Internet Shakespeare Editions

1. What Did Shakespeare Know About Poland?

Though episodes and motifs from Macbeth, Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet reached Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through various Polish poetic and narrative renditions of popular Italian romances and novellas, Ludwik Bernacki is indeed right in stating that "Shakespeare had displayed his knowledge about Poland earlier than the Polish people got acquainted with his name" (1930: 376-378). [Note 1] Indeed, the references to Poland in The Comedy of Errors (1592-1594), Hamlet (1600-1601) and Measure for Measure (1604) testify that the playwright must have read or heard at least about the Polish climate. Heavy Polish winters must have been known in Elizabethan England quite well; Shakespeare mentioned this atmospheric phenomenon in The Comedy of Errors -- where he wrote about "a winter in Poland" (3. 2. 97) which would demand piles of fuel to lighten its darkness and keep warm in its cold -- and in Hamlet, where he introduces "the sledded Polacks on the ice" (1.1.66). The presence of Poland in Measure for Measure does not reveal, however, any meteorological specificity of the country. The Viennese Duke confides in the Friar that Angelo "supposes [him] travell'd to Poland" (1.3.14), a reference that is frequently treated by some Poles as confirmation of Shakespeare's knowledge of Central European geography.

It is also possible that Shakespeare knew about the significance of Poland in the sixteenth century. Its strong economic, political, and cultural political standing was well known in Europe (Davis, 1981, vol. 10). After all, under the reign of Johann Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), Poland became widely recognised as a Baltic power which could any time endanger the growing English commercial and political interests in that region. Its sustained burst of economic activity affected many European countries. In 1596-97, for example, the import of Polish grain balanced the English deficit (Mierzwa, 1986: 6-7). The Polish long-lasting alliance with the Spanish and Habsburg courts contributed to its significant position in the politics of the Continent (Przybos and Zelezewski, 1959: 152). Holding the line against the Islam and the Muscovite schismatics, Poland's "place in Europe" was unquestioned: it was the "bulwark of Christianity" (Tazbir, 1971: 63-78 and Rose, 1945), though long-practiced religious toleration was made a fundamental law only in 1573. "Whatever imperfections might have attended the translation of this principle into practice," Witold Chwalewik maintains that "the large reality that was Poland had become, in Renaissance Europe, the only extensive area where religious liberty was a considerable fact of life" (1968: 11). For a while Poland became a refuge for both British Catholics and various Protestant adherents of sects and religions. In addition, at that time many Polish noblemen visited England, where they were praised for their education and manners. [Note 2]

Shakespeare's Hamlet appears to support the dramatist's knowledge, or at least awareness, of Poland, since in this play Poland and Norway provide the European background of international politics. As Teresa Baluk points out, the English translation of Goƛlicki's De optimo Senatore was probably the source of "Polonius" ("Polish" in Latin). De optimo Senatore was a political and social classic, widely read at the time of its publication. [Note 3] Goƛlicki was known in Europe under the name of Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius. His treatise on the Ideal Senator, originally written in Latin (1568), was published in Venice (1568), republished in Basel (1593), and then translated and published in English as The Counsellor in 1598 and in 1607. Polish scholars usually regard Goƛlicki's work as a repository for Shakespeare's political ideas on foreign politics and as a verbal template for his political witticisms.


The title page of Wawrzyniec Gosƛicki's The Counsellor, London 1598. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Well over a hundred years ago, Israel Gollancz observed a similarity between the character of Polonius and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Queen Elizabeth's aged principal minister. Gollancz suggested that Shakespeare's Polonius might have been a satire on Burghley (qtd. Bernacki, 1930: 388, note 1; Chwalewik, 1968: 19-20). Though time has made these references obscure for contemporary readers and theatregoers, yet it is Polonius, the verbose and ineffective politician, who is responsible for giving the Norwegian army permission to march against Poland (Baluk-Ulewicz, 1994: 29-39). In the first quarto of the play, "Polonius" is named "Corambis" ("reheated cabbage" in Latin, i.e. "a boring old man").

At the peak of Stalinism in Poland, Witold Chwalewik wrote his controversial monograph Polska w "Hamlecie" (Poland in "Hamlet"), a profound textual analysis of echoes of the Polish Renaissance apparently present in Shakespeare's Hamlet (1956). Later, Chwalewik pushed his idea further, stating in his article, "The Legend of the King Popiel: A Possible Polish Source of Hamlet," that Hamlet was, in fact, based on the fusion of two sources: the Danish -- the first nine books on the Danish History of Saxo-Grammaticus -- and the Polish -- the semi-legendary story on King Popiel eaten by mice that a Polish and many popular European chronicles reprinted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (1965: 99-126). There is no doubt that much of the evidence that Chwalewik presents in his monograph and in his essay is tendentious. And he himself was aware that it "surely is a wild fancy" (1965: 115), but "at the time of heavy censorship and social-realism, he promoted the history of the Polish 'Golden Age,' and in this way he made his readers look with nostalgia upon the times of Polish independence and greatness in the international political, artistic and literary spheres" (Kujawinska Courtney, 2001: 52). [Note 4]

Chwalewik's works were not the first attempt to appropriate a play by Shakespeare's for the propagation of Polish history and culture. In the nineteenth century Jacob Caro, an eminent German historian of Polish origin, ascribed to Shakespeare the use of Polish sources for his Winter's Tale, The Tempest and Love's Labour's Lost. Though he published his work on Polish medieval history in German, his Geschichte Polens evoked an unprecedented interest among Polish intellectuals. Literary critics became greatly interested in the presentation of various Polish historical events as a possible source/analogue for these plays (Stadnicki, 1873; Dobrowolski 1875; KoĆșmian, 1876). Paying his tribute to Caro, Stanislaw KoĆșmian, for example, stated that the German historian

maintains that in other dramas [. . .] Shakespeare knew, if not Polish history, at least some of its eminent events. [. . .] In any case the scholar deserves appreciation for his current research in this subject. (1881: 482)

In addition, one can trace in nineteenth century Poland some attempts at analysing Shakespeare's plots in the context of Polish oral tradition, where one can find, for example, a folklore song based on the plot of "the ungrateful daughters and their elderly father" (Karlowicz, 1894; Jastrzebowski, 1894, 1895 and 1899; Lopacinski, 1895 and 1898; qtd. Lopacinski, 1895: 769). In other words, when Poland did not exist as an independent state under the partitions (1772-1918), "scattered references to Poland and [Shakespeare's] possible borrowings from Polish history stirred," as Andrzej WeseliƄski demonstrates, "national pride of Polish audiences," and helped "promote the significance of [the] country in the international arena." It also helped reclaim the glorious past of the Kingdom of Poland, which once played an important role in the political and cultural life of Europe (2003: 181-182).



[1] If not indicated otherwise, all translations are mine. [Back]

[2] As archival records reveal Jan Laski as "John O'Lasco," Olbracht Laski and Jan Zamojski, in particular, were especially well-known in Tudor England (Kot, 1935: 49-137). [Back]

[3] For a comprehensive survey of Elizabethan publications, which appropriated Goslicki's work, see Balukowna (1988: 258-277). [Back]

[4] It is indeed a paradox that his works on Polish Renaissance texts is held with esteem by historians, while he is usually slighted by literary critics (KujawiƄska Courtney: 2001:52). [Back]