Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Shakespeare and National Mythologizing in Czech Nineteenth Century Drama

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Shakespeare and National Mythologizing in Czech Nineteenth Century Drama

Article excerpt

The birth of modern Czech culture can be traced back to the period of the National Revival (or Renascence). This movement of cultural and political emancipation from Austrian domination started in the 1780s with the efforts of antiquarians and philologists and was gaining momentum in the first half of the 19th century under the influence of Romantic historicism. As in other European countries, Romantic historicism in the Czech lands was characterized by "primordialism" (Smith 5). The effort of the nationalists to appropriate Shakespeare as the artist who "would paint for us the heroes of the ancient times" (Chmelensky 383) is confronted with another approach to the past depicting the life of the ancient Slavs as a glorious origin of national culture. In the forged medieval manuscripts Rukopis královédvorsky (The Manuscript of Dvúr Králové, 1817) and Rukopis zelenohorsky (The Manuscript of Zelená Hora, 1818) the medieval past is the absolute value establishing the "eternity" of Czech culture.

Although The Manuscripts refer to specific events in the history of the Czech lands, the evocation of these events is not their main purpose. The events are represented in an eschatological manner, as the moments of revelation of the eternal truth. For instance, in the opening poem of The Manuscript of Dvùr Králové, entitled "Oldrich and Boleslav," the liberation of Prague from the Polish sway is depicted as the final battle in Armageddon. The Manuscripts thus stress the analogy between the mythical events of the Apocalypse or the Resurrection and the historicism of the national emancipation movement. This feature can be described as a kind of ideologization of historical time, the invention of historical narratives in accordance with the demands of the emancipation movement. These narratives are frequently repeated (for instance in the frescoes and statues decorating the building of the National Theatre in Prague), and thus formalized and ritualized (Hobsbawm 4).

As a result, in The Manuscripts there is no trace of a careful construction of the value system of the imaginary cultural epoch, as we can see in James Macpherson's and Hugh Blair's Dissertations introducing The Poems of Ossian (1765). All stages of historical development are evaluated only with regard to the present needs of the movement. Historical time is reduced into a linear sequence of events, all marked either + or - (Otruba 239). The subjectivity inventing the culture is deliberately diluted in an abstract, objectified totality of language. The Manuscripts are conceived as products of collective oral tradition and, at the same time, as demonstrations of the creative nature of an imaginary, ancient Czech language constructed out of disjointed elements of all Slavonic languages. This patchwork representing the wholeness of language serves as a substitute for the totality of cultural epoch ("the era of Ossian") in Macpherson's and Blair's Dissertations.

With the wholeness of language, the territorial integrity of the Czech state becomes an important issue. This is mainly evident from the longer fragment ("Libussa's Judgement") included in The Manuscript of Zelená Hora which names the lands and seats of some chieftains attending a session of the diet. In this way the imaginary territory of the ancient state of Bohemia is delimited, including even the parts settled by German colonists during the later Middle Ages. This effort to appropriate a historical space by a linguistic activity is frequent in the literature of the Czech nationalist movement.

The representation of history in Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV is based on completely different principles, which do not have anything common with the nationalist primordialism. It can be described, again in Anthony Smith's terms, as "perennialism" (3: 27ff). History is present continuously "in all men's lives." It figures "the natures of the times deceas'd" as future potentialities of historical development. (2 Henry IV 3:1:75-79) Shakespeare's approach to history follows the Renaissance typology, where the past events prefigure the future ones, but at the same time, it abstracts from the metaphysical framework of this typology, the Divine Providence. …

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