How, indeed, did Schroeder achieve the great credit of putting Shakespeare’s plays upon the German stage but by epitomizing the epitomizer? Schroeder confined himself entirely to what was effective; he discarded everything else, indeed, even much that was essential, when it seemed to him that the effect upon his nation, upon his time, would be impaired. Thus it is true, for example, that by omitting the first scene of King Lear he changed the character of the piece; but he was right, after all, for in that scene Lear appears so ridiculous that one can not wholly blame his daughters. The old man awakens our pity, but we have no sympathy for him, and it is sympathy that Schroeder wished to arouse as well as abhorrence of the two daughters, who, though unnatural, are not absolutely reprehensible.
In the old play which is Shakespeare’s source, this scene is productive, in the course of the play, of the most pleasing effects. Lear flees to France; daughter and son-in-law, in some romantic caprice, make a pilgrimage, in disguise, to the seashore, and encounter the old man, who does not recognize them. Here all that Shakespeare’s lofty, tragic spirit has embittered is made sweet. A comparison of these dramas affords ever renewed pleasure to the lover of art.
In recent years, however, the notion has crept into Germany that Shakespeare must be presented on the German stage word for word, even if actors and audience should fairly choke in the process. The attempts, induced by an excellent, exact translation, would not succeed anywhere—a fact to which the Weimar stage, after honest and repeated efforts, can give unexceptionable testimony. If we wish to see a Shakespearean play, we must return to Schroeder’s adaptation; but the dogma that, in representing Shakespeare, not a jot or tittle may be omitted, senseless as it is, is constantly being reechoed. If the advocates of this view should retain the upper hand, Shakespeare would in a few years be entirely driven from the German stage. This, indeed, would be no misfortune; for the solitary reader, or the reader in company with others, would experience so much the purer delight.
The attempt, however, in the other direction, on which we have dilated above, was made in the arrangement of Romeo and Juliet for the Weimar stage. The principles upon which this was based, we shall set forth at the first opportunity, and it will perhaps then be recognized why that arrangement—the representation of which is by no means difficult, but must be carried out artistically and with precision—had no success on the German stage. Similar efforts are now in progress, and perhaps some result is in store for the future, even though such undertakings frequently fail at the first trial.
ORATION ON WIELAND (1813)
TRANSLATED BY LOUIS H. GRAY, PH. D.
[To the Memory of the noble Poet, Brother, and Friend, Wieland.]