Supplementary Appendix 215.1

The Production of Hamlet
in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship [*]

The morning and afternoon passed quickly away. The theatre was full already, and Wilhelm hastened to put on his dress. This was not such a pleasant task as before, when he tried it on for the first time; now he was only dressing in order to be ready. He came into the green-room when he had finished; a universal outcry arose from the women that nothing was right: the handsome plume was on one side, the buckle awry: they began to undo, to sew and pin together again.

The symphony began, Philine had still some objection to make to his ruff, Aurelia many to his cloak: “Leave me alone, children,” he said; “I should not make a good Hamlet without some negligence in my dress.” They would not leave him however, but went on trimming him up and making improvements. The symphony was over; the piece had begun. He looked once more in the glass, pulled his hat down still lower on his forehead, and retouched the paint on his face.

At this moment some one rushed in, crying: “The ghost! the ghost!” Wilhelm had had no time during the whole day to think about his chief anxiety: whether the ghost would appear or not. This was now removed, and they might now expect one of the most remarkable strangers’ parts that had ever been given. The stage-director came in to make various enquiries; Wilhelm had no time to look at the ghost, and hurried to take his place near the throne, where the king and queen, surrounded by the court, were already seated in all their glory. He only caught the last words spoken by Horatio, who was talking in a bewildered fashion about the appearance of the ghost and seemed almost to have forgotten his part.

The curtain rose and Wilhelm saw the crowded house before him. After Horatio had made his speech and been dismissed by the king, he pressed up to Hamlet, and as if presenting himself to the prince, murmured, “It’s the Devil himself in armour; he has frightened us all.” In the interim nothing was to be seen but two tall men in white cloaks standing in the side-scenes, and Wilhelm, believing that in his absence of mind, uneasiness and embarrassment, he had spoilt the first monologue, really made his entrance into the chill and dreary theatrical winter-night in a most comfortless frame of mind, notwithstanding the lively applause that had accompanied his exit just before.

He collected himself, however, and gave that most appropriate passage about the “wassel-keeping” and “heavy-headed revelling” of the Danes with quite the requisite amount of indifference; while doing so he forgot, and made the audience forget, the ghost, and was really terrified when Horatio called out: “Look, my Lord, it comes!” He turned round eagerly, and the tall, noble figure, the soft inaudible step, the easy way in which it moved under the apparently heavy weight of its armour, made such an impression on him that he stood as if petrified, and could only exclaim in a low tone, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”


He stood staring at the vision, drew breath two or three times, and then uttered his address to the ghost in such a confused, broken and forced manner as could not have been attained by the most practised art.

His own translation of this passage was of great service to him. He had kept close to the original, the words of which seemed to him to express a startled, terrified, and horror-stricken state of mind as no other words could have done.

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, 
Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell, 
Be thy intents wicked or charitable, 
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape, 
That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet, 
King, father, royal Dame: O answer me!

The greatest effect could be perceived among the audience. The ghost beckoned and the prince followed amid the loudest applause.

The scene changed, and when they reappeared on the distant part of the platform, the ghost stopped suddenly and turned round so that Hamlet was a little too near it. Eagerly and curiously did he gaze between the bars of the lowered vizor, but could only see a pair of deep-set eyes and a well-formed nose. He stood before the ghost scanning him timidly, but no sooner did the first tones issue from the helmet — no sooner did he hear a melodious though somewhat hoarse voice uttering the words: “I am thy father’s spirit,” than he stepped back shuddering, and the whole audience shuddered with him. The voice seemed familiar to them all; Wilhelm fancied he noticed a likeness to his own father. These strange feelings and associations and his curiosity to discover who this remarkable friend could be, mingled with the greatest anxiety lest he should offend — indeed a feeling that as an actor it would be indelicate to approach him too nearly at such a moment—influenced Wilhelm in opposite directions.

During the ghost’s long narrative he changed his position so often, seemed so irresolute and perplexed, so attentive and yet so absent, that his acting excited as general an admiration as the ghost a universal horror. The latter spoke rather in a tone of deep displeasure and annoyance than of grief or distress, but it was a mental annoyance, a slowly-growing and inextinguishable displeasure. It was the dejection of a noble mind cut off from everything earthly and at the same time conquered by, and sinking under, infinite woe. At last the ghost sank down into the earth, but in a strange fashion: a thin grey transparent gauze seemed like a vapour to rise out of the ground where he sank into it and to envelope and draw him down with itself.

Then Hamlet’s friends came back and swore by the sword, and the old mole was so busy underground that wherever they stood he called out “Swear!” beneath their very feet, and they hastened from one spot to another as if the earth burnt beneath them. Wherever they stood, too, a little flame appeared out of the ground, and this increased the effect and produced the deepest impression on their audience. After this the piece went on its way uninterruptedly; nothing miscarried, everything was a success; the public testified their satisfaction, and the spirits and courage of the actors seemed to increase with every scene.


[*] From Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, vol. 2, trans. Eleanor Grove (New York 1889), book 5, chap. 11. — Illustration ca. 1880 by Erdmann Wagner, in Goethes Werke, ed. H. Düntzer (Stuttgart, Leipzig n.d.).

Henrik Steffens remarks in his account of the premiere of Schiller’s Piccolomini (part of the Wallenstein trilogy) in the Weimar theater on 30 January 1799 that “the enthusiasm of the public, the tension among the spectators also had a salutary effect on the performance. Indeed, this entire situation vividly reminded me of the evening in Wilhelm Meister when Hamlet is performed for the first time” (Die Piccolomini, act 5, scene 1; Schiller’s Works, ed. J. G. Fischer, vol. 2 [Philadelphia 1883], 168):



Translation © 2018 Doug Stott