Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare Studies in France Since 1960 [1]

Jean-Marie Maguin (Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3)

A time of change

In France it has become almost a tic to quote the year 1968 as a watershed in University affairs as in other domains. No doubt there is some exaggeration in looking at the severe shock which rocked that year both the University and French society at large as the single source of momentous changes. All the same the sudden--and frequently agonizing--questioning of scholarly practice and university tradition that took place at the time certainly revealed a need for changes. This would have emerged in any case but but the process was speeded up by the crisis.

All universities were pluridisciplinary, combining the humanities, law, medicine, and exact sciences. The Sorbonne in Paris was still the mother of all French scholars who wanted to make good. There you found the best preparation for the Agrégation competitive examination that allowed you, if you passed with a good rank, to become assistant-lecturer and register as a doctoral student. Without an Agrégation it was possible of course to register a thesis and in due process of time defend it but until 1968 you had virtually no chance of being given university tenure. Provincial universities usually had only one professor per discipline and very few experienced supervisors were to be found outside Paris.

Rapidly inflating student numbers in the early 1960s led to changes that were imperceptible in the second half of the decade until the shake-up of 1968. More jobs became available in junior positions in universities around the country and doctoral students started choosing supervisors outside the Sorbonne. This was done, to a large extent, with the blessing of the resident Sorbonne professor who wouldin a sense deputize to an ex-student and junior colleague the right to supervise research in the speciality, until he came to chair the committee that heard the doctoral candidate. What sounds rather feudal in retrospect was mostly carried out in a spirit of scholarly devotion and cooperation. Michel Poirier reigned then over Elizabethan studies in France.

Yet another change crept in. Until the early 1960s, in English studies, a doctoral thesis consisted of the study of an author's life and works, a dead author's life and works. The quick were not to be scrutinized probably because they, rather than dead authors, were more likely to haunt you and give you 'the lie i'th'throat / As deep as to the lungs' if they happened to disagree with your analyses. Health reports from various living British authors were followed with keen interest by aspiring French doctoral students over the period considered. Shakespeare was dead of course which should have put him odds-on. But nobody rushed forward to write a dissertation on the Bard's life and works. Sidney Lee's A Life of William Shakespeare (1898) was undisputed, E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems (1930) answered most people's needs. Also, the French doctoral tradition demanded that the author of the dissertation give a thorough overview of the critical scene centred upon 'his' author. (When Brian Vickers undertook his magnificent six volume series Shakespeare : The CriticalHeritage, he announced that he would leave off his examination at the year 1800 because the bulk of material knew an exponential growth after that.) All these factors combined to put Shakespeare beyond the pale of French doctoral investigation until the mid-1960s. As structuralism slowly permeated through the humanities, the rationale of thematic study started to rally interest. Not that you could select a theme and study its development in any one author's works. Literary history--whose elongated shadow still tended to obscure other critical issues--would not have been fairly served by such restrictive practices. In my naiveté I was to cumulate three separate oddities in the year 1967. First, I sought a provincial rather than a Parisian appointment. Second, I chose a provincial supervisor (with the blessing, it is true, of Michel Poirier at the Sorbonne--who kindly agreed to tide me over while my supervisor completed his own dissertation). Third, I made bold to propose a thematic study of Shakespearian drama. Could I, please, study the theme of night, abundantly illustrated therein? There was the rub. I was told it would have to be "Night in the Literature of the English Renaissance". I later managed to have this tall order narrowed down to "Night in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Predecessors", which allowed me to conclude, 1,100 pages, and ten years later, in 1977. That bulk was virtually a minimum for the thèse d'Etat, and, as I was not a full-time researcher but one carying a regular teaching load, ten years was also the shortest period in which I could produce a thèse d'Etat. The personal anecdote is recorded here simply as a typical illustration of changes and resistances affecting University doctrine and Shakespearian scholarship in a decade of marked evolution.

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Early Shakespeare scholars

The people who defended theses on Shakespeare in the late 1970s had no Shakespearian scholar in the narrow sense of the term on their committees. There were none in the older generation for the reasons explained before. The definition of professional competence was much broader then than it is now. English literature was one's speciality over and beyond the thorough knowledge of any particular author or century acquired through ten, fifteen, or even, not infrequently, twenty years of doctoral studies. Jean-Jacques Mayoux is probably the most brilliant example of this generation less concerned with methodology than with literature and able to offer, with great charm, incisive and original comments on a surprisingly wide range of authors and works, Shakespeare included.

Henri Fluchère eventually wrote a dissertation on the XVIIIth century but it was for Shakespeare that he reserved his exceptional talent and commitment. He was the general editor of Shakespeare's works for the Pléiade two-volume Shakespeare (Paris, Gallimard 1963) currently under the process of being replaced by a new multi volume bilingual edition under the direction of Jean-Michel Déprats. The accuracy of factual information and the insight evinced by his introductions to the plays are remarkable to this day. The edition includes the outstanding verse translations of the Sonnets and Poems by Jean Fuzier that established his fame as a translator. These translations are to be kept in the new Pléiade. Three years later, in 1966, Fluchère brought out Shakespeare, dramaturge élisabéthain, an excellent study, resonant with the important critical debate of those years in the Oxford circles to which Fluchère belonged for many years. After being director of the Maison Française d'Oxford, Fluchère took a chair at the Université d'Aix-en-Provence. It was the region dear to his heart, not the least for being Jean Giono's country.

Though their research was not mainly concerned with Shakespeare, at least originally, four other academic figures also dominated Shakespeare studies in France. Jean Jacquot's reputation was very prominent in English Renaissance studies. He worked as a full time researcher for the Centre National de la Recherche (CNRS), and his knowledge of late English Renaissance culture--of music in particular--was second to none. He organized important international conferences on "Renaissance Stages", "Senecan Tragedy and Renaissance Drama", "Drama and Society in the Renaissance". These and the three-volume series which he edited in 1956 under the title Les Fêtes de la Renaissanceare milestones on the path retraced here. The key figures in Shakespeare and English Renaissance studies in Paris Universities were Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies (who succeeded Michel Poirier at the Sorbonne and was the first woman ever to have been elected to a chair in that university), Paul Bacquet and Robert Ellrodt both in Paris III after the Sorbonne had split up following the 1968 crisis. None of them had done the main bulk of their doctoral research on Shakespeare, yet all three would make important contributions in that field as time went by. Paul Bacquet came to Renaissance studies with a specialized knowledge of English medieval language and literature and did more than any one else to demonstrate that a thorough knowledge of the medieval background is indispensable to a Renaissance scholar. Throughout his career he taught in both fields to which he brought the warmth and charm of a passionate temperament. A great figure of English sudies in France and of French University which he fought to wrest from partisan factions, Robert Ellrodt offered for my generation an ideal of rigour and scholarship. His distinction served and honoured not only his specialized field, that of English metaphysical poets, but Renaissance and Shakespeare studies also.

Some years younger and with a distinction and style all his own, Richard Marienstras was teaching through the same period at the Institut d'Anglais Charles V of the Université of Paris VII. His contempt of academic honours, his charm--operating even in his unfinished conference papers!--and ability to bring his knowledge of a wide range of subjects and disciplines to bear on Renaissance literary criticism I, along with many others, have found most bracing. His book, Le Proche et le lointain (Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1981) reveals the many facets of his talent. Provincial universities counted other important figures of Renaissance studies: Félix Carrère in Aix-en-Provence, Michel Grivelet in Dijon, Fernand Lagarde in Toulouse, Louis Lecocq in Lyons, and Pierre Spriet in Bordeaux. While the energies of Grivelet, Lecocq, and Spriet had been initially channelled towards Thomas Heywood, John Marston, or Samuel Daniel, they were to turn eventually to the study of the Bard. The same would happen to younger scholars like Eliane Cuvelier, who succeeded Marie-Thérèse Jones Davies in the Sorbonne-Paris IV, or Christiane Gallenca (Nice) whose untimely death in 1989 shocked us all and deprived Elizabethan studies of a fresh and original talent.

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A new generation

The generation of, shall we say, Shakespearian-scholars-from-the-first appeared in the second half of the seventies and, as they went to receive their confirmation, they moved on tiptoe, in awe not so much of the "approv'd good masters" on their committees as of having, unlike them, dared choose Shakespeare as a topic for their dissertations. In 1976, Henry Suhamy, with a study of Shakespeare's handling of verse, and Michèle Willems, were the first two to be placed in this position. I was to follow in 1977 with my study of the theme of night. Michèle Willems opens the Preface to La Genèse du mythe shakespearien, 1660-1780 (Paris, PUF 1979), with the following symptomatic remark:

"One is almost tempted to make apologies for having dared write on Shakespeare. Yet no month goes by without an Anglo-saxon scholar adding a stone to the monumental edifice of Shakespearian criticism. Meanwhile, faced with this impressive yield, French criticism remains very discreet for the most part, as though paralysed by the feeling that all has been said on the Bard... (p. 7)."

Within a very few years these shivers were to disappear. Pierre Sahel defended a dissertation on La pensée politique dans les drames historiques de Shakespeare (Political Thought in Shakespeare's History Plays). He fought hard to show the dangers of an over-systematic application of Tillyard's theories to the study of the English history play.François Laroque wrote on Fête et littérature dans l'Angleterre élisabéthaine: L'Exemple du théàtre de Shakespeare. His study became widely known under the abbreviated titles Shakespeare et la Fête (Paris, PUF, 1988) and Shakespeare's Festive World. Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). His short and lavishly illustrated Shakespeare Comme il vous plaira (Gallimard, Paris, 1991) has been translated into many languages and is available in bookshops around the world as an attractive and popular introduction to Shakespeare and his world. Dominique Goy-Blanquet worked on Le Roi mis à nu: L'Histoire d'Henri VI de Hall à Shakespeare. Gisèle Venet, whose devotion to generations of students in the university of Sorbonne Nouvelle--Paris III is proverbial, wrote on Temps et vision tragique, Shakespeare et ses contemporains, Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1985. Jean-Pierre Maquerlot, then and now at the university of Haute Normandie in Rouen, did a study of Shakespeare and mannerism which is in the process of being published in translation by Cambridge University Press. One of the last massive thèses d'Etat was defended by Yves Peyré on myth in Elizabethan tragedy (published in an abridged form as La Voix des mythes dans la tragédie élisabéthaine by CNRS Éditions, Paris, 1996). The quality and scope of his work are such as to make one nostalgic about the old doctoral format, yet no "heavenly compulsion" stands in the path of the much reduced new format (the equivalent of a Ph.D. thesis) to keep it from producing equally brilliant work.

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Current institutions

The creation in 1977 of the Société Française Shakespeare (SFS) more or less coincided with the advent of those first dissertations dedicated to Shakespeare. Jean Fuzier was the prime mover behind the scheme. He made considerable efforts to convince the community of specialists that such an association was not only desirable but also long overdue. The incorporation of the Société was at last a sign that all those with an interest in the Bard and in English Renaissance studies were seeking not only to structure contacts amongst themselves but also to converse with members of societies affiliated the world over with the International Shakespeare Association. The International Shakespeare Conference held every two years at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon was perhaps the chief promoter of this new spirit, favouring as it does scholarly exchanges in a friendly atmosphere. Among the successive directors of the Institute, Terence Spencer, Philip Brockbank, and Stanley Wells--Peter Holland of late--all provided encouragement as well as a valuable example. Roger Pringle and Robert Smallwood did the same from their base in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. From the first, thanks to the good offices of Jean-Michel Déprats--who has emerged as the most active and competent translator of Shakespeare for the French stage and coordinates the new Shakespeare Pléiade edition for Gallimard-- the SFS worked in close collaboration with the theatre. Meetings with French or British actors and directors are a feature of all its annual conferences. It became clear that the new forum was an excellent stimulant for research as proved by the frequent and interesting contributions of lecturers like Raymond Gardette (Sorbonne-Paris IV), Margaret Jones-Davies (Sorbonne-Paris IV), or Jean-Pierre Villquin (Nantes). Henri Fluchère, Marie-Thérèse Jones Davies, Jean Fuzier, and Richard Marienstras have succeeded one another in the chair of the SFS. Marie-Thérèse Jones Davies served four terms of office and will be long remembered as a wonderfully active and totally devoted officer. I haveheld the fort since 1997.

Research centres dedicated, in part or totally dedicated to Elizabethan studies, as they tend to be called in France, had appeared or were soon to appear in Aix-en-Provence with Henri Fluchère, in Lille (Centre de Recherches sur l'Angleterre des Tudors à la Régence with Michèle Plaisant, Jean-François Gournay, Alain Morvan, and Serge Soupel), in Montpellier (Centre d'Études et de Recherches Élisabéthaines with Antoine Demadre, Jean Fuzier and myself), in Paris-Sorbonne (Centre de Recherches sur la Renaissance with Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies), in Rouen (Centre d'Études du théàtre Anglo-Saxon with Michèle Willems and Jean-Pierre Maquerlot), in Tours (with André Lascombes heading the English studies section of the Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance). There are signs that the impetus of the 1970s and 1980s is not waning. In 1992, Ann Lecercle, Pierre Iselin, and François Laroque launched T.I.M.E.E. (Textes, Images et Musiques à l'Époque Élisabéthaine), a research group associating members from various Parisian and provincial universities. The group is based at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and holds two conferences on sharply focused topics in January and June of each year. In 1994, François Laroque created I.R.I.S (Image, Représentations, Idéologie, Société aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles), an interdisciplinary centre regrouping scholars in Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III. French scholarship in Shakespearian and English Renaissance studies has so far maintained a happy balance between the necessity to diversify its approaches, the geographic anchoring of its research structures, and the no less imperative need to operate conjointly and offer thus its now customary high profile in the French academic world.

The Shakespeare play selected each year for the syllabus of Agrégation--and now only occasionally, alas, for CAPES--(the two national competitive examinations for would-be secondary or higher education teachers, open respectively to fifth and fourth year university students), has generated valuable scholarly activity. The 'demoting' of Shakespeare from the syllabus of CAPES was enforced in 2001 in the face of considerable national and international protest. It is a severe blow to traditional standards of culture in general and to French Shakespeare studies in particular. Between 1972 and 1992, Henri Suhamy was in charge of the Shakespeare course for the Centre National d'Enseignement à Distance (CNED) which provides students working in places remote from universities with lecture material. Suhamy set his sights very high indeed and produced a formidable series of lectures. The duty was eventually passed on to Pierre Iselin, a specialist on Shakespeare and Renaissance musicology who succeeded Suhamy in the University of Paris X-Nanterre prior to taking a chair in Sorbonne-Paris IV. Iselin carries the task in the same spirit and with like competence. A national conference of lecturers involved in the preparation of students for CAPES and Agrégation is organised each year by a different university under the auspices of the Société Française Shakespeare. The exchanges on these occasions have never failed to be stimulating, all the more so as the conferences are open to specialists from abroad. The proceedings are gathered in a volume in the weeks following the event and the quality of these collected essays proves beyond doubt that university teaching, if it is to be worthy of that name, requires a high level of commitment to research.

When the journal Cahiers Élisabéthains was launched at Montpellier in 1972, the founders, Jean-François Camé, Antoine Demadre, Jean Fuzier and myself--soon joined by Charles Whitworth who now co-edits it with Yves Peyré--decided to encourage publication in English. The decision was not an easy one since it would alienate from the enterprise any significant financial help much needed at first by any publication. France has, this century, been understandably--though sometimes exaggeratedly--touchy about the historic prerogatives of its national tongue. It remains a fact that English is the common language read, written, and spoken by all those engaged in the field of English studies. To publish in that tongue meant that the work of French scholars would become accessible not only to colleagues from Britain, Australia and America but also to colleagues elsewhere in Europe, Asia or Africa. It was not our intention to discourage others from learning French, we simply wanted to ensure a satisfactory level of professional communication. The internationally circulated journal has fulfilled its purpose as a successful and convenient research link between French scholars and their colleagues elsewhere in the world. The Theatre section contains detailed reviews of all major productions of Shakespeare in Britain and in France and is intended for historians of the theatre. Like the texts in the Articles and Notes sections, they have often been quoted from or overprinted in later publications of international scope. For thirty years Cahiers Elisabéthains was produced with loving care and attention by Angela Maguin who reread, corrected, set up the texts, and absorbed the remarkable technological evolution which affected printing equipment during this period. Her dedication is recorded here as an often silent but always vital contribution to the manifestation in printed form of English Renaissance and Shakespeare studies in France. This editorial responsibility has now passed into the hands of Janet Valls-Russell.

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The future of Shakespeare studies in France

We all hope that the dynamic recorded here will be carried well into the young twenty-first century by the new generation of French Shakespearian scholars, those whom my generation has encouraged and who have recently defended, or are about to defend, their doctoral dissertations. While the environment in which they work is often materially much more favourable and intellectually more stimulating because of the presence of research centres and regular seminars, their task is not made easier than their predecessors' because of the new format of the doctoral thesis that was brought in line with the Ph.D. This nouveau doctorat as it is still popularly known came into being in 1992. They are now expected to produce a persuasive study of Shakespeare, or some Renaissance-related topic, in four to five years. This is a very short time to acquire the background needed to bridge the 'wide gap' in time that separates us from the Elizabethan age. Renaissance humanism is, alas, no longer in the forefront of secondary school curricula, and Shakespeare is not taught before the second year in university, and then only summarily. It is our duty to remember that due to this reason the young generation starts off with a serious handicap. We must promote the necessary structures to allow them to overcome this. Regular research seminars, stimulating conferences, well-defined research topics, and generosity in terms of supervision time and bibliographical guidance all belong in the order of the day.

During the last decade new-format French dissertations, totally or partially focused on Shakespeare, have spanned such subjects, among others, as the concept of responsibility (Michèle Vignaux), iconography and performance (Anne Owens), the relevance of anthropology to the critical approach of specific plays (Anne Witte), the mirror of madness (Josée Nuyts-Giornal), the semiotics of dramatic performance (Patricia Dorval), emblem books and theatre (Delphine Lemonnier), the representation and construction of authority (Nicholas Myers), the representation of royalty and sovereignty in the history plays seen in context (Jean-Christophe Mayer), the rhetoric on/of treason in Shakespeare’s two tetralogies, and a digital edition of Richard II (Catherine Lisak), the discourse of physical and moral suffering (Marie-Christine Teulié-Munoz), music and theatre (Claire Bardelmann), the tradition of tragicomedy (Pauline Blanc), architecture and theatre (Muriel Cunin), cannibalism (Ladan Niayesh), invective (Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin), the rhetoric of copia (Laetitia Coussement-Boillot), ghosts and spirits on the stage (Pierre Kapitaniak).

J.-M. Maguin

Centre d'Études et de Recherches sur la Renaissance Anglaise
 UMR 5065 du CNRS,
 Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3

May 2002

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  1. Earlier versions of this account have appeared in in Shakespeare and France, A Publication of the Shakespeare Yearbook, volume 5, edited by Holger Klein and Jean-Marie Maguin, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter, 1995, pp. 359-72, and in Shakespeare Jahrbuch 133, 1997, ed Wolfgang Weiss, pp. 350-359. It is naturally updated here. [Back]