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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

§ 20. The Romantic School: A. W. Schlegel and his Fellow Workers

There is little to record in the history of Shakespeare in Germany between Schröder’s first triumphs and the publication of Shakespeare’s works in what may be called their permanent and final form, the translation of August Wilhelm Schlegel and his fellow-workers. The starting-point for the preoccupation of the romantic school with Shakespeare was the famous criticism of Hamlet which Goethe put into the mouth of his hero in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The fine comparison of Hamlet to an oak-tree in a costly jar kindled the new criticism as with an electric spark, and contained implicitly, one might say, the whole romantic attitude to Shakespeare. Like its predecessors of the Sturm und Drang, the romantic school looked up to Shakespeare with unbounded reverence; like them, it recognised the impossibility of applying the old canons of a priori criticism; but an advance is to be seen in the fact that the members of the school were not satisfied with mere openeyed wonder: they endeavoured to interpret and understand. In 1796, Ludwig Tieck made a prose version of The Tempest; and, in the same year, August Wilhelm Schlegel published, in Schiller’s Horen, his essay Etwas über William Shakespeare bei Gelegenheit Wilhelm Meisters, and also specimens of the new translation of Shakespeare which, with the help of his gifted wife Caroline, he had just begun. The translation itself, Shakespeare’s Dramatische Werke, übersetzt von August Wilhelm Schlegel, began to appear in 1797; and, between that year and 1801, eight volumes were published containing the following dramas: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. The ninth volume, Richard III, did not appear till 1810. With this marvellous translation, which has been deservedly called the greatest literary achievement of the romantic school, German labours to naturalise the English poet, which had been going on since 1741, reach their culmination. Whatever has been said to impugn the accuracy and faithfulness of Schlegel’s work, the fact remains that no translation of Shakespeare can vie with this in the exactitude with which the spirit and the poetic atmosphere of the original have been reproduced; to Schlegel, in the main, belongs the credit of having made Shakespeare the joint possession of twonations. A word remains to be said about the attitude of Germany’s two greatest poets to Shakespeare at the turn of the century. The period in Goethe’s life which followed the publication of Wilhelm Meister was not favourable to a sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare, and Schiller was even less accessible. In the course of their friendship, the two poets had arrived at a theory of classicism, which, although less dominated by rules than the French classicism of earlier times, was no less opposed to the irregularities and subjectivity of Shakespeare’s art; their attitude is to be seen most clearly from the carefully pruned and polished versions of Macbeth by Schiller, and Romeo and Juliet by Goethe, produced in Weimar in 1800 and 1812 respectively. Goethe’s own most definite pronouncement on the subject of Shakespeare in these later years was his essay entitled Shakespeare und kein Ende! published in 1815, a kind of apology for his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.