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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

§ 11. The Translations of La Place, and their effect on Voltaire and French Criticism

A new development of the Shakespeare question on the continent began with the publication of the earliest French translation of his works. In 1745, the year in which Le Blanc’s letters appeared, Pierre Antoine de La Place began his series of translations of English plays by publishing two volumes containing Othello, The Third Part of Henry VI, Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth. So acceptable were these volumes to the public that they were followed by other two, containing Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens (according to Shadwell) and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In but one case, however, did he translate the entire play, namely Richard III; for the rest, he was content to summarise in a connecting narrative what seemed to him the less important scenes. He also gave an abstract of the plots of twenty-six other Shakespearean plays. Moreover, he prefaced his translation with an introduction on the English stage, in which he expressed very liberal views on the legitimacy of Shakespeare’s art. This work attracted wide attention, not merely in France, but on the continent generally, and the Mémoires de Trévouxdevoted no less than seven articles to its discussion. In one respect, La Place’s translation brought about an immediate effect; it awakened Voltaire’s resentment. Always sensitive where his personal vanity was concerned, he was hurt to the quick by the presumption of this unknown author, who wrested from him his laurels as the European authority on Shakespeare and the sole judge of how much the continent ought to know of the barbarian poet, and—what was worse—who ventured to speak of Shakespeare in terms of praise which he, Voltaire, regarded as dangerous. As a matter of fact, La Place’s translation helped materially to undermine Voltaire’s authority as a Shakespearean critic; henceforth, Voltaire fell more and more into the background, and was looked upon, even in otherwise friendly quarters, as cherishing an unreasonable prejudice against the English poet. And, as the years advanced, his antagonism to Shakespeare became increasingly embittered and violent.

A more liberal spirit—thanks, mainly, to the initiative of Voltaire himself—was making itself felt in French criticism; and, from about the middle of the century onwards, there was an appreciable body of educated opinion, especially among the younger writers, which regarded Shakespeare in a favourable light, and cherished the hope that his example might break the stiffening bonds of the classic canon. The anglomanie which set in with considerable force after the middle of the century, the frequent visits to England of Frenchmen interested in literature, and the fame of Garrick, who had many French friends and correspondents, were all in favour of a sympathetic attitude towards Shakespeare, or, at least, ensured that the controversy about him should be carried on with some kind of mutual understanding. On the whole, however, the French standpoint towards the English poet held its own in these years, and the drawing together of the two countries had resulted in a nearer approach of English criticism to that of France, rather than the reverse. Still, Frenchmen began now to study the English theatre historically; Le Nouveau Dictionnaire historique (a supplement to Bayle) devoted, in 1756, no less than six pages to an article on Shakespeare, and the authors of the Encyclopédie mentioned him repeatedly. It was thus no wonder that a few bold spirits had even the temerity to prefer Shakespeare toCorneille. Such, at least, was the implication in an anonymous article, professedly translated from the English, entitled “Parallèle entre Shakespear et Corneille,” which appeared in Le Journal Encyclopédique in 1760. This article, together with a second one in which Otway was held up as superior to Racine, offended Voltaire deeply; he felt that the honour of France must be vindicated at all costs, and, in the following year, he launched his Appel à toutes les Nations de l’Europe. This “appeal” does not appear, however, either then or in 1764, when it was republished under the pseudonym of “Jérôme Carrée,” to have awakened any widespread desire among the nations to bring the rival poets before a French tribunal of Voltaire’s making.