Wilhelm Shakespeare – Shakespeare in Germany

William Shakespeare is loved the world over, but nowhere near as much as in Germany.  From some simple Google searches on Shakespeare and Germany, I have learned that the oldest Shakespeare Society in the world is German: Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, founded in 1864, English acting troops brought the Bard to Germany in the early 1700s with performances translated into German, and there have been so many translations of Shakespeare’s plays into German that most Germans actually believe thatWilhelm Shakespeare was a German!

As a student of German, who has loved this language and this culture for over a decade now,  I find this fascinating.  I have found several translations of these plays online and they have evolved as the modern German language has evolved.  Shakespeare is very much alive in German, because he is allowed to be translated and retranslated, where in English there are always those purists who frown on anything but the actual, authentic, original text.  But Shakespeare has been allowed to thrive in Germany precisely because he is a foreigner.  And yet, he is very much a German.  A poem from the German Shakespeare Society reads,

Seht, heut’ gesellt, im heil’gen Bund der Dritte,
Zu Deutschlands Dioskuren sich der Brite,
Auch er ist unser…

(See, today in the holy bond joins as the third, to Germany’s dioscuri (referring to Schiller and Goethe), the Brit.  He, too, is ours.)

The first line is almost a direct quote from a poem written by Schiller, Die Bürgschaft, where a Lord had condemned a man to die, but allowed him to visit home shortly to see his sister married, provided his friend stay behind.  Should this man not return in three days, the friend would be executed in his stead.  This lord is sure that the man will not return, but when he does, this lord is so surprised at the bond of their friendship that he begs to be allowed to join their bond as a third.  And that last line is reminiscent of a poem that Goethe wrote about Schiller, saying “Denn er war unser” (For he was ours).  Shakespeare is as German as these two great classical writers who have shaped and molded not only the German language, but their culture and their idea of themselves as well.

I would like to explore this phenomenon.  Look at when and how often Shakespeare has been translated into German, and by whom.  I would like to examine, as far as I can, Shakespeare’s influence on German language, or at least German literature.   The great German writers like Goethe, Lessing, Schiller were definitely familiar with Shakespeare’s works and were definitely fans.  How much was there writing influenced by the plays of Shakespeare?  That would be very interesting to look into.  I wonder if anyone has done research on that?

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3 thoughts on “Wilhelm Shakespeare – Shakespeare in Germany

  1. Eric Heaps

    The groundwork has been heavily laid for the effect of Shakespeare on Romantic movements all over Europe, especially Sturm und Drang. I haven’t read a lot of the more specific analyses, but I’m sure there is still room for analyzing of specific works and the influence of Shakespeare, and there would be plenty of scholarship already complete to help you in such an analysis.

    1. dteeps

      Thanks for this. I will definitely look into Shakespeare’s influence on the Sturm and Drang movement. My interest is mostly in the linguistic aspect, how specifically has Shakespeare or his plays influenced the German language. Are there words or phrases that are used in modern German that can be directly traced back to Shakespeare’s plays? I would like to be able to find information on that.

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