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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. Shakespeare on the Continent

§ 1. Channels by which Shakespeare reached the Continent

IT is a tribute to the force and originality of the Elizabethan drama that, while still at its prime, it should have found its way to the continent. The conditions of the time could hardly have been less favourable for interest to be felt in English drama outside England itself; for all continental opinion, or, at least, the continental opinion that prided itself on the possession of good taste, had fallen under the spell of the classic traditions of the renascence, and, in poetry, irregularity and lack of clearness were abhorred above all things. There was, thus, no possibility of compromise between Shakespearean drama and the literary ideals of Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But, as a matter of fact, English drama did not reach the continent by way of literary channels at all. It was conveyed, not by books, but by actors, and had little to do with literature in the strict sense of that term.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, and throughout the seventeenth, English actors from time to time crossed the channel and played in Dutch, German and Scandinavian towns, wandering as far north as Copenhagen and Stockholm, as far east as Danzig, Königsberg and Warsaw and as far south as Vienna and Innsbruck. They took with them the masterpieces of Elizabethan drama in garbled acting versions, the more garbled, undoubtedly, owing to the fact that the foreign audiences before whom they played came to see even more than to hear. From the evidence of the répertoire lists, as well as from German versions of English plays, we are able to say with certainty that, of Shakespeare’s works, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice were played in some form on the continent in the courseof the seventeenth century; and it is highly probable that this list may be increased by the addition of The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (or, at least, the comic interlude of that drama), The Taming of the Shrew, Othello and Julius Caesar. The success of these English companies induced German actors to adopt their methods and to translate their répertoire, and, in 1620, and again in 1630, there appeared at Leipzig collections of German versions of the plays which the Englische Comoedianten had in their list.

That English actors should also have tried their fortune in France was natural, but we have only the vaguest references to such visits; in 1604, an English troupe performed at Fontainebleau, but it is impossible to say with what plays they attempted to win the interest of the French court. In the absence of proof and the still more significant absence of any knowledge of the English drama on the part of French critics who had never visited England, it seems probable that, in the metropolis of seventeenth century culture, the main attractions on which English players relied were acrobatic tricks and buffoonery.

In spite of the comparative popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany in this early period, there is no evidence that the English poet’s name was known to any of his adapters or translators, or to any member of the public before whom the pieces were acted. This, perhaps, is not surprising, so far as the crude and vulgarised versions of the Comoedianten were concerned; but it is not unreasonable to expect that native dramatists, who were eager enough to imitate the new English models, might have evinced some curiosity with regard to the author or authors of these models. This, however, was not the case; no trace of Shakespeare’s name is anywhere to be found. “The only German of the seventeenth century,” says Creizenach, “who can be proved to have taken an interest in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was the elector Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate, who had been in England in the years 1635–7.” In his correspondence with his sister, duchess Sophia of Hanover, he quotes from The Merry Wives of Windsor, and she, in one of her letters, uses the English words “he leads apes in hell,” which have been assumed to refer to a passage in act II, sc. 1 of Much Ado about Nothing. But even in this correspondence there is no mention of Shakespeare’s name.