Review of the Premiere of Hamlet in Berlin (1)

M., “On the Berlin Performance of Hamlet
in the Translation of A. W. Schlegel.” [*]

|341| All hope of seeing Shakespeare in his authentic, irreplaceable form, and to the greatest extent possible uncut in all his works, had disappeared — for given the dramatic crop failure during this age, one ought, after all, open the barns and storehouses of ages gone by to find nourishment and solidity for good taste — when suddenly a beautiful meteor appeared in the literary heavens in the form of August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation of the entire Shakespeare, in which the poet took as his inviolable law the most precise faithfulness and the most rigorous observation of even the smallest peculiarities in verse and rhyme, whereby Shakespeare then appeared reborn before us. This translation, with no notes cluttering the margins, has done infinitely more for the understanding of Shakespeare than previous ones, and earned Shakespeare infinitely |342| more love and respect than he previously enjoyed. And really, we can justifiably say that since we have become more precisely acquainted with him, the veil once covering his spirit and essence has disappeared.

That said, one must not expect him to be something he is not, a being like us, pusillanimous and weak and pious, and obedient to rules he himself had first to create. Pygmies at the foot of Colossus must not measure him according to themselves.

Since the appearance of this translation, all the friends of drama have been hoping that the stage would quickly retake possession of this, its own rightful property. But in Berlin alone, Hamlet has only just recently been performed thus, and once again: Hamlet first among the plays.

Schlegel’s translation reestablished the original circumstances attaching to the entire matter. [1] Shakespeare appeared in a form so new that it was as if he had never been there in the first place. It was now incumbent upon the Germans themselves to incorporate him wholly into their stage in every sense of the word. This has indeed happened in at least one respect; we have received the piece performed in its original form and without alteration. Unfortunately, once more the piece has been chosen that, as the most roundly acknowledged masterpiece of tragic art, now blocks, as it were, the reception of other if not all of Shakespeare’s remaining pieces, or at least makes any performance before the public significantly more difficult.

Indeed, even with respect to the performance of Shakespeare in his original, characteristic peculiarity and without any alteration, the choice of Hamlet for the poet’s initial debut was perhaps not the most fortunate.

For it cannot be denied that regardless of what one may think about those alterations that bear the distinguished names of adaptations, regardless of how severely one may condemn them with respect to the poet and art, |343| with respect at least to the public and dramatic effect they were irreproachable. Those from whom these changes derive knew their audience, and also understood how to rework and adapt that audience itself at least as well as how to adapt the poet. As important as the deleted passages were for the whole of the piece if it was genuinely to appear as a work of art, and as essential a part of its very existence, — nonetheless to the ordinary eye, which does not comprehend and recognize the existence of the work of art in and through itself, and which takes as the standard of its critique the effect, the impact the piece has on one’s feeling and disposition and its irritability: for that eye, these deleted passages are non-essential parts of the work. A critic of this sort is confirmed in this opinion even more through the real omission, namely, that what is there must be possible, and yet it never occurs to him that it was possible only through sacrifice.

And even more, very few people indeed were familiar with Shakespeare — and especially Hamlet — through normal study and reading; almost everyone was familiar with it only from the stage itself. Hence they were not even aware of those omissions in the first place, so when they did come across them while reading the play, all the more could they not but view them as hors d’oeuvres, [2] since in performance the piece seemed to them to be an integral whole even without them, and since while reading their attention quite naturally was drawn to and indeed lingered primarily with elements based on sense perception and its recollection in the imagination.

Given these considerations, one cannot deny that these abbreviations did have a double advantage, one quite important, moreover, for the overall effect, since first and foremost the grand situations inhering within the whole were pushed into closer proximity one with the other, thereby lending to the piece itself a quicker, more animated gait, and then — an extremely significant advantage — eliminating several secondary roles entirely, |344| only a selection of actors might appear, the entire piece was in good hands. For the bungler — even in the most insignificant role, indeed even if but playing a mute person — ruins the overall effect by reminding us through his marionette-like performance that even the greatest masters around him are but actors themselves, and that what we are viewing is not life and truth, but play and deception.

Whereas only the latter disadvantage applied to various other pieces by the British Aeschylus, both applied to Hamlet, which almost every friend of the acting arts knows by heart. Although it is true that people were already accustomed to seeing Hamlet in various forms, viz. in five and six acts, with and without the gravediggers and skulls — none of that helped. Earlier omissions that were now added back could not but seem all the more non-essential and dilatory, and for precisely that reason also lingeringly boring, for “boring” is, after all, generally understood as something that retards or keeps the desired goal at a distance. The fault is not that of the poet, nor of his translator nor the actors themselves nor the audience, for how can they help wanting and indeed having to move on to the next grand situation— one they are already anticipating — or viewing anything that holds them back as disruptive? — the fault is that of the initial mutilators. But in order to destroy them and their nonsense — for why should we not call the child by its proper name? — and do justice to the Bard of Stratford as well as to his sacred rights, should one not have chosen a piece where, as it were, the victory was already secured?

The upright translator of Shakespeare into German, to whom the nation cannot be grateful enough, had already translated various other pieces, and the present reviewer |345| has long waited to see his Caesar, his Merchant of Venice, his Romeo on the German stage; but this expectation has been disappointed. And even if this fate is merited, he is nonetheless glad that his admiration for the Briton and his translator is in no way connected with that.

But let us now move on to the performance of Hamlet itself.

That under the given circumstances it did not have the anticipated effect is the fault of precisely these circumstances. The piece did not gain in the eyes of the public through being performed uncut, nor could it, since the earlier abridgements were quite in accord with its spirit. Here and there one felt delayed, retarded, and if Ophelia’s funeral procession, the cortege not been added at the end, the poet may perhaps have had to deal with the unjust ill will of the audience, particularly since the piece’s tutelary spirits — Polonius and Ophelia — no longer appear, and Hamlet himself — more passive than active — in the final act seems to retard the pace of the action, which develops, advances, and concludes wholly within him when the fate he threatened to bring down on others now reaches out for him.

The roles were almost completely in the same good hands from whom friends of the dramatic arts had already otherwise gratefully received them. Herr Beschort as Hamlet can count on the approval of his audience.

[Here 2 illustrations of Friedrich Jonas Beschort as Hamlet 1799; (1) Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv und Grafiksammlung, Porträtsammlung, Inventar-Nr. PORT_00017793_02; (2) Carl Wilhelm Seeliger, Beschort als Hamlet; British Museum; Museum number 1898,0520.32]



Madame Unzelmann as Ophelia is already deservedly famous in this role, and the new translation could only elevate the magic of her declamation through the exquisite melody of its versification.

[Here Friederike Unzelmann in 1806 (Almanach für Theater und Theaterfreunde auf das Jahr 1807, frontispiece):]

Friederike_Bethmann_UnzelmannMadame Böheim as the Queen of Denmark was sufficient to her vocation. In the meantime, one particular remark was brought home to us in a quite animated and vivid fashion.

|346| The cadence of mimicry and gesture is slavishly dependent on that of the word flow; one might hardly believe the degree to which such the case, and indeed it was this new translation of Hamlet that first completely drew our attention to this circumstance and brought this law completely to bear in its full weight. It was unavoidable that in this new German translation various sentences had to begin with the same cadence as in the old translation and then perhaps not have to change until toward the conclusion. — The countenance that was accustomed to following the cadence of the words was, as it were, retarded in its momentum when those words were changed, clearly demarcating through hesitation or being suddenly, impulsively recast the point where the change began. It is not at all my intention to conceal even the faintest reproach of the actors in this circumstance; but those even moderately familiar with the demands customarily made on the actors’ memory will certainly not charge the latter with such memory issues, issues that in any event cannot but increasingly disappear with the continued performance of the role according to the new text. Hence we will state straightaway that such was sometimes the case with Herr Beschort, whom we so highly esteem as an artist, but also that it was almost unavoidable. In passages where such did not happen to him, he unfolded his talents with extraordinary splendor, especially in the monologue Hamlet speaks when encountering Fortinbras’ army for the first time, one we would be inclined to view as the most beautiful in the entire piece.

Among the new role assignments, it was extremely salutary for the piece that Herr Iffland himself took the role of Polonius, a role that is apparently the most difficult in the entire Hamlet and which we have never seen performed as well. It is, to be sure, difficult |347| to harmonize the minister and jester, the serious father and the actor who once played Brutus, and to perform the character from one piece. But Herr Iffland succeeded — as in everything he sets his mind to — in this as well, especially in the scene where he instructs the servant Reynaldo how he should observe his son, a scene that was obviously the triumph of his art.

[Here August Wilhelm Iffland, albeit not as Polonius, but as Franz Moor in Schiller’s play Die Räuber (Almanach für Theater und Theaterfreunde auf das Jahr 1807, plate 3):]


In the meantime, however, what Hamlet gained through this Polonius, it had to forfeit through such a Claudius as was performed for us here, and even more. It is hardly comprehensible how one can be so infatuated with one’s own mannerism — which is eternally and yet eternally again the same — that one has not the faintest sense for the meaning and spirit of the role. — What more can one way? The most irremediable shortcoming of any artist is — mannerism. — How everyone would like to have seen Herr Fleck in this role, and how salutary would that have been for the piece itself.

[Here Ferdinand Fleck ca. 1800 (Spemanns goldenes Buch des Theaters: Eine Hauskunde für Jedermann, ed. Rudolph Genée et al. (Berlin, Stuttgart 1902), following no. 245:]


Herr Bethmann was extremely pleasing as Fortinbras. It is precisely in this cordial disposition that we have always imagined the bold young prince.

[Here Heinrich Eduard Bethmann, later Friederike Unzelmann’s second husband:]


Little was done as regards external stage sets and props. In the scene where Hamlet holds up the pictures of her spouse to his mother, no large wall paintings were hanging in the background, unlike what Wilhelm Meister justifiably demands, [3] but rather a couple of small fragments positioned in the foreground — which wholly disrupted the effect. Here there was nothing to see of Jove’s countenance or Apollo’s locks. —

Thus concerning the first reappearance of Shakespeare on the premier stage of Germany.


[*] M., “Über die Aufführung des Hamlet. Nach A. W. Schlegels Übersetzung,” Jahrbücher für die preussische Monarchie unter der Regierung Friedrich Wilhelms des Dritten (1799) 3 (September, October, November, December), 337–47, here 341–47, 337–41 being a brief history of translations and performances of Shakespeare, with their advantages and shortcomings (especially concerning abridgement), in Germany. — Footnotes are those of the present editor. Back.

[1] I.e., of the original point of departure for preceding adaptations. Back.

[2] Fr., here literally, “apart from the work.” Back.

[3] See Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, trans. R. Dillon Boylan (London 1867), book 5, chapter 9:

But a great difficulty was presented by the two pictures, to which Hamlet refers in the passionate scene with his mother. “It seems to me,” said Wilhelm, “that they ought both to be displayed at full length in the background of the chamber, near the principal entrance. The elder King should be painted in full armour like the Ghost, and should hang at the side where the latter makes his appearance. I could wish that the figure assumed a commanding attitude, with the right hand extended, the face a little turned away, with a look directed over the shoulder, that it may perfectly resemble the Ghost at the very instant when the latter disappears through the door. It would produce a great effect if Hamlet at that moment should fix his eyes upon the Ghost, and the Queen should look upon the picture. The stepfather may appear in royal costume, but not in very rich attire.” Back.

Translation © 2012 Doug Stott