SUMAROKOV: His Reception of Shakespeare

13 of March 2021
The 11th World Shakespeare Congress will be held online from the National University of Singapore on July 18–24, 2021. The Congress theme of circuits draws attention to the passage of Shakespeare’s work between places and periods, agencies and institutions, positionalities and networks of production, languages and mediums. The theme is particularly suited to the online medium of the Congress, that gathers together such passages of Shakespeare’s work not by the movements of persons between places, but by creatively connecting and expanding our circuits in multimedia and live conversations.
Database "Russian Shakespeare"
Moscow University for the Humanities

In Alexander Sumarokov’s Second Epistle (on the composition of poetry), while enumerating great writers, he wrote: “Milton and Shakespeare too, uneducated enough”. This reproach was to be expected of Classicist. In Comments to this Epistle, Sumarokov informed the Russian reader: “Shakespeare was an English tragedian and comedian who had as many bad properties as great ones. He died on the 23rd day of April, 1616, at the age of 53”[1].

However, even before that, in 1731, Shakespeare had been indirectly mentioned in a translation of Conversation LXI from Part I of The Spectator: “quite indifferent comedies by Hamlet and Othello”. A joke indeed: Hamlet and Othello were mistaken for the authors of good-quality plays. This mention of Shakespeare's heroes as playwrights showed how far away the British genius was from the Russian translator, who mistook the titles of Shakespeare's plays for their author[2].

The first literary work related to Shakespeare was Alexander Sumarokov's Hamlet[3]. In 1748, both the Second Epistle and Hamlet were published. Yet Sumarokov's Hamlet is rather an original work of literature based on the theme of Shakespeare's play than a real translation[4]. There is a well-spread scholarly opinion that Sumarokov used a prosaic translation — retelling, published by French author Pierre-Antoine de La Place (1745)[5].

De La Place translation fully demonstrates all the properties of “embellished” translations of the Classicism epoch and became a remake. The theory that Sumarokov followed this French source has been chiefly supported by the conviction that the Russian writer did not know English: “Sumarokov probably used Pierre-Antoine de La Place's French translation (from Theatre Anglois, 1745–1748) of Shakespeare; there is no evidence that he knew any English”[6]. This assertion needs proving: recently list of books has been found, showing that Sumarokov borrowed Shakespeare’s books in English from the Academy Library during 1746–1748. The question of Alexander Pushkin’s competence in English is also still open for discussion, awaiting more thorough research. We may suppose that the poet, who knew Latin, German (his wife was German) and French, could at least read original English texts using a dictionary.

Not knowing the true level of Sumarokov’s English, we should mention that his Hamlet cannot be called a real translation of Shakespeare. The poet created a tragedy of his own in the Russian language, using several motives and functions of Shakespeare's characters. Probably because of this, in the publication of his play he never mentioned Shakespeare's name. And what is more, Sumarokov found it necessary to acknowledge his indebtedness to the origin only in two episodes: “My Hamlet is hardly similar to Shakespeare's tragedy, except for the monolog at the end of the third act, and the scene where Claudius kneels to pray”.

Sumarokov remade a drama written by a “savage” (i.e., Shakespeare) according to the canons of French Classicism. Firstly, the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet's father was presented as a trivial dream. Later Pushkin used similar techniques of explaining his rather ordinary hero’s encounter with the supernatural (The Undertaker). Secondly, all the principal characters had their own confidants (thus, Pushkin’s heroines’ confided in their maidservants in The Tales of Belkin: The Blizzard and Peasant Lady). Thirdly, Claudius and Polonius planned to kill Gertrude and then tried to force Ophelia to marry “the illegitimate king of Denmark” (because there was no evidence of blood relationship with the late king). In addition, the most important thing is that from the beginning to the end, Sumarokov showed Hamlet as a person of strong will, and very determined in his actions. Hamlet escaped all stratagems and dealt a crushing blow to his enemies. The resolution was also curious: repenting Gertrude goes to a nunnery, and plotting Polonius commits suicide. The prince becomes the King of Denmark and is to be engaged to his beloved Ophelia, so the whole nation rejoices.

Vasily Trediakovsky indulgently appreciated Sumarokov's Hamlet: he said that the play was “a rather good one”, and offered his own amendments in a few verses. Sumarokov was indeed offended by such mentor-like criticism, at any rate he never made use of the offered variants, so the tragedy was published practically in its original version.

In his public review Mikhail Lomonosov was laconic and somewhat perfunctory, but we have his biting epigram, which was written after he read the tragedy: it was built around Sumarokov's clumsy translation of the French verb ''toucher'' as ''to touch'', concerning Gertrude’s action (''stared at her husband's death without being touched''):

Stil married Stella being very old;
He coughed and died
Without taking her virginity.
Poor fifteen-year-old Stella sighed
Staring at her husband's death without being touched[8].

In the 18th century the French verb ''toucher'' and its Russian equivalent tronut’ may have sounded funny, but soon it came to be freely used in Russian poetic style: so in this respect, Sumarokov turned out to be more sensitive to the trend than his witty critic Lomonosov.

In spite of the fact that the author made several corrections after the first edition, they were not taken into account after his death, and no new editions were published in his lifetime. However, in the 1780s Sumarokov's Hamlet went into six reprints.

Sumarokov's play was rather successful on the theatrical stage. The first performance of the play was given in 1750, where the actors were cadets of the St. Petersburg Land-Gentry Infantry School. It was documented that on July 1, 1757, the first night opened in St. Petersburg, and the part of Hamlet was given to a well-known actor, Ivan Dmitrevsky (1734–1821). There were several performances but after the early 1760s they stopped. To all appearances, the reason for this could have been dangerous parallels with the murder of Peter III in 1762. For example, Aleksandr Bardovsky wrote: “During 34 years Russia witnessed the tragedy of Hamlet in the royal family, and its titular hero was the prince heir, future Paul I”. This author also distinguished Claudius in the figure of Count Grigory Orlov, with Catherine the Great in Gertrude.

The future Russian Emperor Paul I appreciated Sumarokov’s work because he saw in it, not without reason, similarity with his own fate: in Europe he was referred to as Russian Hamlet.

Despite the fact that the first Russian Hamlet had very little in common with Shakespeare’s original and after its publication and performance all interest in Shakespeare went away for 25 years, Alexander  Sumarokov’s play favorably influenced the formation of a European view of the theatrical art in Russian society. Unfortunately, like the majority of Sumarokov’s tragedies, his Hamlet was devoid of “national and historical coloring” and loaded with “instructive matter, that is, the characters recited lofty ideas, dominating in European literature during that epoch: about honor, duty, the love to motherland; and the representation of passions was dignified and refined”[10].

Sumarokov’s characters were devoid of any national individuality, they spoke the conventional language of pompous Classicist drama. However, it was Sumarokov who introduced Shakespeare to the Russian public for the first time ever.

N. V. Zakharov,
B. N. Gaydin