Shakespearianism — an ideological and aesthetic trend characterized by dialogue between Russian and European cultures, based on Russian studies and cultural appropriation of William Shakespeare’s heritage.
As a term, Shakespearianism was first introduced into Russian criticism in the mid-19th century by Pavel Annenkov (chapter called Shakespearianism in Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s Life under Tsar Alexander, 1874). This was chiefly due to the study of simulated dialogue between Pushkin and Shakespeare, and partly to Pushkin being the earliest major scholar of Shakespeare, so the notion of Shakespearianism was most often applied to his creative activity. However, there is still little clarity about the notion of Pushkin’s Shakespearianism. Basically, scholarship reveals overt traces of Shakespeare’s presence in Pushkin’s texts: commentary on his evaluation of the English playwright’s heritage, mentions of Shakespeare’s name and the names of his characters, employment of Shakespearean plots and personages, the role that each genius played in the development of their national literary languages, (the creator of which in England was Shakespeare, and in Russia — Pushkin). On the other hand, Shakespearianism still needs to be studied as a special outlook of the world and of human being (as a dominant world-view feature).
Under the term “Shakespearianism” in research on Pushkin and some other Russian writers (first of all, Fyodor Dostoyevsky) is understood a set of artistic and aesthetic ideas, which characterize Shakespeare’s vision and understandings of history and contemporaneity, past and future (strictly, this is what Pushkin named "Shakespeare’s view"). Shakespearianism revealed itself in the comprehension of Shakespeare’s artistic discoveries, in the large scope of events depicted by Shakespeare, in the intensity and scope of passions, in the playwright’s concepts of human being and history, in regarding the role of chance in history, in the mixture of styles, sometimes thought to be incompatible, combination of prose and verse, etc.
Already the contemporaries of the Russian poet testified to Pushkin’s adoration for the great English playwright, and for them this issue already then presented great interest. The posthumous publication of Pushkin’s manuscripts enabled the readers to ascertain the degree, to which the poet was familiar with Shakespeare and with Shakespeare scholarship. Already in his lifetime, critics would sometimes draw parallels between Pushkin and Shakespeare (regarding each as a sample of aesthetic perfection and artistic skill). Later, many researchers were directly concerned with the study of Pushkin’s Shakespearianism. The Shakespearianism of the poet was not simply a matter of following the literary fashion. From purely literary guidelines, Shakespearianism developed into the central idea of Pushkin’s world-outlook. Pushkin was developing a mature view of history and nations, under Shakespeare’s obvious influence.
Pushkin considered Shakespeare to be a romanticist, understanding under "true romanticism" first of all art that corresponds to the "spirit of the age" and is connected to the people. Pushkin tried to develop Shakespeare’s artistic system with more direct bearing on the problems of the 19th c. The principal features of Shakespeare’s manner of writing were his objectivity, lifelikeness of characters and "truly description of the age". Pushkin built his tragedy Boris Godunov (1825) “after the pattern of our Father Shakespeare”. The objectivity of the tragedy shows in describing the epoch and the characters of the Russian Time of Trouble (1598–1613). Pushkin learnt that from Shakespeare. Bringing to the foreground the problems of authority and their relations with the people, Pushkin followed Shakespeare. The use of Shakespeare’s discoveries in Boris Godunov was later adopted by Russian drama, especially history plays, in particular — by the writers of the Lyubomudry group: Mikhail Pogodin (Martha, Novgorod Posadnik’s Wife, 1830) and Alexey Khomyakov (False Dmitri, 1833).
Subsequently, Shakespeare’s lessons were embodied in his genre transformation of the play Measure for Measure into the narrative poem Angelo (1833). It was this work that the poet himself valued as the top of his creative development: "Our critics paid no regard to this play and think that this is one of my weakest compositions, whereas I have never written anything better" (Pushkin in Memoirs of His Contemporaries. Vol. 1–2. SPb.: Akademichesky Proyekt. 1998. Vol. 2. P. 233). In Angelo, Pushkin’s Shakespearianism reached its peak.
The notion of Shakespearianism enables us to explain a number of phenomena in Russian literature of the period of its flourishing. It also accounts for the known fact of the appearance of Leo Tolstoy’s uncompromising critique, On Shakespeare (Collected Works: in 22 vols. M., 1983. Vol. 15. P. 258–314), in which a scornful attitude and, seemingly, complete lack of comprehension of the creative output of the English playwright was expressed by the Russian literary genius. Tolstoy lashed the outer features of Shakespeare’s writing — imagery, plots, and poetics, which duly belong within Shakespearisation treated as a process. Yet, subconsciously, in his own creation Tolstoy showed a supreme sample of Russian Shakespearianism, which was reflected in the large scale of world-vision, in the perception of history, in the strategies of Shakespearian artistic thinking — in all that is essential to refer to Shakespearianism as a combination of world-view ideas. This disproves the superficial opinion that Tolstoy, who seriously read and studied Shakespeare, for some inconceivable reasons failed to take in his lessons.
To sum it up, the adoption of Shakespeare’s literary novelties by the Russian literature of the 19th century happened in two principal trends: Shakespearisation and Shakespearianism. For the majority of Russian writers, Shakespearisation manifested itself in following Shakespeare’s patterns, subjects, characters, motifs and plots — briefly speaking, in imitation of the poetic style of the British genius. Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and several other Russian writers, playwrights and poets expressed their interest in Shakespeare in congenial elaboration of the Shakespearian tradition. It was the idea of Shakespearianism that gained special importance to Russian literature in the general process of adoption of Shakespeare’s literary novelties in the world culture of the 18th–19th cc. In Russia, Shakespearianism became an original phenomenon, which characterized the adoption of Shakespeare’s literary heritage by another national tradition.
All of these make it possible for us to speak about such a phenomenon of cultural intercourse as “Russian Shakespeare”, which comprises a variety of matters connected with the adoption of Shakespeare’s creative work by Russian culture: the great number of Russian translations of Shakespeare’s works, a specific vision of the playwright’s life and creative work, original interpretations of his literary heritage in literature, music, visual arts, theater and cinema in Russia.
In the 21st century Russian literature continues to employ Shakespearian motifs and characters, which is evident from the range of Shakespearian reminiscences in works presented for the Ivan Bunin Literary Award in 2007. Even nowadays, Shakespeare retains popularity on theatrical stage in Russia. Shakespeare’s plays are staged in theatres with surprising regularity. The former Ambassador of Great Britain in Russia, Anthony Brenton, as an admirer and researcher of Shakespeare’s literary work, listed numerous facts of Shakespeare’s active presence in Russian culture and talked about Russia as a Shakespearian country (A. Brenton. Shakespeare is Russian // Voprosy Literatury. 2007. # 4.).
Vl. A. Lukov,
N. V. Zakharov
Translation from Russian by Roman Lukichev