Shakespeare Goes to Paris Review

Shakespeare Goes to Paris
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Shakespeare Goes to Paris ReviewShakespeare goes to Paris
by John Pemble.This is much more than a superb book on the reception of Shakespeare in France, vividly though that is explained, with an abundance of felicitous turns of phrase and with well-chosen quotations from French sources. We see how the Abbé Prévost and Voltaire `discovered' Shakespeare; how 18th century Frenchmen (and actually, as Pemble shows in his last chapter, many English critics, too) measured him against the rules of the classical theatre, recognizing his genius but deploring his lack of `taste' and the many ways in which he broke these rules; how the French Romantics took him to their hearts and extolled his originality against the slavish adherence of French dramatists to the models laid down by the Académie Fran├žaise; how questions of patriotism came to figure, with the fear that Shakespeare, the outsider from the North, might undermine `l'esprit classique fran├žais - a fear that was fanned by political setbacks and by the loss of the cultural hegemony France had enjoyed in the years of Louis XIV; and how this nationalist view was countered by the idea that Shakespeare was beyond race and exemplified a universal Humanism.
In the course of this examination, Pemble throws his net even wider: the book is at the same time something of a survey of French literary theory, taking us from Taine to Sartre, to Structuralist and Postmodernist theories. If sometimes for a while we lose sight in these discussions of Shakespeare himself, they nevertheless provide a wider background against which we can place the more explicit reactions to him in France.
There are fascinating chapters on how Shakespeare was translated into French. There were not only the problems of finding the exact parallel in French of the English text, but also, especially in the 18th century, of making the translation palatable to the taste of the time, by substituting more genteel words for those that Shakespeare had used. This went far beyond what Bowdler would do to spare a maiden's blushes. French taste thought it inappropriate in lofty tragedies to refer to, for example, lowly animals like mice, rats, flies or crabs. There were translations for the study and different translations for the stage. Desdemona's handkerchief spotted with strawberries was all very well for scholarly reading, but unacceptable for the stage; so for two hundred years French theatre audiences never learnt what the fateful article actually was. As taste changed with the French Revolution and Romanticism, so new translations were required and provided; but even Romantic translators like Dumas (1846) made massive concessions to classical tastes, not only in the language but in, for example, a total re-write of the final scene in Hamlet, where the Ghost reappears and sentences three of Shakespeare's corpses to death, but allows Hamlet to live. As late as 1884 there were translations into rhyming alexandrines: the literary critics mocked them, but the actors and the theatre-going public still insisted on bienséance on the stage. In the 20th century even those, like André Gide, who tried to be most truthful to the original found themselves unable to match Shakespeare's full vigour and allusiveness. And, according to Jean-Louis Barrault, writing in 1947, French audiences still refused to take seriously the stage strewn with corpses at the end of Hamlet: "we have the devil's own job to stop them laughing at the sight of the final carnage."
But a momentous sea-change was about to take place in France's appreciation of Shakespeare. In a brilliant chapter, Pemble shows how the very notion of tragedy changed in France. Until the 20th century the French had criticized Shakespeare because he offended against their conception of tragedy, which admitted of terror and pity, but rigorously excluded horror. "The French averted their gaze from what was desolate and painful". The Catholic Church preached an ultimately benign Providence; the 18th century Enlightenment and 19th century Positivism believed in Progress and the Perfectability of Man. God said, "Let Newton be" because Newtonian science spoke of divine purpose and harmony. But then religion became eroded; Darwinism seemed to replace orderly with random development; and above all, the horror of two world wars and of the Nazi occupation of France showed how shallow the classic conception of tragedy was. In reality what is tragic is purposeless suffering, life amidst mindless cruelty, a shaky moral compass or none at all - all the horror that the earlier conception of tragedy had banned. When Cocteau, Giraudoux, Anouilh, and Sartre rewrote the Greek myths, they reinstated the original bleak vision which had been expurgated from the classic French drama.
Against this background, the worry of just how to translate Shakespeare becomes relatively insignificant: instead of being regarded as a somewhat archaic and flawed genius, who "seems more topical to us than does Molière" (Barrault), he is seen as unblinkingly presenting the tragic absurdity of life while giving "form and intelligibility to the hazards of existence." (Venet). More than ever, he appears as our contemporary.Shakespeare Goes to Paris OverviewIt has sometimes been assumed that the difficulty of translating Shakespeare into French has meant that he has had little influence in France. Shakespeare Goes to Paris proves the opposite. Virtually unknown in France in his lifetime, and for well over a hundred years after his death, Shakespeare was discovered in the first half of the eighteenth century, as part of a growing French interest in England. Since then, Shakespeare's impact in France has been enormous. Writers, from Voltaire to Gide, found themsleves baffled, frustrated, mesmerised but overawed by a playwright who broke all the rules of French classical theatre and challenged the primacy of French culture. Attempts to tame and translate him alternated with uncritical idolisation, such as that of Berlioz and Hugo. Changing attitudes to Shakespeare have also been an index of French self-esteem, as John Pemble shows in his sparkingly written book

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