Saturday, February 26, 2005

Bowdler in Paris; tsk, tsk, tsk

This is for Nick, since he's taking a course in Shakespeare this spring. The Sunday Times has a review of a new book on the French reaction to Shakespeare's plays, over the centuries. Apprently, he greatly offended delicate sensibilities. For example, the reviewer says of Voltaire that "he went to his grave believing Shakespeare had offered 'a few pearls in an enormous dungheap'." Here is the Pricenoia link for the book. Here's a citation and some extracts:

The Sunday Times - Books
February 20, 2005
Literature: Shakespeare Goes to Paris by John Pemble REVIEWED BY SEBASTIAN FAULKS
SHAKESPEARE GOES TO PARIS: How the Bard Conquered France
by John Pemble
Hambledon and London £19.99 pp240


The French classical theatre ... [was] well adapted, in Racine’s hands, to the expression of noble sentiments, but prone to tinkly repetition and inhospitable to rough passion.

Then came this Englishman — a Caliban from the island of fog and bad food, whose pious and practical people enjoyed violent entertainments and bouts of introspection punctuated by sea voyages to plunder other countries.... Voltaire, who did so much to bring England to the French, is the key figure in this story, and he went to his grave believing Shakespeare had offered “a few pearls in an enormous dungheap”. He hated the pantomime that accompanied performance, the blank verse with emotion surging through the enjambement, the common characters, and the language where metaphor and association seem to breed without control. ...

Shakespeare was dragooned into the classical alexandrine... As late as 1904, when King Lear was staged for the first time in Paris, Kent’s lines at the height of the storm, “The tyranny of the open night’s too rough / For nature to endure” became “Il n’est pas possible de rester plus longtemps dehors.” ...

The French language was admirably suited to philosophy and logic, but not really to poetry, as Shakespeare was starting to demonstrate. His English verse, by contrast, had not only reached the rabble; it had helped define their sense of nationality. He had invented Englishness. Such an idea was incomprehensible in France, where a writer was not an “inventor”, but the sum or epitome of what had gone before....

Successive 19th-century translators not only gentrified the diction, they rewrote the plots. The ghost of Hamlet’s father returned in the final scene and told him to survive; Malcolm took republican vows; Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.
Here'a a pointer to Thomas Bowdler and his Family Shakespeare, if you're interested.

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