Magazine article The Spectator

England's Greatest Export

Magazine article The Spectator

England's Greatest Export

Article excerpt

England's greatest export SHAKESPEARE GOES TO PARIS: HOW THE BARD CONQUERED FRANCE by John Pemble Hambleden & London, £19.99, pp. 240, ISBN 1852854529

Shakespeare was the great glory of England. So wrote Victor Hugo. But he added that if you went to England to admire the statue of Shakespeare you would find instead the statue of Wellington. The English did not like Shakespeare. His fame came to England from overseas. And Hugo believed that the French played their part in making the English conscious of his greatness.

There is a generation of English people to whom this will appeal. Those who went to France after the Liberation found themselves taking part in discussions about Shakespeare such as they never knew in England. Central was Jean-Louis Barrault with his production of Hamlet. Was he a great actor? Was the mis-en-scène appropriate? Were the translations acceptable? Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet were all produced, and Shakespeare was everywhere, an intellectual subject of discussion that was forced on many British visitors.

This represents a climax to John Pemble's account of how Shakespeare, unknown in France during his lifetime and for even 100 years after his death, was eventually discovered by the French. But then for a further 150 years he remained only a historical and local curiosity, lacking both importance and relevance. As Pemble puts it, during the 18th century Shakespeare was never fully present in France but never totally absent.

Voltaire normally presented the English to the French. It was part of his challenge to authority and tradition, but when it came to the theatre he became dogmatic and conservative. Stage productions of Shakespeare's work were unthinkable. They represented a form of bad taste that would flourish in the theatre. After Voltaire Chateaubriand followed with his belief that enthusiasm for Shakespeare was more dangerous in France than in England, since in an enlightened country good morals are dependent upon good taste. Stendhal is also quoted for his rejection of the Shakespearian style of play, with stage combat and stage executions. Verbal licence was not acceptable.

But French culture realised that Shakespeare was special. He had to be translated. This represents what Pemble calls one of the most strenuous attempts ever made to transfer an author from one language to another. It was a labour that passed from generation to generation and we are presented with astonishing statistics. There are 39 translations of Hamlet and Macbeth (including stage adaptations) and moving through the list to the play least translated, it is A Midsummer Night's Dream which has no less than 20. …

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