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Twin totems of Teutonic angst

The German obsession with Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Hamlet


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Faust or Hamlet? The Germans have identified passionately with one or other archetype at different times. But why these particular figures, whose heroism is so problematic, rather than less flawed tokens of Teutonic virtues? Faust remains the obvious choice. His story surfaced in 1587 in an anonymous German chapbook, Historia von D. Johann Fausten. Shortly thereafter, Christopher Marlowe wrote his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, beginning Faust’s metamorphosis from a legend to a myth and, finally, a meme. 

For the predominant place of Faust in German culture we have, of course, Goethe to thank. Throughout his long life, the subject would not leave him in peace. His Urfaust was drafted in the early 1770s; Faust: A Fragment was published in 1791; the finished verse play Faust: A Tragedy (later known as Part One) appeared in 1806, to be followed in 1832 by the posthumous Part Two. Goethe’s Hauptwerk has inspired countless others, especially composers: Schubert and Liszt, Berlioz and Gounod, Mahler and Busoni. For his 1995 opera, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke ignored Goethe and went back to the original 1587 text. 

Now that Faust has come full circle, one of the few early variations on the theme that is not derivative of Goethe deserves to be rescued from oblivion. One of his friends and contemporaries, the soldier-poet Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, is remembered, if at all, for having given a name to the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang that bridged the gap between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. 

Klinger’s “philosophical romance”, Faust’s Life, Deeds and Descent into Hell, was published in 1791 in St Petersburg, where the author served as a general in the Russian army. The year before, Goethe’s Fragment had appeared; though Klinger is at pains to emphasise his own originality, both author and work were utterly eclipsed by Goethe.

But Klinger’s Faust is in some ways even more “German” than Goethe’s. He is the embodiment of all the author despised about his contemporaries. In an Epilogus laden with irony, Klinger bids farewell to the compatriots he had abandoned. He wished “German men the bitterest hatred against freedom, the tenderest love of slavery, and German women that they should bear children with the same pleasure that they, as it is said, receive them; and so we shall lack for nothing.”

As German history took a daemonic turn in the twentieth century, so writers turned to Faust again. The more remote his exile, the more Thomas Mann identified with Goethe. His Doktor Faustus was a virtual return to his homeland: to the Germany of his youth, in which the composer Adrian Leverkühn reflects the rise of a nihilistic culture, foreshadowing Nazi Germany’s annihilation of the Jews and European civilisation. Mann worked on his retelling of the legend between 1943 and 1947 and, as if the novel had written itself, he promptly wrote another entire book about its “emergence”.

In its final pages, Germany has become “a torture chamber”, led by nihilists

In its final pages, Germany has become “a torture chamber”, led by nihilists, and everything German — the German spirit, German thought, the German language — is implicated. Mann’s protagonist anticipates this catastrophe with his symphonic cantata Dr. Fausti Weheklag (“Dr Faust’s Lamentation”), supposedly written in 1930, on the eve of the Nazi takeover. In the final scene, Leverkühn gathers his friends to reveal, in an archaic sixteenth-century idiom, that his entire oeuvre is the tainted product of a pact with the devil. The diabolical possession of his soul ends, as it must, with a collapse: not into death, but a syphilitic madness like that of Nietzsche. Meanwhile Germany “falls, surrounded by demons … from desperation to despair”. 

So far, so Faustian — and predictably German. Hamlet’s pre-eminence in this culture of self-annihilation is more of a mystery. How did an English drama about a Dane come to be seen as the embodiment of the German Geist? It isn’t simply a question of Goethe or Shakespeare. While the former’s status as the supreme national poet has never been endangered, the adoption of the English dramatist to become “unser Shakespeare” predated Goethe and Schiller. The efflorescence of German drama around 1800 would have been unimaginable without Shakespeare. 

Although there had been many earlier versions, including Wieland’s prose one, the verse translation by August Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck and others displaced all others over the first three decades of the nineteenth century. “Schegel/Tieck” has held its own for two centuries. Shakespeare has therefore entered the German language not as a writer of the Renaissance but as an exemplar of Romanticism — as audacious a case of cultural appropriation as any in history.

The assimilation of Shakespeare to Romanticism, seen as the quintessential German artistic movement, helps to explain his unique appeal. And of all his plays, Hamlet is not only probably the most timeless and popular, but boasts the most introspective and individualistic of his protagonists. Melancholy, madness, night and death: the Prince’s preoccupations are ambrosia to Romantic sensibilities. So much so, that one standard-bearer of German late-Romanticism took Hamlet’s vacillations as emblematic of his dithering compatriots and ventured the ultimate equation.

“Germany is Hamlet!” The first line of Ferdinand von Freiligrath’s famous poem of 1844 sums up the frustration of his fellow liberals, for whom the unification of the Germans was a consummation devoutly to be wished, with the hesitation of this “eternal waverer”. In the poet’s allegorical vision, freedom is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, murdered by his foul uncle Claudius, who is identified with the (unnamed) Klemens von Metternich, Austrian Chancellor and arch-reactionary. The Prince’s inability to act— “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” — symbolises the obsequious quietism of the divided nation. Only outside intervention — a revolutionary Fortinbras — can banish this paralysis of doubt.

Freiligrath’s life illustrates the vicissitudes and ambiguities of the German relationship with liberty. Having renounced his pension from the Prussian court, the poet embraced the 1848 revolution, which sent Metternich into exile but left kings and emperors on their thrones. Freiligrath joined the editorial board of Karl Marx’s communist newspaper, which had hitherto reviled him. Marx himself declared: “I must make good the wrong the Rheinische Zeitung did him before he ‘stood on the party battlements’.”

In their London exile, Marx and Freiligrath remained friends and allies, until the former’s suspicions got the better of him. Marx was prey to conspiracy theories and Marxism bears traces of his paranoia. That Britain’s Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was a Russian agent was obvious to him. Yet he was outraged when the radical Swiss scientist, Carl Vogt, turned the tables and accused him of being the leader of “the Brimstone Gang”, supposedly in the pay of mysterious forces of reaction. His compulsive need to vindicate his name and prove that his accuser was in reality a Bonapartist agent resulted in a diatribe, Herr Vogt. It is Marx’s maddest book, though one of the few that he completed and published in his lifetime. 

Invited to support Marx’s litigation against Vogt, Freiligrath refused. He had become close to Gottfried and Johanna Kinkel, a rival centre of gravity in the microcosm of German exiles. Kinkel was a poet, his wife kept a salon and composed music. While Marx slummed it in Soho and Hackney respectively, the Kinkels lived in St John’s Wood. When Freiligrath compounded his disloyalty by writing a poem for the funeral of Johanna, Marx took to calling him “the fat philistine” behind his back. 

What really irked him was that Freiligrath was too proud and too much of a poet to toe the party line. Unlike Marx, he was not content to die in exile: he returned home in time to celebrate Bismarck’s unified German Empire in verse. The German Hamlet had not avenged the death of liberty, but yet again postponed it.

Freiligrath’s Hamlet poem was drawing on the Romantic theory of Hamlet advanced by August Wilhelm Schlegel, namely that the Prince suffers from an excess of reflection resulting in an inability to act: “he loses himself in labyrinths of thought”. (Coleridge later advanced the same idea.) Schlegel’s Prince — paralysed by reflexion — corresponds to the later notion of “the unpolitical man”, advanced by Thomas Mann during the First World War. German culture is contrasted with French civilisation; the unpolitical, inner-directed, spiritual German is nobler than the decadent, shallow rationalists to the west.

This romanticised, over-intellectual Hamlet held sway in Germany during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The critic Friedrich Gundolf concluded in his study Shakespeare und der Deutsche Geist (1914) that only a renaissance of German thought would usher in a new Shakespeare. He hoped for such a renaissance from the influential Kreis (circle) of the poet Stefan George, of which he was a leading member. George wrote a highly stylised Symbolist version of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But the Romantic version by Gottlob Regis dating from 1836, included in the Schlegel/Tieck edition, has held its own. It seems that Germans demand a Romantic Shakespeare, or nothing.

Notoriously, political romanticism took a nationalist turn in late nineteenth-century Germany

Notoriously, political romanticism took a nationalist turn in late nineteenth-century Germany. As the Great War began, one luminary of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft suggested that, once victorious, the Kaiser should “stipulate the formal surrender of William Shakespeare to Germany”. In the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels (a former student of Gundolf’s) organised “Shakespeare Weeks” for the Hitler Youth; future Stormtroopers were encouraged to see Hamlet through the prism of “Nordic drama”, such as the Nibelungenlied. 

Yet it was under the Nazis that the greatest German actor to play Hamlet gave his most powerful performances. Gustaf Gründgens is now best known as the anti-hero of István Szabó’s film of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, in which he is portrayed by Klaus María Brandauer as the ultimate opportunist and collaborator. 

Gründgens had briefly been married to Mann’s sister Erika but, unlike the younger Manns who were half-Jewish, the actor saw no need to emigrate when Hitler came to power. Mephisto was the writer’s revenge on his brother-in-law for enjoying a spectacular career as an actor and director in the Third Reich. The thinly-veiled Gründgens makes a Faustian pact with the regime and gets his comeuppance. Though published in Amsterdam in 1936 and later in East Germany, Mephisto was the subject of litigation and was only republished in the West after the Szabó film.

The Gründgens backstory is well-known; less so his performance as Hamlet in 1937. A recording of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is on YouTube and to me, it was a revelation. Gründgens does indeed speak the speech “trippingly on the tongue”, as Shakespeare demands, but he does far more. Compared to the understated interpretation of Laurence Olivier in his film of the play a decade later, Gründgens is so intense, so gripped by existential dread, that one fears for the Prince’s life. This is a Hamlet who seems quite capable of making his quietus with a bare bodkin. Yet his voice is also filled with repressed rage, which ultimately bursts out. A Nazi Hamlet? It is, perhaps, no accident that the role Gründgens made his own was Mephisto — the devil in human form.

Alas, there is no recording of the great Austrian critic Karl Kraus giving one of his public readings of Shakespeare. Kraus, who was Jewish, died in 1936, two years before the Nazis marched into Vienna. In his famous ironical response to the outbreak of war 1914, “In these great times,” he asks whether they “are out of joint or already set right, whether it is accumulating murder and rottenness before the eyes of a Hamlet or is already becoming ripe for the arm of a Fortinbras.” Kraus preferred the intellectual Hamlet to martial Fortinbras, the thinker to the soldier, and foresaw that a Germany freed from doubt would wreak havoc in Europe.

And what of today? The German love affair with Shakespeare is very much alive. Just published is All the World’s a Book: 400 Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a slim and elegant volume of poems, published by the Stiftung Lyrik Kabinett in Munich. Bilingual, it includes a fine essay about the First Folio by the co-editor, Professor Tobias Döring, a former President of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. 

The poets include Simon Armitage and Lavinia Greenlaw; though creditable, their efforts are outshone by Ben Jonson’s magnificent dedicatory panegyric from the First Folio, also reprinted here. I do however admire “A Reminder”, by the German writer Marcel Beyer. The final verse reads: “The DARKNESS / Surrounds you, so always remain / Full of hope, and love / The script and speak so that / I can speak of you.”

“Germany is Hamlet!” I have often thought of Freiligrath’s metaphor when considering the German response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While hundreds of thousands have died and millions displaced, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been culpably slow to act decisively. After decades of appeasing Putin, Europe’s richest state has found every excuse for prevarication.

Yet Scholz-Hamlet may have finally overcome his state of terminal dithering. At a rally last month in Falkensee, in the former East German state of Brandenburg, the Chancellor was booed as a “warmonger” by anti-NATO hecklers. Evidently nettled, Scholz responded with unaccustomed clarity: casting caveats to the wind, he found his voice and even waxed eloquent. “While you scream ‘peace without weapons,’ Putin … has killed countless citizens, children and the elderly in Ukraine. That is murder, to speak plainly … ” He forgot to add: “Murder most foul.”

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