in Weimar which is the home of both Goethe and Schiller. It is Europe’s oldest literary society – they had a Shakespeare society before Britain.
Germany also has its own Globe theatre situated in Neuss – the Neuss Glob. The theatre shows productions from all over the world and each summer the works of Shakespeare are brought to life within its beautifully reconstructed walls.
Shakespeare is regarded in Germany as their third literary great. It is a wonder that he isn’t called Wilhelm!
Take a look at the Neuss Glob here: https://vimeo.com/41690325
Do you love Shakespeare as much as we do? What’s your favourite play?