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

Pasternak and Shakespeare

In 1912 Boris Pasternak was heading for an inner crisis, which was destined to shape his life course. He left philosophy to go on to the vague realms of inspired poetry. Pasternak was proficient in several languages and was deeply interested in translation problems; in a letter to a friend from Marburg he wrote:

“There are books written in elaborate and complex style that already at their design stage, progress in translation, that is, translation owns them from the very beginning. Such are the books of Jacobsen, Flaubert, and Maupassant. I do not mean translations into languages. Rather, from languages. All literature majestically travels down the stream, on word-rafts. It is through these words that you come to know the power of an art located topographically. To imitate their tone is to let your feet slide away from all firm ground, and hold onto the ground newly discovered” (Boris Pasternak’s Marburg. A collection of letters. M., 2001. P. 76.).

This brings to mind the statement of Andrey Sinyavsky that Pasternak’s best translations took years of preparation in his mind, as the poet was preparing himself for the work. In a sense, such translations are autobiographical.

In year 1940 Pasternak was mostly busy translating Hamlet, and this translation work certainly reflects the history of Russia. In the process of translating Pasternak had to suppress certain tragic sides of Shakespeare. But there is an opinion that Pasternak’s translation of Hamlet has more diversity of meaning and is deeper than the original text. Comparing these masterpieces — Shakespeare’s play and the great Russian poet’s translation, — we propose to learn about several facts of Pasternak’s life and the historical environment where this translation appeared.

Shakespeare appears early in Pasternak’s work. Already in English Lessons (included in the verse collection My Sister — Life), just five years after Marburg, the poet creates a set of fresh, amiable and vivid female characters from Shakespeare’s plays.

When it was Desdemona’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
she wept, not over love, her star,
But over willow, willow, willow.
When it was Desdemona’s time to sing,
and her murmuring softened the stones,
around the black day, her blacker demon
prepared a psalm of weeping streams.
When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
the dryness of her soul was swept away
like straws from haystacks in a storm.
When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and the bitterness of tears was more
than she could bear, what trophies
did she hold? Willow, and columbine.
Stepping out of all that grief,
they entered, with faint hearts,
the pool of the universe, and quenched
their bodies with other worlds. (Tr. by Mark Rudman)

The realistic details employed to put together the images of Shakespeare’s characters are essential. They all serve to translate Shakespeare’s elevated diction into a vernacular language, both in time and culture.

The image of Ophelia becomes familiar and close, like at the moment when the “silver lining” shows through a thundercloud. The prosaic detail of “straws from haystacks” truly renders the state of Ophelia’s dried soul, torn and swept away by outer conflicts. The body that killed the soul within required no weight but a bunch “of willow and columbine” to sink down in the water. The final stanza summarizes the deaths of both heroines. The metaphor of the “pool of the universe”, where each of them sank down, helps the young poet to achieve a higher mode of generalisation, where a life is condensed to a hyper-spatial dot, containing a huge dynamic essence of the human spirit. It is in this “dryness” of the soul, in the “straws from the haystack”, in the willow pollen on the mouth of the dying girl (the reserved haughty prince never really understood her!).

The passions that Shakespeare’s audience appreciated became an exterior element in Pasternak’s art, like embroidery patterns; you take them out to be dusted in the wind, and then they are hung back virginally pure, to guard the mysterious gate to the unfathomable depths of the human soul.

Pasternak talks about Shakespeare in a language that is understandable and familiar to us, recreating the ease and coziness of your native place. This makes it the more obvious that the translation from English performed by the Russian poet was not a means of subordinating Shakespeare’s original text. Pasternak himself described the sensation of a cool Through the Looking-Glass in a translated text; he added that instinct always tells you that something has slipped away and is not to be captured, whatever experience in language and literature you can boast of. Also, the clearer and richer a translation is, the stronger you feel this impossibility.

For Pasternak, the target language becomes a disciplining brace that exteriorizes the tragic, thus making it clearer for us. This brings to mind Grigory Kozintsev’s screen version, where stays were firmly tied around Ophelia (actress Anastasiya Vertinskaya) while she was dressing to go to her father’s funeral. The visual pattern of the stays in the film was vertical stripes, like prison bars contrasting the purity and innocence of madness to relentless revenge on the vices of Denmark.

From the depth of his poetic and translator genius, Pasternak looked into the darkness of Stalinism, where he had no outlet but escape into translations. There were also personal reasons for the emergence of this poetic subject. In his autobiography, People and Situations, Pasternak said about his childhood, “Since ...a very young age, I was seized by, and attracted to the Providential. I could trust any nonsense I heard. Even as an infant, when such incongruities were natural, I suspected that I had once been a girl (they would still dress me in a pinafore), and that this attractive look and essence could be retrieved if I but tied up the belt around my waist firmer...”

For Pasternak, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “drama of high flight, a deed sorted out by fate”. First of all, we see this uniqueness of translator approach in the treatment of Ophelia.

Boris Pasternak’s poem English Lessons, was a kind of foreshadowing of the tone that the poet would take to this heroine, while translating the tragedy. In this lyrical piece, Ophelia drowns holding a bunch of “willow and columbine” (or balsamine, hence embalming, the first association likely to occurto Pasternak in relation to the omnipotent rulers of his country). The herbs and plants that Ophelia brings before her suicide spoke clearly to an Elizabethan audience, but are vague to the modern reader or spectator. “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts… There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace a' Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died”. The rosemary and pansies are a relatively clear matter. But we have to search into the symbolism of flowers to find out that fennel (otherwise called sweet dill) used to stand for flattery, and columbines were associated with disloyalty and ungratefulness; rue forbode sorrow and repentance; daisies, unfaithfulness; and violets, with loyalty in love. Ophelia’s violets withered when her father died, as we know. In Gertrude’s account, the event itself looked more trivial:

“There is a willow grows askaunt the brook,
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream,
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cull-cold maids do dead men's fingers call
There on the pendant boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook”.

The mention of “liberal shepherds” has led some Freudian scholars to search for a hidden phallic meaning in the euphemism of “dead men's fingers”. Western scholarship has often interpreted Ophelia's character as rather distant from the symbol of innocence and purity that we are led by, with our Russian cultural background.

Such interpretations may be helpful in understanding the current state of Western criticism, but in his translation Pasternak embodied the tragic pathos of Shakespeare's heroine as a symbol of beauty, its preciousness and fragility. Thus, Pasternak strives to make Ophelia’s image more transparent: she did not plan to be sacrificed, and she persists as a model of rejected love.

The motif of purity sacrificed to the truth, and redemption, is in keeping with the general tenor of classical Russian literature, and Pasternak duly followed the tradition.

In Hamlet’s cue addressed to Ophelia, Pasternak emphasizes, that “be <she> as chaste as ice, as pure as snow”, she will not escape calumny, as virtue and innocence are but poor protection. It is of paramount importance in the plot development that Ophelia, the innocent victim, remains captured in the evil grasp of the rotting state of Denmark. Shakespeare’s tragedy is rich in images of bodily decay and disintegration, and this rotting disease is incurable. Claudius kills his own brother. Gertrude is seduced. Polonius is an incarnation of intrigue and corruption. Ophelia’s character is blotted by suspicions, though unpronounced.

For the translator of Hamlet associations between Shakespeare’s Elsinore and the Soviet state, during the grimmer decades of its history, were unavoidable. Pasternak may have attempted to soften this by elaborating on the metaphor of a disease in progress; here is what Hamlet has to say on people with “some vicious mole of nature”:

“...These men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,
Their virtue’s else (be they as pure as grace,
s infinite as man may undergo,)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: The dram of ill
Doth all the noble substance often doubt,
To his own scandal”.
(I, iv, 38–41).

The final idiom in Russian means approximately, “What a shame”. It is relatively softer in tone than Shakespeare’s “scandal”, not a mere “dram of ill”. The shame is universal, for all and forever, when all ideals are fallen, and there is no hope of recovery or revival.

In Stalin’s Russia, an artist’s survival was a gain in itself, and non-participation in lies equaled heroism. Circumlocution, allegory, understatement, and generally playing down, and applying softer hues to the depiction of social evil. This stand prevented Pasternak from becoming an obedient puppet and from breaking down under the unbearable weight of total fear and silence.

Even years after Stalin’s death, Soviet censorship continued its supremacy in Soviet art, including the theater. Grigory Kozintsev’s letters testify to that (he staged and later screened the tragedy), as he shows contempt for the standard positive hero of “Socialist realism”. Kozintsev stated that he would like to conclude his performance with the tones expressed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The compelling power of human nobleness, and the hidden resistance of poetry to the baseness and degradation of the epoch, — these are actual possibilities, broader in meaning that the Aesopian symbols used for satirizing monarchy and other types of authority; Kozintsev ran a risk when hinting at this in a private letter to Pasternak. In his reply to the letter, Pasternak stated, “I have accustomed myself to Shakespeare. He seems natural to me”.

Pasternak’s dialogue with Shakespeare continued in 1957. Doctor Zhivago closes with a selection of lyric, and the opening piece is Hamlet, a poem extolling self-sacrifice to the ontology of the human spirit. There are implications of the poet himself, as well as of his hero Yuri Zhivago, and Christ in Gethsemane, and they are all contained in the imaginary monologue of Hamlet. We also recognize young Pasternak rejecting the comfortable world of philosophical studies in favor of soul-appalling artistic search.

They’re quiet. I mount the stage.
Leaning on an open door,
I strain at an echo, far off,
hunting what the future is for.
The rim of night shines back at me
From a thousand peering glasses.
If You can, Abba, Father,
let this cup be passed away from me.
I adore Your stubborn plan,
I will smile and read the lines.
But tonight it’s a different script,
so excuse me, please, this time.
Yet scene must follow scene, the road
goes where it goes. I’m alone, everything
drowns in a pious show.
Life is no casual jungle. (Tr. by Burton Raffel)

Here, the poet finds a most advantageous standpoint for self-observation: he is contemplating rather than combating the disorder in Denmark. But the actor’s soul (consequently, the poet’s) cannot be blotted out by his ego. The poet requires openness to all things around, and this can serve as a salvation and solution to the eternal dilemma between sacrifice and redemption. Similar to the actor’s refuge in his lines, the poet finds relish in his acting, even if conscious of his failure to comprehend the meaning of life; he has cleared a hurdle, overcoming “a thing larger than himself, something stationed above and guiding his actions”.

The final quatrain of the lyrical monolog blends the existential loneliness of the actor, that of Hamlet, and of Christ, as each faces the unstoppable march of time upon their fates. The ideas contained are akin to those expressed in Doctor Zhivago, as spoken by Nikolay, “all crowd instincts are good for the mediocre, whether they opt out for Solovyov, Kant, or Marx… It is individuals who search for the truth”.This talk has been on Shakespeare in Pasternak’s work, but it could be devoted to Pasternak’s Hamlet, or to Pasternak’s Shakespeare in general. This is due to the fact that we all experience moments of truth as original constructs come our way in Pasternak’s type of translations, and then the spiritual outline of the great playwright suddenly acquires flesh and blood to us, like the moonlight visualized in the spirals of cold nightly fog.

Pasternak’s whole life, since his decision to abandon science for poetry, was a pilgrimage to justice and truth, the implementation of a hero-poet’s lonely stand.

The quality and actuality of Pasternak’s translations of great books is the result of a gigantic effort of one man, sending philosophy (the abandoned art) in rafts of words to his reader. This is in harmony with the solemn, yet childlike, wondering conclusion, “Life is no casual jungle”. The phrase almost sounds a lament for the poet’s youth, and a yearning to retrieve it. It also contains a prayer to be released from the intricacies of linguistic limitations.

S.P. Tolkachev