Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 4/Shakespeare in Bohemia
SHAKESPEARE IN BOHEMIA.
The latter half of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth is regarded as the golden age of Bohemian prose. This period also saw the first Bohemian dramas. But in 1620 Bohemia lost its freedom and political independence in the battle of the White Mountain, and the House of Austria began a systematical persecution of the people, and carried it on so successfully that almost for two hundred years there seemed to be no such thing as a Bohemian nationality. The French Revolution, however, which shook all European thrones, reminded other nations also of their rights, and its echo was heard in Bohemia. Accordingly, the long-oppressed nation slowly rose from its sleep of two centuries, and the dawn of the nineteenth century was the morning of modern Bohemian literature, which was naturally founded, in the main, upon foreign models. It was the genius of Shakespeare that inspired the best of the new Bohemian dramatists. Wellnigh impossible was it to dramatize the glorious deeds of their domestic forefathers, because that would mean to celebrate heroes who were enemies either to the dynasty or to the Established Church; and so the dramatists first undertook to translate foreign works, and among them those of Shakespeare. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first to be translated. The tragedy was rendered into Bohemian by Mr. F. Doucha, and the translation published in 1847 by the Matice Ceska, an institution for encouraging Bohemian literature. The success of this first attempt was greater than was expected; and in 1854 the directors of the Matice determined to publish translations of all the thirty-seven Shakespearian dramas. Five authors were engaged in the work,—namely, J. Cejka, F. Doucha, J. J. Kolar, L. Celakovsky, and J. Maly, —and within three years thirty-two dramas were published. The translations of the remaining five, however, were delayed for political reasons and not finished until 1872. Besides this collective publication, many of the plays were reprinted separately in cheaper editions, to secure the greatest possible circulation for them; thus a copy of ‘Macbeth,’ for example, may be had for eight cents, and the prices of other plays vary from eight to twenty cents. The translations of Shakespeare have been given the same rights in the libraries and the schools as the products of native classics; and ‘Coriolanus,’ ‘Julius Cæsar,’ or ‘Macbeth’ are read in the “gymnasiums” as models of dramatic poetry. The general knowledge of Shakespeare’s works has made many of the witty sayings of Hamlet and other heroes of the British poet proverbial. Shakespeare is recognized as the greatest of modern poets, as Homer was of the ancient singers, and some of his works may always be found in the repertoires of theatrical companies. Even the National Theatre of Prague, which is expected to foster the interests of domestic art almost exclusively, devotes on an average four evenings in a year to Shakespeare. The favorite plays are ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Othello,’ and ‘Coriolanus,’ and it may be said that theatrical enthusiasts treat the “Shakespearian days” as holidays. The best interpreters of Shakespeare on the Bohemian stage have been thus far Messrs. Kolar and Slukov. And even on the stage of Bohemian amateurs in this country, a person may occasionally see ‘Hamlet;’ and a few months ago, one of the Bohemian clubs of Chicago came out with a spirited representation of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ Dr. Jan Habenicht playing an excellent Shylock. The same club announces ‘King Lear’ for this season.
It is but natural, then, that the influence of Shakespeare should be felt in Bohemian dramatic literature. Of the authors who have imitated Shakespeare, V. Halek and J. J. Kolar are the most conspicuous examples. We do not think it a disgrace for an author if it be said of him that he imitates Shakespeare, for such a master is a good model; but the two authors mentioned seem to have gone a little too far,—one endeavoring even to imitate Shakespeare’s puns, and the other undoubtedly following in this the custom of his master himself, borrowing, sometimes, whole sentences from him. But these are the extreme cases; on the whole, it may be said that the influence of Shakespeare has been a beneficial one, raising the standard of dramatic productions without destroying the individuality of the authors.J. K.