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Exploring Europe at the British Library

22 posts categorized "Shakespeare"

13 October 2016

Frederick Cosens, Shakespeare and the Spanish drama of the Golden Age.

Frederick William Cosens (1819-89) had a very successful career in the sherry and port wine trade between Britain and Spain and Portugal. The profits from his businesses permitted him to develop his interests in both fine art and literature. His put together an art collection that included notable Spanish and Italian drawings of the 16th-19th centuries, etchings and two drawings by Goya. His interests in English literature centred on Shakespeare and Dickens. However, his library, containing some 4,950 titles at his death, was remarkable in the British context for its rare editions of major Spanish writers, its manuscripts and for its extensive holdings of 19th-century works. His collections were sold by Sotheby’s after his death, and the British Museum purchased a total of 47 items of which 37 were related to Spain.

Portrait of F. W. Cosens
Frederick. W. Cosens, engraving by Joseph Swain 

Cosens also turned his hand to translation. He translated the Spanish epic, the Poema de Mio Cid, a version that remains unpublished. Three other translations bring together his interests in Spanish literature and Shakespeare. He published a version of Ejemplo 35 from Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (ca. 1335), the tale of the Moor who marries a very strong and fierce young woman (‘fuerte y muy brava’) and succeeds in subjugating her: The Moorish Marriage, bearing some similarity to the story of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Just ten copies were printed.

Title-page of 'The Moorish Marriage' with a handwritten note describing this as the fourth of the ten copies printed
The Moorish
Marriage, translated by Cosens (London, 1867; 12490.a.37)

More substantial are two privately published versions of Golden Age comedias based on the legend of Romeo and Juliet: Lope de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses. Tragicomedia (London, 1869; 11726.i.25) and Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona. Montescos y Capeletes (London, 1874; 11725.h.80). Castelvines y Monteses, arguably written before 1604, was first published in Parte XXV of Lope de Vega’s complete works in 1647. Los bandos de Verona (1640) was first printed in 1645 in In the Segunda parte de las comedias de… Rojas Zorrilla (11726.c.25). Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first printed in 1597, is generally dated to ca. 1595. Both Spanish dramatists drew on an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello (1554); this also lies behind Shakespeare’s immediate source, Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (London, 1562; Huth.34.).

Portrait of Lope de Vega wearing the insignia of the Order of Malta
Portrait of Lope de Vega, attributed to Eugenio Cajés (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Cosens translated Castelvines y Monteses because he considered it worthy of a ‘better fate’ than it had received in an earlier version (Castelvines, pp. v-vii). Lope’s play is indeed unjustly neglected. The plot is fast paced from the very beginning, as his audience would have expected. It follows a similar outline to both Bandello’s and Shakespeare’s but with variations: it opens, for example, with the ball scene and Roselo/Romeo’s meeting with Julia/Juliet. Surprisingly, it ends happily with the successful reuniting of the lovers at Julia’s tomb and the resolution of the conflict between the families. As the subtitle ‘tragicomedia’ indicates, comic elements are present: for example, in Julia’s duping of Octavio, Roselo’s none-too-bright rival for her hand. Octavio’s subsequent death, stirred into action by his father, exemplifies this tragi-comic blend. In spite of its quality, Castelvines y Monteses is rarely performed in Spain; Spanish audiences are seemingly more willing to opt for productions of Romeo and Juliet in translation. (Castelvines y Monteses has been translated into modern English by Gwynne Edwards in Three Spanish Golden Age Plays (London, 2005; YC.2005.a.11238) and was performed at the Dell Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in August 2006, directed by Heather Davies.

Opening of 'Los Bandos de Verona'Opening scene of Los Bandos de Verona (Madrid, 1645), C.63.h.2.

Cosens considered Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona to be ‘inferior in every way to “Castelvines y Monteses”’. He therefore limited his English version to ‘such portions… as bear some reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy’ (Los bandos de Verona, p. viii). Like Lope, Rojas Zorrilla follows Bandello, but introduces further changes. He adds characters: Carlos Romeo, a friend of Alejandro Romeo (i.e. the Romeo) and, more crucial to the plot, Elena, Romeo’s sister, who is unhappily married to Count París. The latter, now a member of the Capelete clan, wishes to repudiate Elena and marry Julia/Juliet instead. Further innovations follow: Julia supposedly takes poison to thwart her father’s injunction to choose between Count París and her cousin, Andrés. In fact, Los bandos is altogether a very different kind of play both from Romeo and Juliet and Castelvines y Monteses. It contains more action, culminating with Alejandro Romeo’s threat to storm a tower in which Elena and Carlos are held prisoner. Eventually, however, peace is restored and the feud is ended by the marriage of Alejandro Romeo and Julia. The family feud and a possible political dimension predominate over the original, tragic love story.

Recent critical opinion has largely justified Cosens’ opinion of the two Spanish plays.

Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections

20 September 2016

Ira Aldridge's Polish Journey: Developing the Shakespearean Canon and Influencing Local Politics

I was delighted to discover that the British Library’s recent exhibition Shakespeare in 10 Acts chose to tell the remarkable story of Ira Aldridge’s career – albeit only part of it. Although the famous black Shakespearean actor acquired star status in the UK provinces, he was never fully accepted in London by the cultural elites. Nevertheless his acting was celebrated on the Continent wherever he went. He toured extensively from 1852 to 1867: he went as far as Imperial Russia, including Poland and Ukraine, and visited Mongolia and Turkey.

Aldridge’s contribution to Shakespeare’s performance history was not limited to the question of race and his pioneering acting feats as Othello or King Lear (in whiteface). In the non-Anglophone reception of Shakespeare Aldridge is a very special case in the dissemination of his work. At the time not many proper translations were available to non-English speakers and thus Shakespeare was not staged frequently, in some places not at all (for example, in 1858 Aldridge brought Shakespeare to Serbia for the very first time with his Richard III) .

Ira Aldridge in costume as King Lear
Ira Aldridge as King Lear, from  S.Durylin, Aira Oldridzh  (Moscow, 1940) 11797.a.32.

I will relate only one of Aldridge’s many continental success stories, one not mentioned in the exhibition, which took place in Poland (then occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria). Some Polish scholars believe that Ira Aldridge is of unique importance in the reception of Shakespeare in Poland as his six visits, over the period 1853-1867, may not only have inspired more and better Polish translations of Shakespeare’s plays but also influenced the acting style of many Polish actors for years to come. Undoubtedly his first performances of Othello with German companies motivated Józef Paszkowski (1817-1861) to prepare a Polish translation of the original, which was used for the first time by a Warsaw troupe during Aldridge’s visit in 1863.

Othello and Desdemona
Othello and Desdemona from an edition of  Paszkowski’s Shakespeare translation (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. 

Most Polish reviews of his performances praised his realistic renditions of the roles. When touring, as a rule he performed in English with actors from a given country playing in their native languages but it is often claimed that because of his acting genius he proved that the imposed barriers of languages and cultures could be transcended, which he achieved by the ‘sweetness and softness of his voice’ and passion too.

In continental Europe Aldridge was awarded medals and honours wherever he went, including honorary memberships of many academies and arts societies. He consorted with kings, queens and emperors. But the famous black tragedian was also sensitive to the somewhat delicate political situation in partitioned Poland. When Poles boycotted him in Cracow because he played in a German theatre, for the first time he leaked to the press news of his involvement with the abolitionist movement in the USA, to prove that he sided with the oppressed, including Poles. As a result he was under constant surveillance by officials of Tsarist Russia who did not like it that Poles identified with Aldridge as an oppressed man in his self-professed exile. In the press he was often referred to as ‘our brother’ and his performances quickly became political events.

Aldridge died  in Łódz in provincial Poland where he was given a splendid funeral. A long funeral procession crossed the city, with members of the local theatre society carrying his medals and orders on red velvet cushions and a laurel wreath, while local people covered his grave with flowers. The grave is cared for by the Łódz Appreciation Society and many anonymous citizens decorate his grave on a regular basis with fresh flowers and candles. His tomb was renovated in 2001. In November 2014 a commemorative plaque designed by a renowned Polish artist, Professor Marian Konieczny, was unveiled at the entrance to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódz  (the former location of the theatre and Hotel Paradyz in which Aldridge was invited to perform); you can see a recording of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, here

Ira Aldridge memorial plaque Memorial Plaque to Ira Aldridge, Museum of Cinematography, Łódz 

Two plays about Ira Aldridge in Poland have been written and staged to date: Maciej Karpiński’s Otello umiera (‘Othello Dies’) first published in Dialog monthly, 2003, no. 1/2 (P.P.4838.kob); and Remigiusz Caban’s Murzyn może odejść (‘The Negro must leave’) (2010). Both plays were staged.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska (MA University of Warsaw, PhD King's College London) 


Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney and Maria Łukowska, eds., Ira Aldridge 1807-1867 on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) YD.2009.a.9405

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, Ira Aldridge 1807-1867: dzieje pierwszego czarnoskórego tragika szekspirowskiego (Krakow, 2009)

You can find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, including famous performances and performers on our Shakespeare web pages

05 September 2016

Verdi and Shakespeare

In a composing career spanning more than five decades, Giuseppe Verdi considered more than 100 works, including novels and plays by French, Italian, Spanish and German writers, as sources for potential operatic projects. Among them were several plays by Shakespeare, one of his favourite writers. Although he did complete three operas based on Shakespeare plays, several others – Hamlet, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet – were discussed at various times but never materialised. Of these unwritten operas, however, it was King Lear that held the greatest significance for Verdi and came closest to creation.

Portrait of Verdi
Portrait of Verdi, from Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana (Milan, [1887]) 1872.c.15

Verdi successively approached three potential librettists for Lear: in 1845 he first mentioned the play to Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist of his Ernani, I Due Foscari and Macbeth. It was, perhaps, Verdi’s dissatisfaction with the last of these (he enlisted another writer, Francesco Maffei, to revise parts of the text) that made him commission, in 1850, a Re Lear from Salvadore Cammarano, another regular collaborator of his. 

After Cammarano’s untimely death in 1852, Verdi approached Antonio Somma. Recognising the difficulty of turning such a complex play into an opera, he kept advising Somma to reduce the number of scenes and principal characters (Gloucester and his sons were eventually removed). He also reiterated the need to avoid too many scene changes and to keep his text short. The extensive correspondence between the two men was first published in 1913 and, more recently, in a 2002 edition by the Istituto nazionale di studi verdiani which includes facsimiles of Somma’s manuscripts of his first and second drafts of the libretto (1853 and 1855), and of Verdi’s own transcription of the first version, with variants inserted in their proper place. The volume additionally includes a facsimile of Verdi’s letter of 28 February 1850 to Cammarano which contains a detailed outline of the plot. Transcriptions of all these facsimiles are also included.

Excerpt from the Manuscript of Somma's 'Re Lear'
The end of Antonio Somma’s second version of his libretto of Re Lear, showing Cordelia’s death. Reproduced in Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Somma, Per il “Re Lear”. Edited by Gabriella Carrara Verdi (Parma, 2002). LC.31.b.1041 

Verdi’s continuing reservations about the libretto meant that the project was abandoned and there is no evidence that music for the opera was ever composed. This is all the more regrettable as some of the most poignant scenes in Verdi’s operas are those between fathers and daughters - Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Aida, and above all, Simon Boccanegra are the most notable examples - and, judging from the final scene of the libretto of Re Lear, the death of Cordelia (‘Delia’ in the libretto) would have been a notable addition to the canon.

Verdi's manuscript of the text for the final scene of 'Re Lear'
Verdi’s autograph of the first version of the final scene of the libretto of of Re Lear, reproduced in Per il  “Re Lear”

The three Shakespeare operas Verdi did complete – Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff – are all great masterpieces.

Macbeth (1847), one of his greatest early works, typically full of Risorgimento connotations (the fall of a tyrant and the liberation of the country under his rule), was extensively revised for the Paris Opéra in 1865, and it is this version, which is usually performed today. As well as a magnificent banquet scene at the end of Act 2, the opera also has one of Verdi’s greatest final scenes (the death of Macbeth and triumph of Macduff), and Lady Macbeth’s haunting and eerie sleepwalking scene. 

By the time he began composing Otello in the 1880s, Verdi had become the grand old man of Italian opera – a ‘national treasure’ in today’s parlance. The fact that he had not composed a new opera since Aida, over a decade earlier, added to the public anticipation for the new work. There was, consequently, extensive press coverage both before and after its premiere, including a special Otello issue of the popular weekly illustrated magazine L’Illustrazione italiana which discussed not only the subject of opera and scenes from its first production but also looked at Verdi’s life and works, including his collaboration with his librettist, Arrigo Boito.

Magazine cover with an illustration of Othello drawing back the curtains of Desdemona's bed
Cover (above) and image of Otello's opening storm scene (below), from Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana, e compilato da U. Pesci ed E. Ximenes (Milan, [1887]) 1872.c.15.

Image of the storm scene from 'Otello' Act 1

A poet, critic and composer (his opera Mefistofele, for which he wrote the text and the music, is sometimes performed today), Boito first collaborated with Verdi on Inno delle nazioni, a cantata commisssioned to represent Italy at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and, in 1881, on a revision of Simon Boccanegra.

Verdi playing the piano while Boito sits and listens
Verdi and Boito. Illustration from Verdi e Otello. 

Otello was Verdi’s and Boito’s first collaboration on a new opera and they were to work together again on Falstaff (drawn from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with insertions from Henry IV and Henry V). Premiered in 1893, when the composer was 80, and unusually for Verdi, a comedy, the opera was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Otello six years earlier, including another special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana. Falstaff was Verdi’s glorious and astonishing swansong, its final joyous fugue beginning with ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (‘Everything in the world is a jest’).  

Cover if 'L’Illustrazione italiana' with an illustration of Falstaff in a tavern
Cover of the special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana, Verdi e il Falstaff (Milan, [1893]). Hirsch 5213

Chris Michaelides, Curator, Romance Collections


Re Lear e Ballo in maschera. Lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad Antonio Somma, publicate da Alessandro Pascolato. (Città di Castello, 1913). X.439/1592.

Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London, 1973-82) X.0431/75

Gary Schmidgall, ‘Verdi’s King Lear Project’, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 83-101. P.431/268

Philip Gossett. ‘The Hot and the Cold: Verdi writes to Antonio Somma about Re Lear’, in Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on His Eightieth Birthday. (Rochester NY, 2008). YC.2009.a.6153.

Roberta Montemorra Marvin (ed.), The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia (Cambridge, 2013). YC.2014.a.2360.


Otello, complete 1976 live recording from La Scala, Milan, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Placido Domingo (Otello), Mirella Freni (Desdemona), and Piero Cappuccilli (Iago).

Falstaff,  a complete 1965 live recording from the Opéra de Paris of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Falstaff, with Tito Gobbi as Falstaff.

Our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is open until  6 September, and you can continue to find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare's life and work on our dedicated Shakespeare webpages.

31 August 2016

Shakespeare’s role in the development of Esperanto

In the summer of 1887, Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof published a 40-page brochure in Russian entitled Mezhdunarodnyi iazyk: predislovie i polnyi uchebnik  (‘International Language.  Foreword and Complete Textbook’), under the pseudonym  Dr. Esperanto, meaning “One Who Hopes” in his new language. Soon “Dr. Esperanto’s language” became known simply as “Esperanto”. This obscure, self-published booklet by an unknown author achieved a remarkable success in a surprisingly short period of time.  Over the next three years it was translated into Polish, French, German, Hebrew, English, Swedish and Yiddish, and very quickly Zamenhof began to receive letters from enthusiasts written in the new language. In 1888 he published a second book with further discussion of his language project and a number of short reading passages.

Cover of 'Dua Libro de l’Lingvo Internacia' Dro Esperanto, Dua Libro de l’Lingvo Internacia (Warsaw, 1888) 12906.aa.48.

Literary translations, as well as original poetry, played an important role in Esperanto from the start. What better way for the author to test the limits of his new language, and to develop it where it was found lacking? But in addition, Zamenhof wanted to prove that Esperanto was not merely a convenient tool for business and tourism, but a complete language capable of translating the most exalted masterpieces of world literature. In his first two booklets he concentrated on short and relatively simple texts: the Lord’s Prayer, a passage from Genesis, proverbs, a fairy tale by Hans Andersen, a short poem by Heine.

In the literary traditions that Zamenhof knew best – Russian and German – Shakespeare was a dominating presence. His works were admired by Pushkin and Turgenev, Goethe and Schiller, and in 1875-77 three volumes of Shakespeare’s complete plays appeared in Polish translation, edited by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski . Zamenhof may also have seen Polish performances of Hamlet in Warsaw, where he lived as a student and later as a struggling ophthalmologist.

Illustration of the Gravediggers' scene from 'Hamlet'A Polish translation of Shakespeare  such as Zamanhof might have encountered, Dzieła Dramatyczne Williama Shakespeare (Szekspira), translated by J. I. Kraszewski (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. Tom II. Hamlet. p. 393

Humphrey Tonkin, in his essay “Hamlet in Esperanto” (2006) points out that: “Shakespeare and Shakespeare translation played a special part in the national revivals of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: for several languages of central Europe, translations of his plays marked their emergence as fully credentialed literary languages – Macbeth in Czech (1786), Hamlet in Hungarian (1790), for example.” Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that Zamenhof should feel his new language could not be considered fully mature until it had shown itself capable of translating the complex language of Shakespeare. Hamleto, reĝido de Danujo  came out only seven years after the publication of Zamenhof’s first brochure – no longer at his own expense, but as No. 71 in the series “Biblioteko de la lingvo internacia Esperanto”, printed by W. Tümmel in Nuremberg. The second edition, in 1902, was brought out by the prestigious French publishing house Hachette.

Cover of 'Hamleto'Cover page of Zamenhof’s translation of Hamlet (Paris,1902).

“As early as 1894, Zamenhof published a complete translation of Hamlet,” writes the Esperanto poet William Auld  in the journal Monda Kulturo. “It was his first extensive literary translation and among other things it served to prove incontestably the elasticity and power of expression of this merely seven-year-old language. It rooted the iambic pentameter firmly in Esperanto, and established criteria allowing us to measure and assess the success and poetic qualities of all subsequent translations.”

In her biography Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto (London, 1960; 10667.m.13.), Marjorie Boulton  points out that Esperanto was already sufficiently developed to rise to the challenge of translating Shakespeare’s work without the need to coin a significant amount of new vocabulary for the purpose. Zamenhof’s Hamlet according to Boulton is “perhaps competent rather than brilliant, but it is a good translation – readable, speakable, actable, generally a fair rendering of the original.” Seventy years later, L. N. M. Newell (1902-1968) made a new translation of the play. His Hamleto, princo de Danujo, published in 1964, is more faithful to the original, but less successful at reproducing the spirit of the work. As Tonkin says in his essay, “Newell is for reading, Zamenhof is for acting.”

Cover of 'Hamleto: princo de Danujo' with an image of castle ramparts William Shakespeare, Hamleto: princo de Danujo; traduko de L. N. M. Newell. (La Laguna, 1964). YF.2007.a.1982

Zamenhof’s translation of Hamlet  was only the first of many translations which were to follow. 21 out of Shakespeare’s 38 plays have been translated into Esperanto over the decades, some of them more than once, while his complete Sonnets were translated by William Auld, one of Esperanto’s most outstanding original poets, besides being a prolific translator, essayist, and candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Parallel English and Esperanto versions of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'
Sonnet 18 in parallel English and Esperanto, from William Shakespeare, The sonnets = La sonetoj , el la angla tradukis William Auld. (Pizo, 1981). YF.2007.a.2014. 

Particularly notable are Otelo, la maŭro de Venecio translated by Reto Rossetti (La Laguna, 1960), Somermeznokta sonĝo (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Kálmán Kalocsay (1967; YF.2007.a.2023), and most recently two translations by Humphrey Tonkin: La vivo de Henriko Kvina (Henry V; 2003;  YF.2008.a.28552) and La vintra fabelo (The Winter’s Tale;  Rotterdam, 2006; YF.2008.a.28551).

Covers of 'La vivo de Henriko Kvina' and ' La vintra fabelo' Translations by Humphrey Tonkin from the British Library’s collections

Anna Lowenstein, writer and journalist, author of the historical novel The Stone City,  a member of the Academy of Esperanto


William Auld, ‘La enigmo pri Hamleto’, Pajleroj kaj stoploj (Rotterdam, 1997), pp. 235-249. [Reprinted from Monda Kulturo 13. 1965]. YF.2006.a.30902

 The translator as mediator of cultures, edited by Humphrey Tonkin, Maria Esposito Frank (Amsterdam, c2010) YC.2011.a.8838

30 August 2016

Russian Hamlet(s)

The first Russian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was made by the founder of the Russian classical theatre Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1717-1777). The play was written in 1748 by the ambitious 31-year old statesman and poet.

Opening of Sumarokov's translation of 'Hamlet'
Rossiiskii teatr" ili Polnoe sobranie vsiekh' rossiiskikh' teatralnykh' sochinenii.
Ch. 1. (Sankt-Petersburg, 1786).  1343.h.1. The first page of Gamlet' by Aleksandr Sumarokov 

Some researchers suggest that this work was commissioned to legitimise the power of Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth through cultural discourse. Elizabeth took the Russian throne as a result of a court coup against an infant great grandson of Peter’s elder brother. Ivan VI was barely two months old when he became Russian Emperor and “reigned” for eleven months. For the rest of his short life he lived in exile and, from the age of 16, in solitary confinement. Elizabeth’s actions might be seen as avenging her father by returning power to his successors.

Portrait of Empress Elizaveta_Petrovna in royal regalia and a white gownElizabeth of Russia (portrait by Ivan Vishniakov, State Tretyakov Gallery)

Translated from French, Shakespeare in Sumarokov’s version was also turned into a classist play, where people represented functions, such as order and chaos, good and evil, wisdom and stupidity. According to this pattern, the state could not be left without a legitimate ruler. Therefore, Sumarokov wrote a happy end with Claudius and Polonius punished by death and Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude victorious and content.

Although this version was rarely staged, the image of an outcast prince was often referred to. For example, Catherine the Great’s son and heir Paul tried on this role – his father was assassinated and overthrown by his mother’s lover to get her the throne.

Portrait of the future Tsar Paul I seated at a table
Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (the future Tsar Paul I) in 1782 (portrait by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni)

There is no evidence that Paul read the tragedy, as Hamlet was unofficially banned during Catherine’s reign, but when he  was abroad on a grand tour in 1781-1782, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II cancelled a performance of Hamlet as part of Paul’s reception, apparently because the actor who played the Danish prince hinted that there would be two Hamlets in the theatre. 20 years later Emperor Paul I was strangled in his bedroom to make way for his son Alexander I.

New attempts to translate the play resumed in the second decade of the 19th century, about ten years into Alexander’s reign, but really kicked off in the 1820s, under the rule of Nicholas I, when coups d'état went slightly out of fashion. Many critics think that before the Nobel Prize laureate and the author of Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak translated the tragedy (the first version was  published  in 1940 and the final one in 1968), the best translation into Russian was by Emperor Nicholas I’s grandson Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, or “poet KR (Konstantin Romanov)” – the name he signed his works with. Although trained as a naval officer, Grand Duke Konstantin was more inclined to the arts. He played the piano, wrote lyrics, and translated from English and German. His translation of Hamlet was created after Emperor Alexander III told his cousin Grand Duke Konstantin about his visit to Helsingør, where the play is set.

View of the castle of Helsingør
Helsingør  (Photo by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

The visit to Denmark prompted Alexander to re-read the play and he found that its translations were lacking the true “feel  of the time”. KR’s was the 14th translation into Russian. This time the translator used the American edition of 1877 as his source. KR was proud of his work, when it was published in 1901 with extensive commentaries.

Opening of a bilingual English and Russian edition of Hamlet

               Tragediia o Gamletie printsie Datskom' (Sankt-Peterburg, 1901)

The play was performed several times and Grand Duke Konstantin himself played Hamlet in an amateur production (below).

Photograph of Grand Duke Konstantin in the character of Hamlet

In the 20th century the story of Russian Hamlet continued. As the Russian poet of the Silver Age Maksimilian Voloshin put it, “Hamlet – is a tragedy of conscience,  and in this sense it is a prototype of those tragedies that are experienced by the “Slavonic soul” when it lives through disintegration of will, senses and consciousness”.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

12 August 2016

Delacroix, Chassériau and Shakespeare

The popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in France in the 1840s can be gauged by the fact that two albums of Shakespeare illustrations, Eugène Delacroix’s Hamlet, and Théodore Chassériau’s Othello,were published within a few months of each other, in 1843 and 1844. Though now considered to be masterpieces, the initial critical response to both publications was generally negative. Delacroix’s work was compared unfavourably to his earlier Faust illustrations (Paris, 1828; British Library 1875.b.9.) while Chassériau’s volume was judged to be an imitation of the older artist’s recently-published album.

Delacroix’s lithograhic suite comprised 13 plates executed between 1834 and 1843. It had a print run of 80 and was published by the artist himself. Its commercial failure did not deter Paul Meurice, who acquired the lithographic stones of the work at the posthumous sale of Delacroix’s studio, from publishing a second edition in 1864, a year after the artist’s death. Meurice was a collector of Delacroix’s work and his personal association with Hamlet – he had co-authored an adaptation of the play with Alexandre Dumas père – may have contributed to this decision. The new edition incorporated three additional plates which Delacroix had left out of the 1843 edition.

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet: seize sujets.(Paris, 1864) 1872.c.28.

Hamlet was a constant source of inspiration for Delacroix who, to a certain extent, identified with Shakespeare’s hero. An early self-portrait is thought to represent the artist as Hamlet (although Walter Scott’s Edgar Ravenswood or Byron’s Childe Harold have also been proposed). During his stay in London in 1825 Delacroix may have seen Edmund Kean perform Hamlet. In the same year he painted one of his first works inspired by Shakespeare, Hamlet and the King. Delacroix saw the play again two years later when it was performed by Charles Kemble’s company at the Odéon theatre in Paris in 1827. Scenes from Hamlet would inspire several works over the following 30 years, the 1843 lithographic suite occupying a central position, some of its plates being reworkings of earlier compositions, while they themselves served for the elaboration of later works. Plate 3, for example, dated 1843, which shows the ghost of Hamlet’s father asking Hamlet to avenge his death, is closely based on the 1825 painting.

   Lithograph of Hamlet encountering his father's ghost  Painting of Hamlet encountering his father's ghost
Lithograph, ‘Je suis l’esprit de ton père’, Plate 3 from Delacroix’s Hamlet and the 1825 painting Hamlet and the King  (Krakow, Jagiellonian University Museum)

Likewise, the composition of Plate 13, dated 1843, showing the death of Ophelia had already been used in a virtually monochromatic 1838 painting, now in Munich, and was re-used in 1844 (Winterthur, Oskar Reinhart Collection), and, again (but in reverse), in the 1853 Louvre version.

Lithograph of Ophelia falling into the stream
: Lithograph; ‘Et d’abord ses habits étalés et flottants, la soutiennent sur l’eau pendant quelques instants’ (Plate 13 from Delacroix’s Hamlet). Below: Two painted versions of the same subject from 1838 (Munich, Neue Pinakothek) and 1853 (Paris. Musée du Louvre).

Painting of Ophelia falling into the stream

Painting of Ophelia falling into the stream

The composition of Plate 14, showing Hamlet and Horatio with the gravedigger holding Yorick’s skull (Act 5, scene 1), dated 1843, had also been used in a 1839 painting.

   Lithograph of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull  Painting of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull
‘C’est la caboche d’Yorick, fou du roi’ (Plate 14 from Delacroix’s Hamlet) and the 1839 painting Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (Paris. Musée du Louvre).

Delacroix’s last Hamlet work was the 1859 painting which combines the scene with Yorick’s skull with that of Ophelia’s funeral. On this occasion Delacroix went back even further, to his first Hamlet –inspired work, a lithograph he published in 1828

Painting of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull
Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard, 1859. (Paris, Musée du Louvre)

Like Delacroix, Théodore Chassériau (1819-56) was a great admirer of Shakespeare and produced a number of paintings inspired by Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The originality and special qualities of his work were understood by few of his contemporaries; most saw his early works as imitations of Ingres (his teacher) and his later ones of Delacroix. Chassériau’s most important graphic work, his Othello prints, a series of 15 etchings published in September 1844, were naturally seen as an example of the latter tendency, even though they differ in both mood and technique. The contrast between the contemplative mood of Chassériau’s etchings with their emphasis on intense emotion, as opposed to the narrative action and dramatic power of Delacroix’s lithographs, was recognised by later critics.

The publication was commissioned by Eugène Piot, art historian, collector, antiquary, and publisher and editor of Le Cabinet de l'amateur et de l'antiquaire, an illustrated journal published between 1842 and 1846 (P.P.1916). Chassériau’s work was published in an edition of 25 copies as a separate album under the imprint of the Cabinet de l’amateur, not in the journal itself as is often claimed. 

    Painting of Othello and Desdemona sitting on a balcony  Lithograph of Othello and Desdemona sitting on a balcony
Théodore Chassériau, Othello and Desdemona in Venice, 1850. (Paris, Musée du Louvre), and the lithograph ‘Elle me remercia et me dit …She thanked me and bade me…’ (plate 2 from Othello, reproduced in Jay M. Fisher, Théodore Chassériau, illustrations for Othello (Baltimore, 1979). X.425/4729.

Like Delacroix, Chassériau re-used compositions from his etchings. Two paintings of 1849 and 1850, both now in the Louvre – Othello and Desdemona in Venice (illustrating Act 1, scene 3 of the play), and Desdemona (Act 4, scene 3) – are, respectively, variations of plates 2 and 8.

    Painting of Desdemona being prepared for bed by her servant  Lithograph of Desdemona being prepared for bed by her servant
Théodore Chassériau, Desdemona, 1849. (Paris, Musée du Louvre) and ‘Si je meurs avant toi … If I do die before thee…’ (plate 8 from Othello)

A complete reassessment of Chassériau’s work had to wait, however, until the last quarter of the 20th century, when the catalogue raisonné of his paintings and prints was published in 1974, followed by a remarkable catalogue of the Othello etchings in 1979, to accompany an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The great retrospective exhibition in Paris, Strasbourg, and New York in 2002-03, and its monumental catalogue, finally revealed the full range of Chassériau’s achievements – as a graphic artist, a painter of decorations for public buildings, an orientalist and an artist whose work is not only an amalgam of Ingres and Delacroix but also a prefiguration of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: a critical catalogue. (Oxford, 1981-) YV.1987.b.591.(vols 3 and 4)

Lee Johnson, ‘Delacroix, Dumas and “Hamlet”’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.123, no 945 (Dec. 1981), 717-723. P.P.1931.pcs.

Arlette Sérullaz & Yves Bonnefoy, Delacroix & Hamlet (Paris, 1993). YA.1994.a.12419.

Paul Joannides, ‘Delacroix and modern literature’, in The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix (ed. Beth Wright). (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 130-153. YC.2001.b.973.

Marc Sandoz, Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856 : catalogue raisonné des peintures et estampes (Paris, 1974). X.423/2498

Chassériau, un autre romantisme, ed. Stéphane Guégan, Vincent Pomarède, Louis-Antoine Prat (Paris, 2002). LB.31.b.25724. (English ed. Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856 : the unknown romantic. (New York, New Haven, 2002). LC.31.b.161)


08 August 2016

Helena Modrzejewska, a Polish Shakespearean actress

Legend has it that she was a daughter of the aristocrat Prince Władysław Sanguszko. Born on 12 October 1840 in Kraków as Jadwiga Benda, she was later baptised Helena Opid after her godfather’s surname. Raised in an open-minded family, she experienced poverty during her childhood and youth. An eager reader since her early years, Helena also displayed great talent for acting. She adopted her stage name after marrying her former guardian Gustaw Zimajer, an actor performing under the pseudonym Gustaw Modrzejewski. In her early career Helena played in the provincial towns of southern Poland before moving to Kraków where she separated from Gustaw.

Cover of Modjeska's autobiography with the title inside a stylised proscenium arch
Helena Modrzejewska’s a postuhmously published autobiography, Memories and impressions of Helena Modjeska (New York, 1910). 010795.i.22

In 1868 Modrzejewska married Count Karol Bożenta Chłapowski, a politician and critic, and moved to Warsaw. After seven successful years on the stage there Modrzejewska, together with her husband and a few friends, emigrated to the USA. Among the party was Henryk Sienkiewicz, future author of Quo Vadis and the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1905. They bought a ranch in California and formed a utopian colony. When the experiment failed Modrzejewska returned to the stage, acting in Shakespearean roles that she had performed in Poland. She played in San Francisco and New York, having modified her name to Modjeska in order to facilitate the pronunciation for English speakers. Despite her imperfect knowledge of English and a heavy Polish accent Modjeska rose to fame and achieved great success on the American stage.

Modrzejewska in costume as Shakespeare’s Viola, with a short tunic, cloak and cap
Modrzejewska as Shakespeare’s Viola. From Memories and Impressions. 

In 1880 she went to England to improve her English and try her luck on the stage. To play Shakespeare for an English audience was her dream. Through her husband’s connections Modjeska was introduced to London society and met some influential people. With the help of Wilson Barrett, the manager of the Court Theatre (today the Royal Court Theatre), Helena made her debut on the London stage in an adaptation of La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas under the title Heartsease. She was received by the audience with a thundering ovation. The success surpassed her expectations and paved the way for her to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s homeland. She also made a trip to Poland from London and played her repertoire in her native Kraków, Lwów (now Lviv) and Poznań.

Modrzejewska in the play Heartsease, wearing a long, dark gown and holding a fan against her head
Modrzejewska in Heartsease, the play in which she made her London debut. From Memories and Impressions.

Helena returned to America in 1882 and continued her acting career until her death in 1909. She developed a reputation as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage. Numerous theatre critics praised Modjeska for her magnetic personality, excellent acting techniques and innovative style of interpretation. Her repertoire included 260 roles from comic and romantic to tragic characters. However, she was best known for her performances of Shakespearean and tragic parts, including Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Cleopatra and Mary Stuart.

Head-and-shoulders photograph of Modrzejewska as Shakespeare's Cleopatra with her hair loose and a decorative collar
Modrzejewska as Cleopatra, from Memories and impressions.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East & South-East European Collections

Further reading

Marion Moore Coleman, Fair Rosalind: the American career of Helena Modjeska. (Cheshire, Conn., 1969) X.981/1443.

Mabel Collins, The Story of Helena Modjeska-Madame Chłapowska. (London, 1883). 10790.bbb.14.

Andrzej Żurowski, Modrzejewska Shakespeare Star (Gdańsk, 2010). YF.2011.a.14470

Beth Holmgren, Starring Madame Modjeska: on tour in Poland and America (Bloomington, 2012). YK.2011.a.41430

03 August 2016

'A Lifelong Touchstone': Delacroix and Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a lifelong touchstone for the painter Eugène Delacroix’s reflections on art. This was first inspired by the French Romantics’ espousal of Shakespeare as a ‘modern’, his drama, passion, lyricism, crudity, mix of genres and swings of dramatic mood seeming, to the generation of the 1820s, a refreshing counterweight to the symmetry, restraint, understatement and generic absolutism of French neoclassicism. Soon after his visit to London in 1825, he drafted notes on the beautiful in which Shylock, Caliban, Iago and Gloucester – characters in the very plays that he had seen there – serve as models of the power and beauty of ostensibly repulsive characters, a trait which he compares to the paintings of Rembrandt (Journal, 1476).

Portrait of Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, portrait from Amédée Cantaloube, Eugène Delacroix, l'homme et l'artiste, ses amis et ses critiques (Paris, 1864)

But Shakespeare remained with Delacroix long after the Romantic vogue of the 1820s. Right up to the end of his life he thought about Shakespeare: in his very unevenness, his mix of tragic and comic, Shakespeare transmitted, in Delacroix’s view, a powerful sense of the real, and developed the passions and the action in such a way as to create a logic or unity more natural than the false conventions of neoclassicism (Journal, 893-94, 25 March 1855). He believed that Shakespeare’s characters seem to us individuals rather than abstract types: when Hamlet, amid declaiming about his grief and his plans for vengeance, starts joking with Polonius or amusing himself instructing the players, he behaves with the changeability and impulsiveness of someone we know in the world, not with the coherence and conformity of a fictional character (Journal, 893, 25 March 1855). Although Delacroix painted neither of these scenes, he did depict the similar episode of Hamlet’s bantering with the gravedigger in Hamlet Act V, scene i. Shakespeare taught him that ‘life’ was a primary element of beauty (Journal, 1479).

Painting of a scene from 'Hamlet' with a gravedigger showing a skull to  Hamlet and Horatio
Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839. Oil on canvas.  Musée du Louvre. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Delacroix stated repeatedly that this quality was unique to Shakespeare and that imitators never succeeded. ‘Shakespeare has an art completely his own’, he wrote in 1857 (Journal, 1074); ‘Shakespeare has a genius proper to himself’ (Journal, 1225, 23 February 1858). One wonders how this most ‘Shakespearean’ of artists, as Delacroix was frequently characterized in his lifetime, thought of his own activity as a prolific interpreter of Shakespeare. For this activity did not subside. Indeed,  an 1855 performance of Othello, which reminded him of his London stay, did, as he predicted, ‘bear fruit in his mind’, sparking a renewal of interest in Shakespeare in his final years: He he filled a sketchbook with drawings from the performance and later painted a Death of Desdemona, left unfinished at his own death.

Painting of a Othello kneeling at the bedside of the dead Desdemona
The Death of Desdemona (unfinished), 1858.  Oil on canvas.  Private collection  (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1860 he Delacroix reread Antony and Cleopatra and noted quotations from it in his journal; he had already treated the subject of Cleopatra and the Peasant from this play three times, including a stunning version from 1838. Also in 1860 he drew up a long list of subjects from Romeo and Juliet, a play from which had previously drawn just two paintings

Painting of Cleopatra with a peasant presenting her with an urn
Above, Cleopatra and the Peasant, 1838.  Oil on canvas.  Ackland Memorial Art Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons). Below, Les Adieux de Roméo et Juliette, 1845.  Oil on canvas. (Courtesy Christie’s New York, and with thanks to Deirdre Spencer)

Painting of Romeo and Juliet embracing

In 1863, when a new staging of Jules Lacroix’s verse translation of Macbeth (Paris, 1840; 11764.p.36) relaunched the public debate in France about Shakespeare – whether he could be adequately translated, how he should be staged, how he related to French ideas of ‘taste’ – Delacroix, despite his failing health, followed it closely, praising the translation and discussing the production with a friend (Journal, 1409, 17 April 1863). In one of the last notes in his diary, he is still thinking about Shakespeare’s force, the clarity of his intentions and the grand scale of his creations, qualities which ensure, in his view, that aspects shocking to the French, such as the mixture of comic and tragic, seem right, whereas they fail utterly in works by lesser writers (Journal, 1410, 4 May 1863).

In this year in which London has hosted major exhibitions of on Delacroix (National Gallery, closed 22 May) and Shakespeare (British Library, 15 April-6 September), it is worth recalling that France’s foremost interpreter of the bard was a painter whose vision was profoundly affected by his experience of the London stage in 1825.

Michèle Hannoosh, University of Michigan

References/Further reading:

Eugène Delacroix, Journal, ed. Michèle Hannoosh, 2 vols, (Paris, 2009) YF 2009.a.27250

Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue, 7 vols (Oxford, , 1982-2000). X.425/2163; Cup.410.g.771; YC.2003.b.2380

Une Passion pour Delacroix : la collection Karen B. Cohen, ed. Christophe Léribault (Paris, 2009) YF.2010.b.1019


01 August 2016

To the British Museum Library with the Author’s compliments: Dragoș Protopopescu’s Shakespeare translations

The British Library holds a collection of ten Shakespeare plays in Romanian translation by Dragoș Protopopescu (1892-1948), a Romanian academic, writer and translator. This collection has the distinction of having been donated by Protopopescu to the British Museum Library in 1947. One title (King Lear) was presented to the Library in two editions (1942 and 1944); the other nine titles in the collection were published between 1940 and 1944 by various Romanian publishers. On the front cover of each book the donor inscribed: “To the British Museum Library with the Author’s compliments”.

Title page of 'Henric V'
Title page of William Shakespeare, Henric V. Traducere din limba engleză de Dragoș Protopopescu. (Bucharest, 1940).

The British Library’s collection of Protopopescu’s published Shakespeare translations is the most complete in any known public collection in Britain or Romania. The National Library of Romania holds five of Protopopescu’s translations of Shakespeare plays, and the Romanian Academy Library holds seven.

Cover of 'Hamlet' in Romanian, with the title set in a decorative border depicting a writing-desk
Front cover of William Shakespeare, Tragica poveste a lui Hamlet Prințul Danemarcei. Din și în forma originală de Dragoș Protopopescu. (Bucharest, 1942). 11768.d.26.

Between 1940 and 1945 Protopopescu published 12 translations of Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, The Tempest, Henry V, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, King Lear, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two of Protopopescu’s published translations are not in the British Library: Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream both published in 1945. The former is held by the Romanian Academy Library and the latter is not currently listed in any publicly available online catalogue.

Cover of Romanian translation of Othello, with the translator's manuscript dedication to the British Museum Library in English
Front cover of William Shakespeare, Tragedia lui Othello. Din englezește de Dragoș Protopopescu. (Bucharest, 1943).

Translations of Shakespeare have a long tradition in Romania dating back to the mid-19th century. Julius Caesar was the first to be translated (from the French) and printed in Romania in 1844. From then until 1940 at least 27 Romanian authors translated Shakespeare plays into the Romanian language. Notable among them were Petre P. Carp, Adolph Stern, Scarlat Ion Ghica, Dimitrie N. Ghika, Victor Anestin, Margărita Miller, Verghi and Ludovic Dauș, among others. The National Theatre in Bucharest produced 18 Shakespeare plays and staged about 850 performances between 1884 and 1931.

The ongoing project of the Contemporary Literature Press of the University of Bucharest in cooperation with the British Council, the Romanian Cultural Institute, and the Embassy of Ireland aims to publish Shakespeare’s plays in the original and in parallel Romanian translations, which were published in Romania between 1840 and 1920.

Protopopescu was one of the most prolific Romanian translators of Shakespeare. Apart from his 12 published translations, he prepared an additional 25 Romanian translations of Shakespeare plays by 1948. Unfortunately only five manuscripts of these translations are known to be in existence today. Four are held at the National Library of Romania: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1945), Macbeth (1945), Julius Caesar (1945), Much Ado About Nothing (1948). The manuscript translation of Richard II is held at the National Museum of Romanian Literature in Bucharest.

Half-title page of 'Doi Domni din Verona' with Protopopescu’s autograph dedication in Romanian
Half-title page with Protopopescu’s autograph dedication. From William Shakespeare, Doi domni din Verona. Din și în forma originală de Dragoș Protopopescu. (Bucharest, 1944).

Protopopescu had a life-long association with the English language and Britain, from his early translations of contemporary Irish and British playwrights in 1913 to his doctoral studies in Paris and London in 1920-1923 and his professional work. His doctoral studies focused on the English dramatist William Congreve. Protopopescu was the first professor of English studies at the University of Cernăuți  in 1925 and held the Chair of English language and literature at the University of Bucharest from 1940. He served as a press attaché at the Romanian Legation in London from 1928 to 1930.

While researching at the British Museum Library, Protopopescu discovered in the Sloane Manuscripts a previously unknown Congreve poem entitled “A Satyr against Love” (Sloane MS 3996). He presented this discovery to the British public in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement of 8 November 1923, which received scholarly appreciation and praise. Protopopescu’s first translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was also researched at the British Museum Library in 1928.

On the evidence of his 18 book donations, Protopopescu had a working relationship with the British Museum Library spanning almost 30 years. These donations range from his first collection of poems Poemele restriştei (Bucharest, 1920; , presented in March 1921, to his English grammar Gramatica vie a limbei engleze (Bucharest, 1947; 12974.aa.70), which was donated together with his Shakespeare translations between June and October 1947.

Cover of 'Regele Lear' with Protopopescu's autograph dedication to the British Museum Library in English
Front cover of William Shakespeare, Regele Lear. Din și în forma originală de Dragoș Protopopescu. (Bucharest, 1944). 11768.d.27.

In Romania and Britain Protopopescu was not only known as a professor of English studies, a vice-president of the Anglo-Romanian Society in Cernăuți, and a translator of Shakespeare into Romanian, but also as a member of the Legionary Movement, a Romanian fascist organisation active between 1930 and 1941. Protopopescu was editor of the Movement’s newspaper Bunavestire in 1937-38, in which he also published pro-British articles. Although Protopopescu later distanced himself from the politics of the Legionary Movement, his controversial social and political engagement on the Romanian far right ultimately led to his arrest by the communist authorities and suicide in 1948.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-Eastern European Collections

References/further reading:

Dragoș Protopopescu, Un Classique moderne. William Congreve. (Paris, 1924). 010856.i.32.

ibid., Caracterul de rasă al literaturei engleze. (Cernăuţi, 1925). 011840.d.17.

ibid., Pagini engleze. (Bucharest, 1925). 11854.s.31.

ibid., Teatru englez. Traduceri. I. Bernard Shaw, Eugen O'Neill, John M. Synge. (Bucharest, 1943). 11783.e.14.

William Congreve, A Sheaf of Poetical Scraps. Together with A Satyr against Love, Prose Miscellanies and Letters. Edited by Dr. Dragosh Protopopesco. Second edition (Bucharest, 1925).

Marcu Beza, Shakespeare in Roumania. (London, 1931). 011761.f.18.

Two of Protopescu’s books are freely available online from the Contemporary Literature Press of the University of Bucharest:

Gramatica vie a limbei engleze, with a chronology of the life of Dragoș Protopopescu in Romanian by Andi Bălu.

Valoarea latină a culturii engleze 

22 July 2016

Delacroix, Shakespeare and the London Stage in 1825

29 June 1855. Othello. Pleasure sublime and total; the tragic force, the succession of scenes and the gradual build-up of interest fill me with an admiration which will bear fruit in my mind. I saw once again that same Wallack whom I saw in London exactly thirty years ago (and maybe to the day, for I was there in June) in the role of Faust. Seeing that play which, however altered, was extremely well arranged, gave me the idea of doing my lithographs.  Terry who played the devil was perfect.  (Eugène Delacroix, Journal, I, 917-918)

Eugène Delacroix never forgot his experience of the London stage in the summer of 1825.  Seeing James William Wallack in a performance of Othello in Paris in 1855 transported him back 30 years to the many evenings which he had spent at the theatre during his three-month stay. As he indicates in this journal entry, an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust by George Soane and Daniel Terry entitled The Devil and Dr Faustus that he saw at Drury Lane, with Terry playing Mephistopheles and Wallack as Faust, inspired his famous series of 18 lithographs, published as illustrations to Albert Stapfer’s translation of Faust in 1828. The British Library has a fine copy of this important work, considered one of the jewels in the history of the illustrated book.

Mephistopheles flying above the skyline of a city
Eugène Delacroix, ‘Méphistophélès’, lithograph, from Faust. Tragédie de M. de Gœthe (Paris, 1828)  1875.b.9

But Delacroix’s stay in London was especially filled with Shakespeare. His interest in Shakespeare had begun long before, perhaps in connection with his friend Charles-Raymond Soulier, who as the son of émigrés had been raised in London and later gave Delacroix English lessons. In 1819 Delacroix had attempted a translation of Richard III which at the time he considered one of Shakespeare’s best plays for showing ‘the tallent of the author in the living painting and investigation of secret motions of human heart’ (Lettres intimes, 84-85). Given the poor quality of his English, it is fortunate that he gave up translating and read Shakespeare largely in Letourneur’s French translation, published in 1821 (British Library 840.f.2-8). But seeing Shakespeare played live on stage sparked a fascination that would become one of the most prominent elements of Delacroix’s art and thought: dozens of paintings and prints on Shakespearean subjects, and a lifetime of reflecting on what Shakespeare represented for the history of art and aesthetics — for concepts such as realism, the sublime, unity, beauty and naturalness.

The London stage in 1825 was a heady mix of sublimity and melodrama. On the one hand, one could attend a play nearly every evening and see actors who have since entered the annals of Shakespearean performance – Edmund Kean, Wallack, Charles Mayne Young, Daniel Terry. On the other hand, productions often altered the originals, performances were rowdy and the plays were paired with vaudeville-like pastoral ballets, pantomimes and musical farces. 

The British Library’s collections of playbills and theatrical journals allow us to identify what and whom Delacroix saw. Frequenting the two main theatres of the time – Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden – he went to openings of Richard III on 20  June, with Kean as Richard and Wallack as Henry, The Tempest on the 22nd with Young in the role of Prospero, Othello on the 25th with Kean as Othello and Wallack as Iago and The Merchant of Venice on 2 July with Kean as Shylock and Wallack as Bassanio.

Playbill advertising performances of Othello and other works at the Drury Lane theatre, 25 June 1825
Playbills for the performances that Delacroix saw of Othello (above; Playbills 21, p. 204) and The Merchant of Venice (below; Playbills 100, p. 210)

Playbill advertising performances of 'The Merchant of Venice' and other works at the Drury Lane Theatre, 2 July 1825

Although he missed Hamlet with Young in the title role on 27 June, the resemblance of Delacroix’s Macbeth, in his 1825 lithograph, to illustrations of Kean in this role suggests that he saw Kean play Macbeth on the 30th.

Macbeth encountering the three witches

Above: Eugène Delacroix, Macbeth, lithograph, 1825.  © The Trustees of the British Museum (Creative Commons license); Below: C. Williams, Kean as Macbeth, engraving from The Theatrical Inquisitor, 2 January 1815 PP. 5210

William Kean in character as  Macbeth, holding two daggers

Like Byron and Keats, Delacroix was very impressed by the passionate, expressive and sensational Kean, especially in the role of Shylock, which he called ‘admirable’. Contemporary prints show that a drawing of Delacroix’s bearing the date of the performance of The Merchant of Venice (2 July) indeed represents Kean in this role, despite a false annotation, with the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica suggested in the background.  

Sketch of Edmund Kean as Shylock, with the elopement of his daughter in the background
Eugène Delacroix, Kean as Shylock, graphite on paper, 2 July 1825.  (Musée du Louvre)

Kean was then at the height of his fame, popularity and indeed notoriety. In January he had gone through a very public trial for adultery which had seen him pilloried in the Times for immorality and had inspired riotous reactions – by both opponents and supporters – in the theatres. The irony of his playing the seemingly aggrieved husband Othello provoked especially raucous responses: the Morning Post (29 January 1825) reported ‘Kean forever’ banners in the gallery, groans and hisses in the pit, so much shouting that Wallack (as Iago) could not be heard and so much interruption that many speeches had to be dropped; the manager came onstage to calm the uproar, and Kean himself offered to withdraw (to cries of ‘No!, No!’).

By the time of Delacroix’s visit the scandal had abated somewhat, but Kean continued to have a highly emotional relationship with his audience: the Richard III that Delacroix attended was the Kean’s first appearance after a long absence and the papers report the rapturous applause and cries of appreciation that, in the curtain calls, kept him from being heard. Of his Othello on the 25th the Theatrical Observer gushed, ‘There is a grandeur of conception, a boldness of execution, and an overpowering reality of tenderness which we are quite unable to withstand’ (27 June). Kean’s acting itself had an electrifying, terror-inspiring quality such as Delacroix had never previously seen. 

Kean in the character of Shylock, holding a large knife
Henry Meyer after Walter Henry Watts, Kean in the character of Shylock, mezzotint, 1814.  © The Trustees of the British Museum (Creative Commons license)

The London plays seem to have led Delacroix immediately to some first attempts at Shakespearean subjects: in addition to the Shylock drawing and the Macbeth lithograph, he painted a Desdemona and Emilia based on Othello.

In the following years, he painted over 30 works on episodes from Shakespeare, notably from Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth.  He also produced an important series of lithographs from Hamlet (1843) of which the British Library has a full set of the second edition (Paris, 1864; 1872.c.28). 

Michèle Hannoosh, University of Michigan


Eugène Delacroix, Lettres intimes, ed. Alfred Dupont (Paris, 1995). YA.1995.a.23416

Eugène Delacroix, Journal, ed. Michèle Hannoosh (Paris, 2009). YF 2009.a.27250


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