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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

§ 6. His adaptations from Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth

Voltaire came over to England in 1726 without any direct knowledge of Shakespeare, but prepared, to some extent, by the utterances of emigrant journalism, to find English tragedy not merely in childish ignorance of the rules of polite literature, but, also, barbarous and sanguinary. He was filled with curiosity, however, and eager to learn. He had opportunities of seeing Shakespeare’s dramas on the English stage, he noted the enthusiasm of English audiences and—in spite of the inward protests of his better “taste”—he himself shared in that enthusiasm for the wayward errors of genius. Either because of the exceptional opportunities he had of seeing Julius Caesar on the stage, or because that play, owing to its classic analogies, was more accessible to a mind that had been nurtured on seventeenth century tragedy, it appealed with special force to Voltaire. Possibly, another reason for his interest in Julius Caesar was the fact that two writers of the time, the duke of Buckingham and the Italian abbé, Antonio Conti (Il Cesare, 1726), had already shown the possibility of adapting that tragedy to the “regular” stage. However that may be, Voltaire was convinced that the best means of conveying some knowledge of the English form of tragedy to his countrymen was by a Roman drama. He began by writing Brutus, which was played towards the end of 1730, and published in the following year with a lengthy preface addressed to his friend Bolingbroke. Here, his earlier assertions about Shakespeare were repeated with more emphasis and point. A more direct attempt to familiarise France with Shakespeare was La Mort de César (published in 1735, but written in 1731), in which, within the space of three acts, he reproduced the gist, and at least some of the glaring “improprieties,” of the Shakespearean tragedy. After Julius Caesar, the play which seems to have attracted Voltaire most—his knowledge of Shakespeare, it must be remembered, was exceedingly limited—was Hamlet. And just as the crowd in the former play had a peculiar fascination for him, so the ghost scenes in Hamlet suggested to him another means of widening the conventions of the pseudo-classic stage by what was, after all, a return to a favourite element of the early renascence tragedy, on the Senecan model. He introduced a ghost into the unsuccessful tragedy Ériphyle (1732), and again, into Sémiramis (1748). It was the latter that gave Lessing the opportunity for his famous criticism, in which he proved what might surely have occurred to Voltaire himself, that the introduction of the supernatural was inconsistent with the canons of French classic art, and only possible in the chiaroscuro of a naturalism untrammelled by artificial rules. In his Zaïre (1733), Voltaire endeavoured to utilise Othello for the purposes of classic tragedy; and, in Mahomet (1742), he laid some scenes of Macbeth under contribution.

For a time, Voltaire had it almost entirely his own way with regard to Shakespeare on the continent. He had awakened curiosity; and, henceforth, every one who crossed the channel—Montesquieu among others—was expected to bring back with him impressions of England’s interesting poet. In prefaces to his tragedies and in his correspondence, Voltaire rang the changes on the views he had already expressed in his Lettres philosophiques, with more or less piquant variety. These views were familiar to the entire continent, and the periodical press, especially in France and in Holland, felt obliged to take up a critical attitude towards them, either refuting Voltaire’s modest claims in the interests of “good taste,” or espousing Shakespeare’s cause with a warmth which awakened mixed feelings in Voltaire himself. Voltaire’s dramas, too, were played on all stages that made any pretension to be in touch with literature; and, although the author himself was by no means ready to acknowledge his indebtedness, his Mort de César was generally regarded as the one accessible specimen of a Shakespearean tragedy.