Review of the Premiere of Hamlet in Berlin (2)

Alexander von Weilen’s discussion of the anonymous review of the Berlin premiere of Hamlet
in the translation of Wilhelm Schlegel on 15 October 1799. [*]

|89| The primary roles were assigned as follows:

Claudius, King of Denmark: Herr Berger
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark: Madam Böheim
Hamlet:  Herr Beschort
Ghost: Herr Herdt
Polonius: Herr Iffland
Ophelia: Madam Unzelmann
Laertes: Herr Schwadke
Fortinbras: Herr Bethmann
Horatio: Herr Kaselitz
Rosenkrantz: Herr Labes
Guildenstern: Herr Bessel

. . .

|90| Another anonymous essay [1] wholeheartedly concurs with the notion of unabridged performances. “Those with a pure sense for the aesthetically |91| beautiful must allow justice to be done the poet, and will, in fact, prefer him thus than corrected through abridgement.” The audience, however, seems to have behaved rather peculiarly:

Each time a bone was so eerily thrown up from the grave, loud laughter erupted that utterly destroyed all illusion. But during the funeral procession, everyone was tense, moved . . . The audience complained about having not understood many passages even though the words were spoken clearly enough. In my opinion, the fault can be found in the metrical elements of the translation and in word order that is extraordinarily tedious for the actor. Schlegel often failed to consider the music of the words and the ease of expression that that actors both need and want.

The reviewer reproaches the verse “Sein oder Nichtsein, das ist hier die Frage,” [2] not merely because of the inserted “here,” which does indeed contain an error (one recently strongly emphasized by Loening), but because of the excessive number of “s”-sounds; the reviewer suggests instead “davon ist die Frage.” [3]

Overall the performance went splendidly indeed, though the audience would admittedly have preferred Herr Fleck in the role of the king. At least to a certain extent, the costumes were elegant and consistent each with the other.

The reviewer does mildly reproach the rather monotonous tempo. . . . The initial monologue “came close to the tone of lament, I might even say: misery,” and lacked the requisite element of bitterness. During the grand soliloquy:

he entered with a countenance of pensiveness and reflection and remained standing with a lowered gaze and arms folded. In this appropriate position, he said: “To be” — then after a brief pause and during the “or” — he directed his gaze upward in an indefinite direction, then said with a bit brighter tone of voice: “Not to be” — to which point his delivery would please any critical demands. But now the actor lowered his gaze and spoke — albeit quite forcefully, though slowly and with a cadence — the words: “that is the question here,” but without changing even the slightest thing in the overall position of his body.

The reviewer found this inappropriate:

In my opinion, the effect of his performance would have been even greater had he injected more power into his character and — as I noted earlier — chosen more the tone of annoyance or vexation instead of that of lamentation.

Like the earlier reviewer, [4] this review similarly extols both Iffland and Madam Unzelmann.


[*] This review is cited and in part excerpted by the Viennese literary historian Alexander von Weilen (1863–1918), Hamlet auf der deutschen Bühne bis zur Gegenwart, Schriften der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft 3 (Berlin 1908) 90–91, which is what is translated here (along with, on p. 89, the original cast). The original review Weilen cites here was published in the Zeitschrift für Freunde der schönen Künste, des Geschmacks und der Moden (1799) no. 2, 147ff. Back.

[1] I.e., apart from M., On the Berlin Performance of Hamlet in the Translation of A. W. Schlegel. Back.

[2] Act 3, scene 1: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” Back.

[3] Lit., “thereof is the question,” in the approx. sense, “thus the question here.” Back.

[4] Viz., “M.” See note 1 above. Back.

Translation © 2012 Doug Stott