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EARLY CRITICISM OF SHAKESPEARE
ard the close of the seventeenth century. Frenchmen were staggered by its originality. They perceived the dramatist's colossal breaches of classical law. They were shocked by his freedom of speech. When Louis the Fourteenth's librarian placed on the shelves of the Royal Library in Paris a copy of the Second Folio of his works which had been published in London in 1632, he noted in his catalogue that Shakespeare "has a rather fine imagination; he thinks naturally; but these fine qualities are obscured by the filth he introduces into his comedies." An increasing mass of pedestrian literature was imported into France from England through the middle and late years of the seventeenth century. Yet Shakespeare had to wait for a fair hearing there till the eighteenth century.
Then it was very gradually that Shakespeare's pre-eminence was realised by French critics. It is to Voltaire that Frenchmen owe a full knowledge of Shakespeare. Voltaire's method of teaching Shakespeare to his countrymen was characteristically cynical. He studied him closely when he visited England as a young man. At that period of his career he not merely praised him with discerning caution, but he paid him the flattery of imitation. Voltaire's tragedy of Brutus betrays an intimate acquaintance with Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar. His Eryphile was the product of many perusals of Hamlet. His Zaire is a pale reflection of Othello. But when Voltaire's countrymen showed a tendency to better Voltaire's instruction, and one Frenchman conferred on Shakespeare the title of "the god of the theatre," Voltaire resented the situation that he had himself created. He was at the height of his
own fame, and he felt that his reputation as the first of French writers for the stage was in jeopardy.
The last years of Voltaire's life were therefore consecrated to an endeavour to dethrone the idol which his own hands had set up. Voltaire traded on the patriotic prejudices of his hearers, but his efforts to depreciate Shakespeare were very partially successful. Few writers of power were ready to second the soured critic, and after Voltaire's death the Shakespeare cult in France, of which he was the unwilling inaugurator, spread far and wide.
In the nineteenth century Shakespeare was admitted without demur into the French "pantheon of literary gods." Classicists and romanticists vied in doing him honour. The classical painter Ingres introduced his portrait into his famous picture of "Homer's Cortège" (now in the Louvre). The romanticist Victor Hugo recognised only three men as memorable in the history of humanity, and Shakespeare was one of the three; Moses and Homer were the other two. Alfred de Musset became a dramatist under Shakespeare's spell. To George Sand everything in literature seemed tame by the side of Shakespeare's poetry. The prince of romancers, the elder Dumas, set the English dramatist next to God in the cosmic system; "After God," wrote Dumas, "Shakespeare has created most."
It would be easy to multiply eulogies of Shakespeare from French lips in the vein of Victor Hugo and Dumas-eulogies besides which the enthusiasm of many English critics appears cold and constrained. So unfaltering a note of admiration sounds gratefully
FRENCH VERSIONS OF SHAKESPEARE
in the ears of Shakespeare's countrymen. Yet on closer investigation there seems a rift within the lute. When one turns to the French versions of Shakespeare, for which the chief of Shakespeare's French encomiasts have made themselves responsible, an Englishman is inclined to moderate his exultation in the French panegyrics.
No one did more as an admiring critic and translator of Shakespeare than Jean François Ducis, who prepared six of Shakespeare's greatest plays for the French stage at the end of the eighteenth century. Not only did Ducis introduce Shakespeare's masterpieces to thousands of his countrymen who might otherwise never have heard of them, but his renderings of Shakespeare were turned into Italian and many languages of Eastern Europe. They spread the knowledge of Shakespeare's achievement to the extreme boundaries of the European Continent. Apparently Ducis did his work under favourable auspices. He corresponded regularly with Garrick, and he was never happier than when studying Shakespeare's text with a portrait of Shakespeare at his side. Yet, in spite of Ducis' unquestioned reverence and his honourable intentions, all his translations of Shakespeare are gross perversions of their originals. It is not merely that he is verbally unfaithful. He revises the development of the plots; he gives the dramatis persona
Ducis' Othello was accounted his greatest triumph. The play shows Shakespeare's mastery of the art of tragedy at its highest stage of development, and rewards the closest study. But the French translator ignored the great tragic conception which
gives the drama its pith and movement. He converted the piece into a romance. Towards the end of his rendering Iago's villanies are discovered by Othello; Othello and Desdemona are reconciled; and the Moor, exulting in his newly recovered happiness, pardons Iago. The curtain falls on a dazzling scene of domestic bliss.
Ducis frankly acknowledged that he was guilty of a somewhat strained interpretation of Shakespeare's tragic scheme, but he defended himself on the ground that French refinement and French sensitiveness could not endure the agonising violence of the true catastrophe. It is, indeed, the fact that the patrons of the Comédie Française strictly warned the adapter against revolting their feelings by reproducing the "barbarities" that characterised the close of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece.
If so fastidious a flinching from tragic episode breathe the true French sentiment, what, we are moved to ask, is the significance of the unqualified regard which Ducis and his countrymen profess for Shakespearean drama? There seems a strange paradox in the situation. The history of France proves that Frenchmen can face without quailing the direst tragedies which can be wrought in earnest off the stage. There is a startling inconsistency in the outcry of Ducis' French clients against the terror of Desdemona's murder. For the protests which Ducis reports on the part of the Parisians bear the date 1792. In that year the tragedy of the French Revolution-a tragedy of real life, grimmer than any that Shakespeare imagined-was being enacted in literal truth by the Parisian playgoers themselves. It would seem that Ducis and his country
DUMAS'S VERSION OF HAMLET
men deemed the purpose of art to be alone fulfilled when the artistic fabric was divorced from the ugly facts of life.
A like problem is presented by Dumas' efforts in more pacific conditions to adapt Shakespeare for the Parisian stage. With his friend Paul Meurice Dumas prepared the version of Hamlet which long enjoyed a standard repute at the Comédie Française. Dumas' ecstatic adoration for Shakespeare's genius did not deter him, any more than Ducis was deterred by his more subdued veneration, from working havoc on the English text. Shakespeare's blank verse was necessarily turned into Alexandrines. That was comparatively immaterial. Of greater moment is it to note that the dénouement of the tragedy was completely revolutionised by Dumas. The tragic climax is undermined. Hamlet's life is spared by Dumas. The hero's dying exclamation, "The rest is silence," disappears from Dumas' version. At the close of the play the French translator makes the ghost rejoin his son and good-naturedly promise him indefinite prolongation of his earthly career. According to the gospel of Dumas, the tragedy of Hamlet ends, as soon as his and his father's wrongs have been avenged, in this fashion:
Hamlet. Et moi, vais-je rester, triste orphelin sur terre,
Such defiant transgressions of the true Shakespearean canon as those of which Ducis and Dumas stand convicted may well rouse the suspicion that