William Shakespeare

Benjamin could have read Shakespeare in the German translations by August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck (1877).

‘Since my return from Haubinda, my philosophic and literary interests have undergone a natural synthesis in the formation of specifically aesthetic interests. These I have pursued partly in exploration of the theory of drama, partly in reflection on great dramatic works above all, those of Shakespeare, Hebbel, and Ibsen (with detailed study of Hamlet and [Goethe’s] Tasso -and partly in an intensive engagement with Holderlin’ (Curriculum Vitae, written 1911, EW, 50;)

That this ideal of a youth conscious of itself as a future cultural factor does not originate with us today, that it is a notion already clearly expressed by great writers, is proved by a quick glance at world literature.

No doubt few of the ideas that occupy our times have not already been touched on by Shakespeare-in his dramas, and above all in the tragedy of modern man, Hamlet. There Hamlet speaks the words:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet’s heart is embittered. He sees in his uncle a murderer, in his mother a woman living in incest. And what feeling gives him this knowledge? Clearly, he feels disgust with the world. But he does not turn away from it in misanthropic willfulness. Rather, there lives in him the feeling of a mission: he has come into the world to set it right. To whom could these words better apply than the youth of today?Notwithstanding all the talk of youth, spring, and love, in every thinking young person lurks the germ of pessimism. This germ is doubly strong in our day. or how can a young person, especially one fromthe big city, confront the deepest problems, the social misery, without at least sometimes falling prey to pessimism? No counter-arguments will serve here; only consciousness ca·n and must be of help. Though the world be ever so bad, you came to make it better. That is not arrogance but only consciousness of duty.This Hamlet-like consciousness of the world’s baseness and of the call to make it better also animates Karl Moor. But whereas Hamlet never forgets himself before the wickedness of he world, and represses all lust for revenge in order to remain pure, Karl Moor loses control of himself in. his anarchistic intoxiction with freedom. Thus, he who started out as liberator must in·the end succumb to himself. Hamlet succumbs to the world and remains victorious.’ (‘Sleeping Beauty’, EW 26-7; GS Bd. 2, 9-10)

Like Shakespeare in Hamlet and like Ibsen in his dramas, Spitteler presents heroes who suffer for the ideal.’ (‘Sleeping Beauty’, EW 29; GS Bd. 2, 12)

‘If, in aesthetic matters, the persisting historical validity of assessments provides a clue to what one can sensibly call their objectivity, then at least the validity of the critical judgements of Romanticism has been confirmed. Up to the present day, these judgements have determined the basic assessment of the historical works of Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare… [n212: ‘This determination bespeaks, among other works …for Shakespeare… A .W. Schlegel’s translations…’]’ (‘The Concept of Criticism,’ GS Bd. 1, 81; SW1, 161, 194-5)

‘Hence, for Schlegel in the Athenaeum period, artwork of Greek type (real, naïve) remains thinkable only under the auspices of irony… “The great practical abstraction [synonymous with reflection] is what makes the ancients – among whom it was instinct – really the ancients” (Athenaeum Fragments, no. 121). In this sense, he recognizes the naïve in Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe…’ (‘The Concept of Criticism’, GS Bd. 1, 96, n.248 ; SW, n.255, 196)

‘”Poetry of poetry” is the comprehensive expression for the reflexive nature of the absolute… consciousness of poetry is itself poetry. It is poetry of poetry. Higher poetry “is itself nature and life…”… These formulations are not flights of rhetoric but designations of the reflexive nature of transcendental poetry. “I suspect that in you – sooner or later, and apropos of Shakespeare – art will mirror itself in art,” [Briefe, p.427] Friedrich Schlegel writes to his brother’ (‘The Concept of Criticism,’ GS Bd. 1, 96; SW1, 171)

‘Tragedy is distinguished from Trauerspiel through the different ways they relate to historical time. In tragedy the hero dies because no one can live in fulfilled time. He dies of immortality. Death is an ironic immortality; that is the origin of tragic irony. The origin of tragic guilt lies in the same sphere. Such guilt has its roots in the tragic hero’s very own, individually fulfilled time. This time proper to the tragic hero – which like historical time, cannot be further defined here – marks all his deeds and his entire existence as if with a magic circle …The measure of Shakespearean tragedy resides in the mastery with which it sets off the different stages of tragedy from one another and makes them stand out, like repetitions of a theme. In contrast, classical tragedy is characterized by the ever more powerfull upsurge of tragic forces. The ancients know of tragic fate, whereas Shakespeare knows of the tragic hero, the tragic action. Goethe rightly calls him Romantic.’ (‘Trauspiel and Tragedy’, EW 242-3; GS Bd. 2 134-5)

‘[Epistemo-Critical Prologue: Burdach’s nominalism] The reasons for the uncritical use of inductive methods have always been the same: on the one hand the love of variety and, on other hand, indifference to intellectual rigour. Again and again it is a question of that aversion to constitutive ideas – universalia in re – which Burdach explains with such clarity. “I have promised to speak of the origin of Humanism as if it were a living being that came as a single whole into the world at one particular time and in one particular place, and then grew as a whole… To do so is to proceed in the manner of the so-called Realists of medieval scholasticism, who attributed reality to general concepts, or “universals”. In the same – hypostatizing after the fashion of primitive mythologies – we posit a being of uniform substance and complete reality and call it Humanism, just as if it were a living individual …we ought to be clear that we are doing no more than inventing an abstract concept in order to help us come to grips with an infinite series… we can do such a thing only if, as a consequence of our innate need for systematization, we see in these varied series certain properties, which appear to be similar or identical, more distinctly, and emphasize these similarities more strongly than differences… Every bit as arbitrary and misleading is the term “Renaissance man”…” A footnote to this passage runs as follows: “An unfortunate counterpart to the ubiquitous “Renaissance man” is “Gothic man,”… And he has been joined by “Baroque man”, a guise in which Shakespeare, for instance, has been presented.” The correctness of such an attitude is evident, inasmuch as it is opposed to the hypostatization of general concepts …But it is a quite inadequate response to a Platonic theory of science, whose aim is the representation of essences, for it fails to appreciate its necessity.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 40; GS Bd. 1, 320)

‘[Epistemo-Critical Prologue: Neglect and Misinterpretation of Baroque Tragedy]. The renewal of the literary heritage of Germany, which began with romanticism, has, even today, hardly touched baroque literature. It was above all Shakespeare’s drama, with its richness and its freedom, which, for the romantic writers, overshadowed contemporaneous German efforts, whose gravity was, in any case, alien to the practical theatre’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 48; GS Bd. 1, 229)

‘[Trauerspiel and Tragedy: Sovereign as Creature]. But what attracted even the theoreticians among the romantics so irresistibly to Calderón – so that he, rather than Shakespeare, might perhaps be called their dramatist… – is the unparalleled virtuosity of the reflection, thanks to which his heroes are always able to turn the order of fate around like a ball in their hands, and contemplate it now from one side, now from another. To what else did the romantics ultimately aspire than genius, decked out in the golden chains of authority, reflecting without responsibility?’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 84; GS Bd. 1, 265)

‘[Trauerspiel and Tragedy: The Concept of Fate in the Fate-Drama]. Nothing shows more clearly the limitations of the German baroque drama than the fact that the expression of this significant relationship was left to the popular spectacle. In England, on the other hand, Shakespeare had based such figures as Iago [in Othello] and Polonius [in Hamlet] on the old model of the demonic fool. With them the Lustspiel [comedy] enters into the Trauerspiel. Through their modulations these two forms are not only empirically connected but in terms of the law of their structure they are as closely bound to each other as classical tragedy and comedy as opposed; their affinity is such that the Lustspiel enters into the Trauerspiel: the Trauerspiel could never develop in the form of the Lustspiel. There is a certain good sense to the following image: the Lustspiel  shrinks and is, so to speak, absorbed into the Trauerspiel… The finest exemplifications of the Trauerspiel are not those which adhere to the rules, but those in which there are playful modulations of the Lustspiel. For this reason Calderon and Shakespeare created more important Trauerspiele than the German writers of the seventeenth century, who never progressed beyond the rigidly orthodox type… [Novalis] sees this demand fulfilled by the genius of Shakespeare… Under the influence of Shakespeare the Sturm und Drang endeavoured to restore to view the comic interior of the Trauerspiel, and at once the figure of the comic schemer re-emerges.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 128; GS Bd. 1, 306-7)

‘[Trauerspiel and Tragedy: The Witching Hour and the Spirit World] It has rightly been said of the English Trauerspiel before Shakespeare that it has “no proper end, the stream continuous on its course.” This is true of the Trauerspiel in general; its conclusion does not mark the end of an epoch, as the death of the tragic hero so emphatically does, in both an historical and an individual sense. This individual sense – which is also the historical meaning of the end of the myth…”For tragedy death – the ultimate limit – is an ever immanent reality, which is inextricably bound up with each of its occurrences.” Death, as the the form of tragic life, is an individual destiny; in the Trauerspiel it frequently takes the form of a communal fate… in death the characters of the Trauerspiel lose only the name-bearing individuality, and not the vitality of their role. This survives undiminished in the spirit-world. “After a Hamlet it might occur to another dramatist to write a Fortinbras; no one can stop me from allowing all the characters to meet again in hell or in heaven, and settling their accounts anew”. The author of this remark has failed to perceive that this determined by the law of the Trauerspiel, and not at all by the work referred to, let alone its subject-matter. In the face of such great Trauerspiele as Hamlet, which have constantly been the subject of renewed critical attention, the irrelevance of the absurd concept of tragedy which has been used to judge these works ought to have been clear long ago. For, with reference to the death of Hamlet, what is the point of attributing to Shakespeare a final “residue of naturalism and the imitation of nature, which cause the tragic poet to forget that it is not his job to provide a physiological reason for death”? What is the point of arguing that in Hamlet death has “absolutely no connection with the conflict. Hamlet, who is inwardly destroyed because he could find no other solution to the problem of existence than the negation of life, is killed by a poisoned rapier! That is, by a completely external accident… Strictly speaking this naive death-scene completely destroys the tragedy of the drama”. This is what is produced by a criticism which, in the arrogance of its philosophical knowledgeability, spares itself any profound study of the works of a genius. The death of Hamlet, which has no more in common with tragic death than the Prince himself has with Ajax, is in its drastic externality characteristic of the Trauerspiel; and for this reason alone it is worthy of its creator: Hamlet, as is clear from his conversation with Osric, wants to breathe in the suffocating air of fate in one deep breath. He wants to die by some accident, and as the fateful stage properties gather around him, as around their lord and master, the drama of fate flares up in the conclusion of this Trauerspiel, as something that is contained, but of course overcome, in it. Whereas tragedy ends with a decision – however uncertain this may be – there resides in the essence of Trauerspiel, and especially in the death-scene, an appeal to the kind which martyrs utter. The language of the pre-Shakespearian Trauerspiel has been aptly described as a “bloody legal dialogue”. The legal analogy may reasonably be taken further and, in the sense of the mediaeval literature of litigation, one may speak of the trial of the creature whose charge against death – or whoever else was indicted in it – is only partially dealt with and is adjourned at the end of the Trauerspiel. Its resumption is implicit in the Trauerspiel, and sometimes actually emerges from its latent state. Though this, of course, is also something which only happens in the richer, Spanish variant.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 135-7; GS Bd. 1, 315-6)

‘[Trauerspiel and Tragedy: Doctrine of Justification, Apatheia, melancholy]. The great German dramatists of the baroque were Lutherans. Whereas in the decades of the Counter-Reformation Catholicism had penetrated secular life with all the power of its discipline, the relationship of Lutheranism to the everyday had always been antinomic …By denying [good works] any special miraculous spiritual effect…and making the secular-political sphere a testing ground for a life which was only indirectly religious, being intended for the demonstrating of civic virtues, it did,… instil into the people a strict sense of obedience to duty, but in its great men it produced melancholy. Even in Luther himself… there are signs of a reaction against the assault on goof works…. “What is a man,/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more./ Sure, he that hath made us with such large discourse,/ Looking before and after, gave us not/ That capability and god-like reason/ To fust in us unused.” – these words of Hamelt contain both the philosophy of Wittenberg and a protest against it. In that excessive reaction which ultimately denied good works as such, and not just their meritorius and penitential character, there was an element of German paganism and the grim belief in the subject of man to fate. Human actions were deprived of all value. Something new arose: an empty world. In Calvinisim – for all its gloominess – the impossibility of this was comprehended and in some measure corrected.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 138-9; GS Bd. 1, 317)

‘[Trauerspiel and Tragedy: Hamlet]. In the German Trauerspiel the characteristic attitude is that of the reaction of the Counter-Reformation, and so the determining factor in the creation of dramatic types is the mediaeval scholastic image of melancholy. But in its formal totality this drama diverges fundamentally from such a typology; its style and language are inconceivable without that audacious twist thanks to which the speculations of the Renaissance were able to recognize in the features of the sorrowful Contemplator the reflection of a distant light, shining back from the depths of self-absorption. This age succeeded (at least once) in conjuring up the human figure who corresponded to this dichotomy between the neo-antique and the mediaeval light in which the baroque saw the melancholic. But Germany was not the country which was able to do this. This figure is Hamlet. The secret of his person is contained within the playful, but for that very reason firmly circumscribed, passage through all the stages in this complex of intentions, just as the secret of his fate is contained in an action which, according to this, his way of looking at things, is perfectly homogeneous. For the Trauerspiel Hamlet alone is a spectator by the grace of God; but he cannot find satisfaction in what he sees enacted, only in his own fate. His life, the exemplary object of his mourning, points, before its extinction, to the Christian providence in whose bosom his mournful images are transformed into a blessed existence. Only in a princely life such as this is melancholy redeemed, by being confronted with itself. The rest is silence. For everything that has not been lived sinks beyond recall in this space where the word of wisdom leads but a deceptive, ghostly existence. Only Shakespeare was capable of striking Christian sparks from the baroque rigidity of the melancholic, un-stoic as it is un-Christian, pseudo-antique as it is pseudo-pietistic. If the profound insight with which Rochus von Liliencron recognized the ascendancy of Saturn and marks of acedia in Hamlet, it is not to be deprived of its finest object, then this drama will also be recognized as the unique spectacle in which these things are over-come in the spirit of Christianity. It is only in this prince that melancholy self-absorption attains to Christianity. The German Trauerspiel was never able to inspire itself to new life; it was never able to awaken within itself the clear light of self-awareness.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 157-8; GS Bd. 1, 334-5) 

‘[Allegory and Trauerspiel: The allegorical person]. Never did the German Trauerspiel succeed in distributing the person’s characteristics so secretly in the thousand folds of allegorical drapery, after the manner of Calderón. Nor was it any more successful in the re-interpretation of the allegorical figure in unique new roles, after the manner of Shakespeare. “Certain of Shakespeare’s figures possess the physiognomic features of the morality-play allegory; but this is only recognizable to the practised eye; as far as these features are concerned, they move, as it were, in the allegorical cloak of invisibility. Such figures are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” Because its obsession with earnestness the German Trauerspiel never mastered the art of using allegory inconspicuously. Only comedy accorded the allegorical the rights of citizenship in the secular drama; but when comedy moves in seriously, then the consequences are unexpectedly fatal.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 191; GS Bd. 1, 368) 

‘[Allegory and Trauerspiel: The allegorical interlude] The tendency to achieve a balance, so to speak, between the atmosphere of the dramatic character’s visionary perception and that of the spectator’s profane perception – a theatrical gamble which even Shakespeare seldom risks – can be seen all the most clearly, the more unsuccessfully these lesser masters were.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 193; GS Bd. 1, 369) 

”[Allegory and Trauerspiel: Ritter on Script] …music… is something with which the allegorical drama is intimately familiar. This, at least, is the lesson to be derived from the musical philosophy of the romantic writers, who have an elective affinity with the baroque, and whose voice ought to be heeded here… Such a romantic approach to the Trauerspiel does at least raise the question of how far music has a more than functional, theatrical role in the work of Shakespeare and Calderón. For it surely does.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 213; GS Bd. 1, 387) 

‘[Allegory and Trauerspiel: The terrors and promises of Satan] Julius Leopold Klein rightly calls [Lucifer] the “original allegorical figure”. Indeed, one of the most powerful of Shakespeare’s characters is, as this literary historian has suggested in some excellent observations, to be understood only in terms of allegory, with reference to the figure of Satan. “Shakespeare’s Richard III… relates himself to the iniquity of Vice, Vice swollen into the historical buffoon-devil, and so he reveals …his development and descent ….from the Devil of the mystery-plays and from the deceitfully “moralizing” Vice of the “morality plays”, as the legitimate, historical, flesh-and-blood descendant of both: the devil and Vice.” This is illustrated in a footnote: ‘”Gloster (aside)(: Thus, like the formal Vice, Iniquity,/ I moralize two meanings in one word.” In the character of Richard III, Devil and Vice appear, according to his own confessional aside, fused into a warlike hero of tragedy with a historical pedigree.” But precisely not a hero of tragedy. Rather we may point out once again…. that for Richard III, for Hamlet, as indeed for all Shakespearian “tragedies”, the theory of the Trauerspiel is predestined to contain the prolegomena of interpretation. For in Shakespeare allegory reaches much deeper than the metaphorical forms where Goethe noticed it: “Shakespeare is rich in wonderful figures of speech, which arise from personified concepts and which would not be at all suitable nowadays, but which are entirely in place in his work because in his day all art was dominated by allegory.” Novalis is more emphatic: “In a Shakespearian play it is possible to find an arbitrary idea, allegory, etc.” But the Sturm und Drang, which discovered Shakespeare is precisely that both aspects are equally essential. Even elemental utterance of the creature acquires significance from its allegorical existence, and everything allegorical acquire emphasis from the elemental aspect of the world of the senses. With the extinction of the allegorical impetus the elemental power is also lost to the drama until, in the Sturm und Drang, it is revived – in the form of Trauerspiel. Romanticism subsequently regained a glimpse of the allegorical. But so long as romanticism adhered to Shakespeare, it was no more than a glimpse. For in Shakespeare the elemental takes pride of place, in Calderón, the allegorical.’ (Origin of German Tragic Drama, 228-9; GS Bd. 1, 402)