August: The Taming of the Shrew and the German Language

Between 1590 and 1592, William Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew. It is play in which a spirited young woman is humiliated and repressed to produce a submissive and obedient wife. What might in the twenty-first century be a story moving towards tragedy was, in the sixteenth century, a story on the high road of comedy. Shakespeare took his story from George Gascoigne’s Supposes; George Gascoigne took his story from Ludovico Ariosto’s I Suppositio; Ludovico Ariosto took his story from the comedies of Plautus. All were men mocking women in a misogynistic tradition as ancient as storytelling itself.

In fact, there was no need to go to Plautus. ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was a motif found in folk stories all over Europe. Usually, the taming was done by beating, but there were variations. A popular one had the man shoot his horse, saddle his woman and ride her home. Another version had the man pay a fine in advance for breaking the woman’s arm.  In Shakespeare’s telling of the tale, the woman initially bests the man by the quickness of her tongue but she is eventually subdued by deception and starvation.

Katherine, the Shakespeare’s shrew-heroine, ends by telling women that  ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper’. At the beginning of the play, she tells Petruchio, the bully-hero, something different:

          Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
          Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
          Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
          Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
          Katherine: In his tongue.
          Petruchio: Whose tongue?
          Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
          Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act 2, Scene 1)

Modern and post-modern critics have found ways to exonerate Shakespeare by developing ironic, subversive, even feminist, readings of the play, but it is likely that Shakespeare was not rising above his age and times. Nonetheless, he wrote a great number of powerful parts for women, for his tragedies and histories certainly - Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Volumnia.  He wrote comic roles for powerful women, too - Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind. If his strong heroines are regularly related by blood or marriage to strong men, they are nonetheless strong-minded and more than usually eloquent.

King Lear, weeping the death of his daughter, speaks of her voice as being ‘low’, adding ‘an excellent thing in woman’, but Shakespeare loved a loud woman. He may have presented her as a sex object, but she would not be denied her sexuality. Shakespeare loved his women to talk smut: filling women’s speech with sexual innuendo was simultaneously sexist and liberated. Shakespeare got a male thrill from the dirty words on virgin lips, but Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola are not degraded by their language. They sound strong; they look strong; they are strong.

Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew is of the party of the strong women of Shakespeare’s comedies, and she is in her element in bandying words with foul-mouthed Petruchio. The talk is of wasps and stings and tongues and tails. Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy demonstrates that in Elizabethan English almost any object could represent the penis, even the tongue, especially the tongue. Katherine out-tongues Petruchio, and he cries quits: ‘What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman’. And ‘come again’ contains its own obscenity.

The exchanges of Katharine and Petruchio are loaded with sexual innuendo and insult. The stakes are high, and Petruchio can only lay claim to a real victory over women if he undertakes to tame a fierce one. Kate is certainly fierce, and we can be sure that she knows what she is doing and saying and that her audience, a mixed one, knew what she was doing and saying.

The Taming of the Shrew was a popular play and not only in England. English players were taking Shakespeare’s plays abroad within years of their being written. Romeo and Juliet was being played (presumably in German) in Nordlingen in Swabia as early as 1604, but it is not till later in the seventeenth century that German translations of the plays begin to survive. In 1693, The Taming of the Shrew was performed in Zittau in Saxony. The translator, Christian Weise, called the play Komodie von der bösen Catherine. The Comedy of the Evil Catherine draws on folktale as much as it does Shakespeare. Catherine is rocked in a cradle and beaten on the soles of her feet.

The Germans were still treating Shakespeare as an everyday source of good theatre fodder. He had not yet been made a sacred figure but that was coming. In the eighteen century, The Taming of the Shrew was translated as Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung, and it was in the eighteenth century that serious attention began to be given to Shakespeare by German speakers.

In the eighteenth century, the German language was being transformed into a vehicle of high art, culture and learning: that required effort and inspiration. Martin Luther had given German speakers a model for literary German as early as 1522 when he had published his German New Testament, but the refining of German, in the Renaissance phrase, took a long time to mature. Similar refinings had taken place in Italy, Spain, France, and England as scholars readied their mother tongues for the purpose of bearing the burden of learning, a task for which Latin was beginning to fail. Italy had its Dante, France its Racine, Spain its Cervantes, England its Shakespeare, but Germania lacked a comparable figure who could show the full maturity and secularisation of the everyday vernacular.

The greatest figure of the German eighteenth century denied that any refining of the German language was taking place. He even denied that it could take place. Frederick the Great thought German a ‘coarse and still virtually barbaric’ language. He refused to have it used in his court or in his theatres. For Frederick, the only language to match the ancient languages was French, the language in which he wrote his poems, essays, plays and songs.  According to the most recent of Frederick’s hundreds of biographers, the king wrote beautiful French but deliberately wrote a ‘crude, misspelt and ungrammatical’ German 

With such a love of French, it is not surprising that he despised Shakespeare. ‘To see just how bad contemporary taste in Germany is, just visit any theatre,’ he wrote. ‘There you will see the abominable plays of Shakespeare being performed in German translations and the audiences deriving great pleasure from these ridiculous farces which merit only to be performed in front of savages in Canada.’ Frederick had a lot to complain about for the Germans were coming not only to love Shakespeare, they were beginning to worship him. By 1782, the translation of every Shakespeare play into German had been accomplished.

It was at this time that Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote: ‘The first page of Shakespeare that I read made me his for life. I jumped high in the air, and for the first time, I felt that I had hands and feet.’ Shakespeare, says Neil MacGregor, ‘introduced Goethe to the idea that language could be used to express deep thoughts and raw emotions.’ Goethe was joined in his celebration and emulation of Shakespeare by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried Herder. The impact of these writers was to deflect ‘the entire course of German cultural history’ from the French models to English models. 

The great German translator of Shakespeare was August Wilhelm Schlegel. Schlegel ranked Shakespeare with Dante, and in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, Schlegel saw the highest achievement of human art. If he took the tragedies more seriously than the comedies, Schlegel did not overlook the comedies. Of The Taming of the Shrew, he said: ‘That the obstinacy of a young and untamed girl, possessed of none of the attractions of her sex, and neither supported by bodily nor mental strength, must soon yield to the still rougher and more capricious but assumed self-will of a man: such a lesson can only be taught on the stage with all the perspicuity of a proverb.’

Today, Shakespeare has been translated in eighty of the world’s languages, but it was into German that he was first fully translated, and the Germans were the most ardent of the foreign admirers of Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare was so loved among German speakers that they began to call him ‘unser Shakespeare’ - ‘our Shakespeare’.  From adopting Shakespeare, it was a short step to fathering him. The belief arose that a German leather merchant passing through Stratford-upon-Avon in August 1563 had, unbeknownst to John Shakespeare, impregnated Mary Shakespeare. That alone could account for genius of that order to arise in the wilderness that was England.

German intellectuals felt such an affinity with Shakespeare that not even the First World War diminished it. In 1916, Gerhart Hauptmann, the German dramatist and Nobel prize winner, told the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (the German Shakespeare Society): ‘Shakespeare's figures are part of our world, his soul has merged with ours: and if he was born and buried in England, it is in Germany where he truly lives.’

One hundred years later, Shakespeare is no longer so ardently loved in Germany just as he is no longer so fully despised in France, but it is worth asking why he was once so much loved by the Germans and part of the answer might be found in why he was once so disliked by the French.  It could be that language explains why. German and English are both Germanic languages; one thousand years ago, Old English and Old German were alike sharing common features of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and phonology. Two thousand years ago, German and English were identical. That is to say that both modern languages have developed from an ancient language called Proto-Germanic.

Today, German and English are very different and a major cause of that difference is the linguistic pressure exerted on the English language by French for five hundred years following 1066. That profoundly changed English grammar, syntax, vocabulary and phonology to the point that most English people find it much easier to learn French than they do German. Nonetheless, it is equally true that the Germans learn to speak English better than the French, at least in terms of its being easier on the English ear to hear German stress patterns than French stress patterns.

That is because English remains at root a Germanic language despite the great overlay of Italic (that is, French and Latin) elements. German speakers might then find themselves feeling more at ease reading Shakespeare than French speakers, but the Germanic roots of English cannot entirely account for the German love of Shakespeare.

Other speakers of Germanic languages such as the Dutch or the Danes like Shakespeare, but they have never worshipped him, never called him ‘onze Shakespeare’. The German love of Shakespeare cannot be explained by linguistics. There must be something else in play, and the French story points to what that might be.

Shakespeare began to be played in France at about the same time that he was noticed in Germany and that was in the middle seventeenth century, but Shakespeare playing in Paris was not playing to an audience used to strolling players, translations and an adapted folktales. French theatre-goers were tuned to the offerings of the great classical French playwrights: Corneille, Moliere and Racine.

In seventeenth century France, Shakespeare’s plays did not offer a new way of writing; they seemed to retrograde. They smacked of the medieval; they smelled of the groundlings. They did not observe the classical unities. They did not place violence off stage. They did not purify their language. It might be said that the glories of French classical theatre blinded the French to the glories of Shakespeare.

When the seventeenth-century French read Shakespeare, they did not feel what Johann Wolfgang Goethe felt: that ‘for the first time’ he had ‘hands and feet’. When the eighteenth-century Germans read Shakespeare, they found what they wanted to make them stand tall and grasp life. Shakespeare helped the Germans to create German literature. For that reason he became their Shakespeare.

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Next Month’s English Project Language: In September, we will look at Othello and the Arabic Language.


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