Bonnefoy and Shakespeare

By Taylor, John | The Hudson Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Bonnefoy and Shakespeare


Taylor, John, The Hudson Review


Bonnefoy and Shakespeare

THE FRENCH HAVE LONG HAD A PROBLEM WITH SHAKESPEARE, even as we Anglo-Americans have long had a problem with Racine. The few French advocates of the Bard go back to Voltaire (1694-1778), who though he considered Hamlet "crude and barbarous" pioneered a translation of it, all the while messing up the "to be or not be" speech with a lofty alexandrine: "Demeure, ilj'aut choisir, et passer à l'instant / De la vie à la mort et de l'être au néant." Let us pardon him for that. Later came the perspicacious critic Mme de Staël (1766-1817), who took sides with Shakespeare, though not wholeheartedly, in the intense debate between refined literary taste and volcanic genius; in other words, between a fading Classicism (represented by the stylistically sublime Racinean paradigm with its three dramatic unities) and an unbridled Romanticism soon to surge forth with Victor Hugo (1802-1885), another admirer of the "melancholy" English poet. Meanwhile, Balzac (17991850) was quipping in Cousin Pony. "As Shakespeare said, to have or not to have an annuity, that is the question."

Stendhal (1783-1842) penned his Racine and Shakespeare in 1823. He championed Shakespeare as a model for "us sharp-thinking, serious, and just a little envious young people" who "in no wise resemble those marquis covered with embroidered garments and wearing expensive black wigs who were appraising, around 1670, the plays of Racine and Molière." Although the author of The Red and the Black had been a secret enthusiast of Racine at least ever since the age of twenty (his title announces Racine "and"-not "or"-Shakespeare), Stendhal called for discarding the three constraining unities of time, action, and setting; he espoused the cause of a greater realism and suggested eschewing the alexandrine, too often a "cache-sottise" or "stupidity-cover." Noting that Shakespeare did not systematically use verse, he boldly suggested writing French plays in prose. This was not quite like ordering a sandwich in a fancy French restaurant-but almost.

The preceding offers a mere glimpse of the French side of this long history of tension, misprision, spirited defense, and apprenticeship; our own variously perplexed, wary, and estranged relationship to Racine could similarly be charted. The balance is unequal: we more often have shown indifference to the violent amorous passions brought into architecturally perfect conflict in Berenice or Phèdre than the French have looked askance at the "chaos" of Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. Indeed, Shakespeare and-or?-Racine: no dichotomy better reveals the philosophical antagonisms, opposing stylistic norms, and fundamental linguistic differences that still inform two major literary traditions, separated by a mere thirty miles of English Channel. It is into this unending story of animosity, attraction, misunderstanding, and occasional reciprocal influence, that one of the most influential French poets, Yves Bonnefoy (b. 1923), has now arrived with twelve penetrating essays on Shakespeare's plays and the problems involved with translating them.1

Shakespeare and the French Poet is meticulously argued and extremely stimulating. The book contributes to bicultural understanding by exploring the perceptual and semantic mechanisms at work in the French and English languages as they collide in the task of translation. The careful interpretations of specific plays will challenge specialists, for Bonnefoy combines the insights of a foreign poet, an exacting translator, a critic versed in philosophy, and a humanist who is sensitive to the role of women in Shakespeare's vision. Finally, the book reveals Bonnefoy 's own poetics, which have marked contemporary French literature.

The essays were originally published as extensive prefaces or afterwords to Bonnefoy's own translations of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello.

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