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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

§ 18. The new attitude of the Sturm und Drang; Gerstenberg’s and Herder’s Criticism

The new generation was no longer, like the latter critic, interested in “Shakespeare the brother of Sophocles:” “Shakespeare the voice of nature” was the new watchword. The young writers of the German Sturm und Drang did not criticise at all; they worshipped; they sought to “feel” Shakespeare, to grasp his spirit. They had not patience to study his art, to learn how to write from him, as Lessing had recommended them to do, when, in the Dramaturgie, he had lectured his quondam friend Weisse on the lessons to be learned from Richard III. The five letters on Shakespeare in Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg’s Briefe über Merkwürdigkeiten der Literatur are, perhaps, the most important contribution to continental Shakespearean criticism of the entire eighteenth century. It is not that much real critical discrimination is to be found in them; but Gerstenberg’s whole attitude to Shakespeare’s works is new; he regards them as so many “Gemälde der sittlichen Natur”—as things that we have no more business toquestion than we should question a tree or a landscape. Judged purely as criticism, Gerstenberg’s letters on Shakespeare could not have carried much weight in circles unaffected by the Sturm und Drang; but his ideas fell on fruitful ground in Herder’s mind, and Herder, stripping them of their excesses and extravagances, made them acceptable even beyond the pale of the literary revolution. His essay on Shakespeare was one of the chief constituents of the little pamphlet entitled Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773), with which the new movement was ushered in. Herder had an advantage over Gerstenberg in not approaching the subject in quite so naïve a frame of mind; he had studied the Hamburgische Dramaturgie; and, from 1769 to 1772, he had busied himself zealously with the English poet. Unlike Lessing, who attempted unconditionally to reconcile Shakespeare with the Aristotelian canon, Herder brought his conception of historical evolution to bear on the Greek, and on the English, drama; he showed that, while both Sophocles and Shakespeare strove to attain the same end, they necessarily chose very different ways; the historical conditions under which they worked were totally unlike. In this way, Herder sowed the seeds of the German romantic criticism of a later date.

Meanwhile, however, the younger dramatists of the day were moved to enthusiasm by Gerstenberg. Goethe expressed their views in his perfervid oration Zum Schäkespears Tag; Lenz, in his Anmerkungen übers Theater, developed Gerstenberg’s ideas; and later critics joined hands with Sébastien Mercier. When Wieland had led the way, the translating of Shakespeare became more and more common; Christian Weisse, who has just been mentioned, produced in 1768 his German version (in alexandrines) of Richard III—or, rather, of Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III—and, in the same year, he converted Romeo and Juliet into a “tragedy of common life.” Versions of Othello and Cymbeline by other hands followed; while, in Vienna, Hamlet and Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor, were adapted to the stage with a freedom which rendered them almost unrecognisable. In 1775–7, the naturalisation of Shakespeare in Germany was advanced another important stage by the publication of William Shakespear’s Schauspiele, in twelve volumes, by Johann JoachimEschenburg, professor in the Carolinum at Burnswick and one of the most active workers of his day in introducing English literature to the Germans. Eschenburg’s Shakespear is a revised and completed edition of Wieland’s translation; but so thorough was the revision that it is practically a new work.