Internet Shakespeare Editions

3. The Enlightenment: Criticism and Theatrical Productions

While the Renaissance is often called the Golden Age of Polish culture, the Enlightenment, though short but intense, constituted a bridge between this apparently lost heritage and tradition, and the culture of modern times. The reign of King Stanisław August Poniatowski (1732-1798), which coincided with the cultural revival, brought about the first partition of Poland (1772)--a political event that had been long anticipated. Russia occupied the territories to the east of the rivers Dnieper and Dvina. Prussia took Pomerania, and Austria took the southeastern part of Poland (also called Galicia). The shock to which the Poles were exposed facilitated the efforts of the progressive thinkers and practitioners to introduce political, social, and cultural reforms. The Constitution of May 3 in 1791 established Poland as a modern democratic country, causing an immediate reaction on the part of the occupying powers. The second partition took place in 1793. Russia took over nearly all of the Ukraine and the larger part of the Byelorussian region north of the Pripet Marshes. Prussian provinces reached practically to the Warsaw neighbourhood. [Note 7]

In 1794 an insurrection, known in history as the Kosciuszko Insurrection, was organised. Educated in France, its leader, Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), gained international fame for his participation as an officer in the American Revolution. [Note 8] After initial victories, the Polish insurrectionist army could not indefinitely resist the joined military forces of Russia and Prussia. The third and last partition of Poland, this time with Austria's active participation, took place in 1795, and Poland, as a state, disappeared from the maps of Europe for over one hundred and forty years.

Throughout the Enlightenment the influence of French culture upon the Polish intellectual elite became enormous and discernible in the press, literature, education, theatre, science and politics. [Note 9] In time French translations of prominent English writers of the Age of Enlightenment played an instrumental role in the initial dissemination of their works in Poland. Since the times were dominated by the powerful influence of pseudo-classical French literature, they were not propitious for a true understanding of Shakespeare. In the light of the Neo-classical trends and ideas, his works, the product of the Elizabethan Renaissance, seemed foreign and incomprehensible. The majority of the early eighteenth century Polish opinion of his works strongly resembled the criticism of the English playwright presented by Voltaire (1694-1778) in his Letters Concerning the English Nation. [Note 10] Yet some critical works appeared that exhibited a striking similarity to the critical writing of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), particularly in "The Preface" of his edition in The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765). Johnson's work contributed immensely to the Polish perception of Shakespeare at that time.

Though generally the Polish Enlightenment religiously followed the French neo-classical doctrines on the dramatic three unities, it also embraced, at first timidly, the current English interpretations. Dr. Johnson's "broad-minded, intelligent, and imaginative reading of Shakespeare," as Marta Gibinska succinctly observes, "[. . .] seems to be the first doorway through which Shakespeare was able to enter onto the Polish cultural stage" (2003: 56).

A year after his accession to the throne, Stanisław August Poniatowski built Warsaw's first public theatre. He encouraged the formation of a group of intellectuals who generated a periodical, Monitor, where the first genuine Polish criticism of Shakespeare appeared. [Note 11] These articles were written, for example, by Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski (1734-1823), Józef Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801), Franciszek Bohomolec (1720-1784), and Franciszek Zabłocki (1750-1821). Though Czartoryski is usually mentioned among the first admirers of the playwright, his opinions present in the "Foreword" to Panna na wydaniu. Komedyja w dwoch aktach. [A Miss Ready to Be Married. A Comedy in Two Acts] (1771), his Polish adaptation of the play by David Garrick Miss in Her Teens or the Medley of Lovers, is severely critical. He admitted that the English playwright was blessed with many talents, but also signalled his lack of formal academic training, which, according to the Prince, contributed to numerous irregularities present in Shakespeare's works (Bernacki, 1930: 396).

Ignacy Krasicki, the bishop of Warmia and Mazury district, and one of the most prominent Polish writers of the Enlightenment era, initially expressed opinions identical to Czartoryski's objections towards Shakespeare (1790). Later under the pseudonym "Teatralski," he published one of the most progressive opinions on Shakespeare of his time in Monitor (nr. 65, 1766). Krasicki wrote:

The truth is that the spectators are always in full command of their faculties, and from the first act to the last they know that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players. They come to listen to verses delivered in an elegant diction and accompanied with appropriate gestures. The verses reveal an action, and the action is located in a place. Frequently the action starts in one place and it completes in another. And there is nothing ridiculous in moving the action from Athens to Sicily when the audience knows that it actually takes place on the same theatrical stage, which represents first Athens and next Sicily.

Defending Shakespeare against the neo-classical dogma of three unities, Krasicki was not original. As he himself admitted, his argument was based on Johnson's "Preface" to his 1764 edition of the playwright's works.

King Stanisław August himself was a zealous reader and admirer of Shakespeare in the original. Apparently even before his journey to England in 1754, where he had had the opportunity to admire London theatrical performances, the king had translated fragments of Julius Caesar (1.1-3) into French. In his Dairy written in French, Poniatowski praised Shakespeare for his presentation of details and for his art of producing a convincing illusion (1994: 141). His royal library abounded with Shakespeare's works both in the original English and in translation. When in 1776 the French translations of Shakespeare's plays by Pierre Le Tourneur appeared, the name of "Biblioteque du Roi et de la Republique Pologne" was listed as one of the purchasers (Komorowski, 2002: 13). Under the royal initiative Shakespeare's sculpture was commissioned and displayed in the Łazienki Park Theatre in Warsaw (Bernacki, 1925: 168; Szwankowski, 1979: 38).

The eighteenth century witnessed the first instance in Poland of a female interest in Shakespeare's art. Princess Izabella Czartoryska (1746-1835), who was fascinated by his works in French translations, learned English in order to read him in the original. In April 1790, Mm. Czartoryska reported from London that in Pall Mall she had visited J. Boydell's exhibition of pictures inspired by Shakespeare's works (1790a: 24-25). The same day she sent a letter to her daughter Maria Wirtemberska, in which she informed her that she "subscribed" not only for herself but also for her daughter "the great Boydell's edition of Shakespeare's works" and that she would "pay for them both." Czartoryska became especially fascinated with acting of Sarah Siddons, whom she frequently saw in theatre, and with various memorabilia of David Garrick whom she regarded as an eminent interpreter of Shakespeare (Golebiowska, 1983/1984: 135). [Note 12] In June 26, while touring around Britain, the Princess went to Stratford-upon Avon to get , as she said, the "alive truth" about Shakespeare (1790b).


Izabela Czartoryska (1777), picture by Giuseppe Filippo Liberati Marchi. Click on the image to see a larger version.

After she returned to Poland, she ensured that Shakespeare's art was often the subject of intellectual and artistic discussions led by the people who frequented her famous Warsaw salon. To promote his art, Mm. Czartoryska organised the first exhibition in Poland of Shakespeareana, which displayed some English editions of Shakespeare's plays and items that she had bought in England and that supposedly had belonged to Shakespeare, e.g., his chair and his pipe. Though it is difficult to assess with assurance the importance of Mm. Czartoryska's contribution to the promotion of Shakespeare's art in Poland, it cannot be completely dismissed. Her fascination with Shakespeare memorabilia was not much different than the fascination of other European critics and thinkers. After all, at this time, when Bardolatory was in its early stages, many other foreign visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon bought the same kitschy objects in large numbers (Kujawińska Courtney, 1996: 23-24).

Whatever its source, the eighteenth century witnessed growing interest in Shakespeare. Though numerous productions of his works were presented at the theatres of Warsaw, Cracow and Lvov in the early years of the century, they were mainly translations of German or French versions, performed by foreign companies. And they presented Shakespearean texts mutilated, altered and adapted to meet the pseudo-classical taste. The entry of Shakespeare into the repertoire of Polish theatres began with Wojciech Bogusławski's stagings of Romeo and Juliet (1797) in Lvov. He used as his text Bishop Kossakowski's translation of Sebastien Mercier's adaptation Les Tombeaux de Verone. After his first successful attempt to produce Shakespeare in Polish, Bogusławski staged Hamlet (1798) in Lvov. This time "the Father of the Polish Theatre" used his own and Jan Nepomucen Kamienski's translations of the German version by Friedrich Ludwig Schroder (1744-1816). [Note 13]

The frequency of Bogusławski's revival of Hamlet confirms his opinion that it was a great theatrical success. [Note 14] Though his stagings of play were in Polish, a benefit to his audience, his Hamlet was far from the original because it was presented in a pseudo-classical guise. In the "Uwagi nad Hamletem ["Remarks on Hamlet"] attached to his version of the play, Bogusławski's justified his treatment of the original:

Ignoring the dramatic rules by the introduction of secondary events that destroy the unity of the action, [Shakespeare's play] murders the listener's mind by bringing on the stage indecent people and repulsive sights, which lower the dignity of tragedy. In its denouement it misses the moral point, punishing with death also the innocent. In a more enlightened age it could be neither staged without a decent correction nor completely forgotten because of its other undeniable beauties that only Shakespeare's genius could create and mark with a trace of immortality. (qtd. Tarnawski,1955: Lxxxvi)


Hamlet (3.3), illustration from Wojciech Bogus?awski's Dramatic Works. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Bogusławski's ignored the gravediggers' scene. Fortinbras disappeared as apparently the character is not connected with the main plot of the play. Hamlet did not go to England because this trip destroyed the unity of time and place. He was not killed in a duel, since he was not guilty. For a better tragic effect Ophelia's death was preserved, but in the final scene Hamlet and Laertes shook hands in reconciliation over Claudius's body.

The ending of the play could be, in fact, treated as the beginning of Polish cultural appropriation of Shakespeare's plays. When Hamlet, as the legal ruler ascended the Danish throne, the servants on their knees begged him for forgiveness because of their previous disloyalty. It is possible that this unusual denouement was prompted by contemporary political events in Poland, if not directly, then by analogy, especially since Bogusławski's was known as a devout patriot. [Note 15] His interpretation of play made, in fact, a direct comment upon the current Polish situation. Such an alteration of the original reminded the Polish public of their allegiance to the Polish crown and to Polish statehood. The first Polish staging of Hamlet coincided with the defeat of the Kosciuszko's Uprising in 1794, the third and final partition of Poland in 1795 and the death of Stanislaw August Poniatowski's death in Russian exile in 1795 (Kurek: 1999: 9-40).

Bogusławski's Hamlet was so overwhelmed with political issues that he was unable to act. Yet as the rightful heir to the throne, the Prince had to punish the usurper and restore the original order of the world destroyed by the crime. In Bogusławski's production social and political issues became responsible for Hamlet's spiritual irresolution, while the transcendental dimension of the tragedy assumed a secondary importance.

Among the other Shakespeare plays that Bogusławski presented were Polish translations of Ducis's versions of Othello (1801) and King Lear (1805) and of Schiller's version of Macbeth (1812). Though his pseudo-classical productions were far removed from their English originals, they were crucial in establishing Shakespeare's significance in the repertories of Polish theatres in the centuries to come.

At the end of the eighteenth century the first Polish adaptations of Shakespeare works appeared. In 1775 Twins, a play written by Bohomolec was strongly influenced by Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, while in 1782 Zabłocki's Żołnierz Samochwał albo amant wilkolak (Braggart-Soldier or the Werewolf Lover), based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, was published.



[7] Austria did not participate in the second partition. [Back]

[8] In America Kosciuszko distinguished himself for erecting the fortification of West Point and Saratoga, and by the end of the war he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. The money and estate that he received for his service, Kosciuszko spent on "the foundation of a school for the children of the Black slaves, and the cost of their liberation, so that they would be educated, and so that they would become better fathers, better mothers, better sons, and better daughters" (qtd. Kuczynski, 1990: 37-38). [Back]

[9] French culture is also largely responsible for the dissemination of English literature and literary criticism (Kilmowicz, 1988: 6-7). The English language was gradually becoming popular in late eighteenth century Poland and even made its way into curricula of Polish schools (Cieśla, 1974: 79-80; 179-181) Earlier English language was regarded as less elegant than French and was greatly underestimated. Initially English authors were read in French translations and adaptations. Moreover, in many cases, English literary criticism also reached Poland through French translations. [Back]

[10] Voltaire's dogmas could be also seen in Polish plays written at that time. The drama moved toward a concise, clear-cut, French-style comedy of manners, usually in verse. Certain comic figures (e.g. Pop-Suitor) or an old-fashioned, conservative way of thinking (e.g. Sarmatian mentality) introduced by various playwrights, were to have a long life on the Polish stage. [Back]

[11] TheMonitor, the first Polish periodical for which The Spectator was an example, was published in Warsaw in 1765-1785. Edited by Bohomolec, the journal greatly influenced public opinion. The main aim of The Monitor, a highly moralistic publication, was to propagate political, social and cultural reforms. [Back]

[12] Her interest in Garrick was so well known that some years later Siddons wrote her letter (unfortunately, undated) asking Czartoryska for help in collecting various documents and objects associated with the famous British actor (Undated letter, nr. 2770: 126-127). [Back]

[13] Wojciech Bogusławski's (1757-1829) was nominated the manager-director of the first Polish National Theatre in 1783, and he held this position with brief intervals till 1829. He was also the initiator and organizer of theatres in Poznan, Vilnus and Lvov (1795-1799). This outstanding Polish manager/director translated about 80 plays and wrote his own dramas. [Back]

[14] In his notes Bogusławski's wrote: "The tragedy , produced for the first time in our native tongue, made a great and varied impression, and because of its success with the public, was repeated several times (qtd. Tarnawski: 1955: Lxvi). He staged the play for example in Vilnus (1808), in Cracow (1817), in Kamien Pomorski (1821), in Human (1827) as well as in a Polish theatre in Kiev (1816). [Back]

[15] Just after the Kosciuszko Insurrection in the spring of 1794, Bogusławski's staged his own comedy: Cud mniemany czyli Krakowiacy i Gorale (A Supposed Miracle or the Cracovians and the Highlanders). The play was very soon banned by the censors, because it contained couplets aimed against Russia. (See also: Gott 1971). [Back]