E M Valk

Shakespeare’s Realism and the Gallery

The German novelist Theodor Fontane (1819–98) also worked as a drama critic – in London in the fifties and later for 20 years in Berlin. As attested by frequent comments in his letters and novels as well as by his reviews, his great favourite was Shakespeare. (His early translation of Hamlet was not published until 1966 as part of the growing recognition Fontane has received in Germany since the last war.)

Fontane also invoked Shakespeare in a discussion of realism: ‘Realism is completely misconceived if it is thought of as once and for all wedded to ugliness; it will only be wholly authentic if, on the contrary, it is wedded to beauty, transfiguring the attendant ugliness, which is after all part of life. How to set about doing this? That needs to be discovered; the best way is that of humour. Actually, we have long had the perfection of realism in Shakespeare. Only, in his greatness he is not viewed exclusively in that light.’

Reviewing a performance in London on January 13, 1858 of Richard III, he said he came away convinced of ‘Shakespeare’s popularity especially among the lower strata of society.’ On another occasion, he contrasts this with the different approach to Shakespeare in Germany: ‘…with us, Shakespeare is performed only for the educated … we are too fastidious and all we gain by this fastidiousness is to be deprived of artistic enjoyment. Shakespeare is a people’s poet, a poet for all levels of the people.’

It is again the social implications with which Fontane is concerned when discussing the effect on the audience of a performance of Coriolanus in London on February 8, 1857: ‘Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was put on at Sadler’s Wells here yesterday, the first time for ages. What I want to point out in connection with the performance is this: Sadler’s Wells is situated on the edge of the borough of Islington, a few thousand paces from Smithfield Market, where barely two weeks ago some ten thousand, according to other estimates twenty thousand, unemployed workers assembled in what The Times sarcastically termed a “socialist parliament”. Remarks were dropped about the “high price of bread”, “stored-up grain”, the “mania for speculation by the rich exploiting the people’s poverty”, etc. Last night, within little more than gunshot range of said Smithfield, Coriolanus was performed before, certainly in part at least, people whose social position was tailor-made to incline them to identify with those jobless workmen. Sucking their oranges, the people of Islington were ensconced in the pit and top gallery*, and every time Caius Marcius mocked at the people of Rome, every time he bid them wash their faces and clean their teeth, the house would invariably resound with roars of delight. This is a small touch, but it is characteristic. The Englishman has a higher regard for the Coriolanuses than for the rabble rousers, the tribunes of the people. Even the common man in this country stands in sincere, genuine awe of rank and wealth. In other capitals, one would in such circumstances have taken good care not to stage such a play. Here this can all be done. The people are either too clever or, for all I know – too dim. Either way, it’s a blessing.’

*The price of admission, in spite of the company’s high standing, was very low – gallery, 6d. Oranges are not expensive over here and are eaten by the poorest, just as apples are with us.

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