The Strange and the Familiar: Shakespeare as a Point of Anglo-Germanic Cultural Exchange
Woolbert, Elizabeth Tyrrell
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One way of approaching an argumentative, academic essay is to conceive of two parts: a site, or subject of examination, and a lens, the context or paradigm in which the scholar examines that subject. This thesis illustrates the process by which the works of William Shakespeare have functioned as both, specifically in England and Germany over a period of two hundred years, from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth. After a difficult initiation into the German-speaking world and heavy resistance from proponents of French Neoclassicism, Shakespeare became an indispensable part of the German literary and theatrical worlds. This was due in part to German writers’ construction of Shakespeare in terms more palatable to their countrymen, terms that grew to represent not just an aesthetic sensibility but part of the German character itself. A century later, Shakespeare was an unshakable pillar of the German canon and a favored resource for the experimental producer-director Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s personification of German Modernism found its fullest expression when put to use animating Shakespeare’s plays. Very shortly thereafter, agents and cooperatives of the Nazi government pressed Shakespeare into its service. The Nazis borrowed the familiarity and cultural currency of Shakespeare to legitimize their own bigotry, thus transforming Shakespeare from a site to a lens. A similar approach, though for a much less destructive purpose, is evident in the work of director Peter Brook. His career in post-WWII England, especially at the Royal Shakespeare Company, picks up on the same use of Shakespeare as a lens that is observable during the Third Reich. In Brook’s case, Shakespeare represents a familiar element that helped make palatable a strange element, Brechtian techniques, for English tastes. Overall, this thesis demonstrates how processes of familiarization and estrangement have contributed to the works of William Shakespeare’s becoming vehicles for cultural exchange between England and Germany.