Internet Shakespeare Editions

4. The Romantic Period: Shakespeare's Assumed Polish Identity

Though after the third partition (1795) that divided the country among three Empires -- Russia, Prussia and Austria -- Poland did not exist any longer as a state, it survived in the minds and hearts of its inhabitants. The fall of the Polish state coincided with the beginning of Napoleon's career. He was treated by many as a possible liberator of the country. A Polish Napoleonic Legion was organised in Italy, and the Polish soldiers loyally fought side by side with his army at various fronts in the world. [Note 16] They hoped that Napoleon would eventually liberate their motherland. In successful wars against Prussia and Austria, the Duchy of Warsaw was created. After the defeat of Napoleon's army in Russia, the participants of the Vienna Congress (1815) agreed to recognise a Kingdom of Poland closely bound with Russia.

The political and economic exploitation by the three occupying powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, continued, affecting culture, which at the time constituted the Polish identity. Those oppressive policies ranged from suppression of the native language, literature, education, tradition, and institutions to imprisonment, massacre, and outright deportations to Siberia of the participants in any Polish patriotic gestures and rebellions. Exposed to foreign cultural domination, the Poles struggled for liberation of their motherland, or at least for the survival of their native aesthetic and intellectual heritage. [Note 17] During the so-called Great Emigration after 1831, many thousands of people, among them active intellectuals and men of letters, left the country, migrating to Germany, France, and Britain. For some decades, Paris became the centre of Polish cultural and political life.

Analysing the location of the Polish literary activities of this time in a balanced perspective is still regarded as a problematic issue. "A jungle of criss-crossing currents, of madly daring ideas, of self-pity and national arrogance, and of unsurpassed brilliancy in poetic technique," according to Czeslaw Milosz, "asks for constantly renewed explorations."

The struggle against the classical rules of good taste, which began in Poland [. . .] around 1820, concealed, from its inception, political undertones. Contrary to the brand of Romanticism that in many countries was identified with a withdrawal of the individual into his own internal world, Romanticism in Poland acquired an extremely activist character and was clearly a consequence of many ideas of the Enlightenment. (1969: 201)

The question arises in this context: What role did Shakespeare play in all this intellectual ferment that affected Polish political, social, and cultural life?

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Polish intellectual life was greatly under the influence of the Association of the Friends of Learning, whose authority was generally recognised by established literary and theatre critics. In 1811 Franciszek Wezyk (1785-1862), one of the youngest members of the Association, presented his eulogy of Shakespeare. In his speech delivered at one of the meetings, Wezyk rejected Voltaire's criticism and urged his learned colleagues to embrace the pro-Shakespeare arguments present in August Wilhelm Schlegel's work:

The English have only one writer, Shakespeare, in the field of comedy and tragedy. But he also is sufficient to establish the fame of that nation in both dramatic fields. We could speak at great length in the present study about this truly great, but little known writer. Here I shall have to limit myself to brief comments, but is it possible to express in mere words an opinion on one of the greatest geniuses of dramatic poetry? Who can exhaust all the innumerable observations on Shakespeare's many and so diverse works swarming one's memory? Following Horace who urged the Pisos to study the works of Greek writers, we shall only say that whoever writes poetry should read and profoundly study Shakespeare's works day and night. (qtd. Helsztynski: 1965: 16-17)

Yet Wezyk's presentation was received unfavourably, since Neo-classicism was generally declared by the Association as the only valid artistic trend. Its members stated that none of the English literary models, and Shakespeare in particular, could serve as "haec vos exemplaria nocturna versate manu, versate diurna." In the conclusion of their argument they unanimously condemned the young critic, who "dared to set himself up against the generally acknowledged rules, and followed the German writers who had been known as the initiators of bad taste" (qtd. Tomkowicz, 1878:36).

The Neo-classicists' dogmas were, however, entirely rejected when the first tide of Romanticism reached Poland at the end of the 1820s. [Note 18] The universal and enthusiastic admiration of Shakespeare shared by the Romantic poets of Poland, themselves striving with passion and energy not only against foreign cultural domination but also against the rule of classicism, failed at first to produce any good translations. Yet this was the time when Shakespeare began his lasting reign in Polish belles-lettres. Maurycy Mochnacki (804-1834) was one of the first Polish Romantics who advocated an interest in Shakespeare's drama. In his extremely controversial -- for that time -- article "Makbet: Shakespeare czy Ducis" ("Macbeth: Shakespeare or Ducis," 1829), Mochnacki revealed the inadequacy of the eighteenth century translations/adaptation, and urged Polish actors, directors, playwrights, and poets to return to the original version of Shakespeare's plays.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), the most eminent Polish Romantic poet and one of the most charismatic Romantic warriors against the oppressing Empires, propagated Shakespeare in his approach to poetry and drama. He opened, for example, his collection of works Poezja [Poetry, 1822], with the poem "Romantycznosc" ["Romanticism"], which he preceded with a paraphrase from Hamlet: "I see. Where? In my mind's eye." Deftly expressing the core of the Romantic theory of cognition, the quotation became the quintessential declaration of Polish Romanticism, while the play itself had numerous repercussions in theoretical and practical foundations of the best of the Polish Romantic tradition. [Note 19]

Though Mickiewicz's actual translations of Shakespeare's works was limited to one scene from Romeo and Juliet--at the time of his unrequited love--yet his fascination with Shakespeare's work pervades his own efforts in drama. Persecuted by the Russians, he epitomised in his life and his art the free, rebellious nature associated with Shakespeare's dramaturgy. And Mickiewicz's authority weighed heavily on the minds of the Polish Romantic generation, which adopted his aphorism: "Shakespeare should be the ultimate teacher of Polish dramatists" (1955: 387-388).

Mickiewicz's works were generally based on a loose structure, which was sometimes recognised as a revival of the traditional miracle plays. Yet his characters are fully developed psychologically and his impressively orchestrated collective scenes reveal not only a fantastic but also a realistic dimension. In Mickiewicz's dramas tragedy intertwines with comedy. They are filled with symbolism, allegory, hymnal pathos, bitter grotesque, and factual realism. His plays became dramatic models for many generations of Polish dramatists, especially because Mickiewicz turned his works into a strong indictment of the Tsarist regime, which persecuted helpless Polish people, even students and school children. Owing to Mickiewicz's and the other Romantic poets' efforts, Shakespeare stood at the foreground of Polish dramatic art, an art which became both romantic and pragmatic. The pragmatism took the form of a cultural and political agenda: the liberation of Poland from foreign domination.

Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849), another Polish Romantic poet and playwright, came quite early in his life under the spell of Shakespeare. While in London in 1831 he was able to see Edmund Kean as Richard III. It is a pity that he did not describe the performance in detail, though he noted that Kean's play gave him "great happiness," and that he "adored" his "perfect" acting (1899, Vol.1: 57). In Geneva (1834) Słowacki's fascination with Shakespeare intensified. He lived there in a hotel inhabited by English visitors with whom he spent most of his time, discussing in English religion, arts, and Shakespeare. The Polish poet "climbed mountains with Shakespeare" and "read his works under trees." His enchantment with Shakespeare became so profound that in December of the same year Slowacki admitted in one of the letters addressed to his mother that for the last two years Shakespeare had been "his lover" (1899, Vol. 1: 273). In the preface to his third volume of poetry, published the same year, Slowacki acknowledged Shakespeare as

the greatest poet in the world, better than Byron, Goethe, Dante, Calderon [. . .] because not only his heart, not only the thoughts of his time, but all human hearts and thoughts, independent from this epoch filled with prejudices, he [Shakespeare] painted and created with his power similar to the power of God. (qtd. Windakiewicz, 1910: 80)

Słowacki's interest in Shakespeare influenced his own dramatic output. In fact, the Polish poet appealed to Shakespeare as his Muse, seeking a model to follow in his transcendent values. In Kordian (1834), one of Słowacki's plays full of reflections on Polish history, its contemporary political situation, and the role of national literature, his main character delivers an invocation to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare! Spirit! You have built a mountain,.
 Higher than the mountain built by God!
 You told the blind about a precipice,
 And made the earth close to infinity.
 I would prefer to have my eyes shrouded with a cloud
 And look at the world with your eyes. (2. 1)

The invocation reflects the poet's interest in King Lear and his great respect for his dramaturgical and poetic model and ideal.

With time Słowacki's profound studies of Shakespeare's works and his own dramatic talent helped him to create some of the best Polish Romantic dramas. Needless to say, they were written after the manner of Shakespeare. Słowacki incorporated themes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth in his Balladyna, from Othello in his Mazepa, from King Lear in his Lilla Weneda (Ostrowski, 1964: 131-142). In his tragedy Horsztyński, Słowacki endows his hero with the features of Hamlet and in some measure evokes the general mood of the play. The dilemma of Szczesny Kossakowski, its main character, is similar to that of Shakespeare's prototype, yet Słowacki presents here a political reading of the original play. In Horsztyński Szczesny must choose between love for his father--a political traitor--and love for his motherland. The play has also some other parallels with Shakespeare's Hamlet: the sending of the character's mistress Amelia to a convent, the appearance of the Shadow (the Ghost) of his father, and Szczesny's soliloquy, almost a paraphrase of Shakespeare's "To be or not to be."

It was in this period that Hamlet became directly implicated in the Polish national cause. In his anonymous article "Byc albo nie byc" ["To Be or Not to Be"], published two months after the unsuccessful November Uprising, Maurycy Mochnacki announced:

This excerpt ["To be or not to be"] from Shakespeare's poem is to be taken now on as the emblem of the Patriotic Society. . . . This quotation expresses comprehensively the gist of our understanding of the matter and the basis of our politics. . . . Only the Shakespearean "to be or not to be" will save us. There is no middle between these two extremes. (qtd. Komorowski, 1992: 115-116)

The famous Shakespeare quotation, understood as "to fight or not to fight," assumed an entirely symbolic and even metaphorical dimension for centuries. In Polski Hamlet. Klopoty z dzialaniem [Polish Hamlet. Problems with Acting] published in 1988, Jacek Trznadel extended this understanding of Hamlet to the whole historic fate of the Polish nation commencing with Romanticism and finishing with the twentieth century. "This myth of the Polish Hamlet," Trznadel says, "testifies not only about the vitality of Shakespeare in the culture of this society. It is also--beginning from the partitions--the vitality of a certain idea and the ethos of a hero, who wants to act, even in the most difficult conditions, in the name of truth and justice" (1988: 310).

There were other Polish playwrights, less talented, who also followed Shakespeare's dramatic skills in their works, for example: Joseph Korzeniowski (1797-1863), Józef Conrad Korzeniowski's uncle in Aniela (1823), Jozef Szujski (1835-1885) in Jerzy Lubomirski (1862), Aleksander Swietochowski (1849-1938) in the trilogy Niesmiertelne dusze [Immortal Souls,1875] and Jan Kasprowicz (1860-1926) in Powstanie Napierskiego [Napierski's Revolt, 1899].

In his first play, Pan Geldhab (1819), Aleksander Fredro (1793-1876), another famous Polish Romantic playwright, introduced an interesting mixture of elements from Moliere and Shakespeare, which demonstrates how these dramaturgical tendencies confronted each other within the mainstream of Polish literature. Though Fredro looked at life with the eyes of his generation, the Romantics, all his comedies have classicist structure, presenting realistic characters and realist plots. In other words, his works come close to a Romantic realistic trend, which in Polish literature was frequently evident in novels, and which could only rarely be found in epic and dramatic poetry of that period.

Since throughout the whole of the nineteenth century Polish theatre generally operated under the unpredictable rule of censorship, which frequently paid attention to particular words and phrases, the plays of the main Polish Romantic poets had to wait many years to be staged. [Note 20] The situation was especially difficult under the Russian partition after the November Uprising in 1831, where censorship became tighter. The Tsarist censors classified the plays written by the Polish Romantic playwrights as politically dangerous, filled with conspiracies against rightful rules and government. In fact, the very word "tragedy" was understood as revolutionary, and tragedies were not permitted to be staged. In 1830-1861 the antique Greek and Roman tragedies, and the tragedies by Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine, Goethe and Schiller were censored in the theatre and in libraries.



[16] In 1801-1803 about five thousand Polish soldiers participated in the Napoleonic campaign to subjugate the Haitian revolution. Following the official French line, the soldiers initially viewed the black revolutionaries as rebels, yet they soon realised that the former slaves were fighting for the same ideals of freedom and independence to which they, the Poles, aspired (Askenazy, 1919: 316-317). [Back]

[17] Over the period 1794-1864 Polish people participated in many vain struggles to restore their country to the rank of independent nations: 1806--Napoleon's army enters Poland; 1807--creation of the Duchy of Warsaw; 1809--war with Austria, and the Duchy of Warsaw enlarged; 1812--100.000 Polish soldiers in Napoleon's march on Moscow; 1813--battle at Leipzig where Prince Poniatowski was killed; 1830-1831--The November Uprising against the Russians; 1846--Rising against the Austrians; 1848--Rising against the Prussians; in 1848-1849--Polish participation in the revolutionary movements in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania; 1863-1864--The January Uprising against the Russians. Each rising, each revolution was followed by more severe repression. [Back]

[18] For a detailed presentation of German literary, critical, and theatrical influence upon the Polish reception of Shakespeare see: Gibinska (2003: 54-69). [Back]

[19] Quotations from Hamlet preceded other important works of the Romantic period. Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady. Czesc II [The Forefather's Eve. Part II, 1823]; Zygmunt Krasinski's play Nie-Boska komedia [The Undivine Comedy, 1835]; Stefan Garczynski's play Waclaw dzieje [Waclaw's Story, 1832]; Cyprian Kamil Norwid's poems: "Moja piosenak" ["My Song"] and "Fraszka" ["An Epigram"]. Antoni Malczewski used the quotation "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," in his note to Maria, a play he wrote in 1825. [Back]

[20] The first theatrical productions of Mickiewicz's and Slowacki's dramas took place in Cracow where the censors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were less scrupulous. The first staging of a fragment Mickiewicz's Forefather's Eve was organized in 1848 and the first staging of Slowacki's Mazepa was presented only in 1851. [Back]