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Essay on Translating Shakespeare

Boris Pasternak writes vividly about many aspects of Shakespeare's writing.

Essay on Translating Shakespeare

“Essay on Translating Shakespeare,”
By Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960).
Published in “Literary Moscow,” 1956.
Translated by Manya Harari.
Edited and Retyped by
Brendan D. King.

Over the years, I have translated several of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, King Henry IV (Parts I and II), King Lear, and Macbeth.

The demand for simple and readable translations is great and seemingly inexhaustible. Every translator flatters himself with the hope that he, more than others, will succeed in meeting it. I have not escaped the common fate.

Nor are my opinions on the aims and problems of translating literary works exceptional. I believe, as do many others, that closeness to the original is not ensured only by literal exactness and similarity of form: the likeness, as in a portrait, cannot be achieved without a lively and natural method of expression. As much as the author, the translator must confine himself a vocabulary which is natural to him and avoid the literary artifice involved in stylization. Like the original text, the translator must create an impression of life and not of verbiage.

Shakespeare’s Poetic Style.

Shakespeare’s dramas are deeply realistic in their conception. In his prose passages and in those dialogues in verse which are combined with movement or action his style is conversational. For the rest, the flow of his blank verse is highly metaphorical, sometimes needlessly so and in some cases at the cost of some artificiality.

His imagery is not always equal to itself. At times it is poetry at its highest, at others it falls plainly into rhetoric and is loaded with dozens of inadequate substitutes for the one right word which he had on the tip of his tongue and which escaped him in his hurry. Nevertheless, at its worst as at its best, his metaphorical speech conforms to the essentials of true allegory.

Metaphorical language is the result of the disproportion between man’s short life and the immense and long-term tasks he sets himself. Because of this, he needs to look at things as sharply as an eagle and convey his vision in flashes which can be immediately apprehended. This is just what poetry is. Outsize personalities use metaphors as a shorthand of the spirit.

The stormy quickness of the brushstrokes of a Rembrandt, a Michelangelo, or a Titian was not the fruit of their deliberate choice. Possessed by the need to paint the universe, they could not paint in any other way.

Shakespeare’s style combines opposite extremes. His prose is finished and polished. It is the work of  a genius in the art of comic detail, a master of conciseness, and a brilliant mimic of everything strange and curious in the world.

In complete contrast to this is his blank verse. Voltaire and Tolstoy were shocked by its inward and outward chaos.

Shakespeare’s characters, who often go through several stages of completion, occasionally speak in poetry first and then in prose. In such cases, the scenes in verse produce the impression of being sketches and those in prose of being finished and conclusive.

Verse was Shakespeare’s most rapid and immediate method of expression. It was his quickest way of putting down his thoughts. So true is this that many of his verse passages read almost like rough drafts of his prose.

His poetry draws its strength from its very quality of sketchiness, powerful, uncontrollable, disorderly, and abundant.

Shakespeare’s Use of Rhythm.

Shakespeare’s rhythm is the basic principle of his poetry. Its momentum determines the speed and sequence of questions and answers in his dialogues and the length of his periods and monologues.

It is a rhythm which reflects the enviably laconic quality of English, a quality which makes it possible to compress a whole statement, made up of two or more contrasted propositions, into a single line of iambic verse. It is the rhythm of free speech, the language of a man who sets up no idols and is therefore honest and concise.


Shakespeare’s use of rhythm is clearest in Hamlet, where it serves a triple purpose. It is used as a method of characterization, it makes audible and sustains the prevailing mood, and it elevates the tone and softens the brutality of certain scenes.

The characters are sharply differentiated by the rhythm of their speech. Polonius, the King, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz speak in one way, Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio, and the rest in another. The credulity of the Queen is shown not only by her words, but also by her singsong manner of drawing out her vowels.

So vivid is the rhythmic characterization of Hamlet himself that it creates the illusion of a leitmotif, as though a musical phrase were reiterated at his every appearance onstage, although in fact no such leitmotif exists. The very pulse of his being seems to be made audible. Everything is contained in it; his inconsistent gestures, his long, resolute stride and the proud half-turn of his head, as well as the way in which the thoughts he utters in his monologues leap and take flight, the mocking arrogance of his ripostes to the courtiers who mill around him, and his manner of staring into the distance of the unknown whence his father’s ghost once summoned him and where it may at any moment speak again.

Neither the music of Hamlet’s speech nor that of the play as a whole lends itself to quotation: it is impossible to give an impression of it by any one example. Yet, disembodied though it is, so ominously and so closely is it woven into the texture of the tragedy that, given the subject, one is tempted to describe it as Scandinavian and as suited to the climate of apparitions. It consists in a measured alternation of solemnity and disquiet and, by thickening the atmosphere to its utmost density, it brings out the dominant mood. What is this mood?

According to the well-established view of critics, Hamlet is a tragedy of the will. This is true. But in what sense is it to be understood? Absence of will power did not exist as a theme in Shakespeare’s time: it aroused no interest. Nor does Shakespeare’s portrait of Hamlet, drawn so clearly and in so much detail, suggest a neurotic. Hamlet is a prince of the blood who never, for a moment, ceases to be conscious of his rights as heir to the throne; he is the spoilt darling of an ancient court, and self assured in the awareness of his natural gifts. The sum of qualities in which he is endowed by Shakespeare leaves no room for flabbiness: it precludes it. Rather the opposite is true: the audience, impressed by his brilliant prospects, is left to judge of the greatness of his sacrifice in giving them up for a higher aim.

From the moment of the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet gives up his will in order to, “do the Will of Him that sent him.” Hamlet is not a drama of weakness, but of duty and self denial. It is immaterial that, when appearance and reality are shown to be at variance -- to be indeed separated by an abyss -- the message is conveyed by supernatural means and that the Ghost commands Hamlet to exact vengeance. What is important is that chance has allotted Hamlet the role of judge of his own time and servant of the future. Hamlet is the drama of high destiny, of a life devoted and preordained to a heroic task.

This is the overall tone of the play, so concentrated by the rhythm as to be almost palpable. But the rhythmic principle is applied in still another way. It has a softening effect on certain harsh scenes which would be intolerable without it.

Thus, for instance, in the scene in which he sends Ophelia to a nunnery, Hamlet speaks to the girl who loves him, and whom he tramples underfoot with the ruthlessness of a self-centered Byronic rebel. His irony is out of keeping with his own love for her, which he painfully suppresses in himself. But let us see how this heartless scene is introduced. Immediately before it comes the famous speech, “To be or not to be,” and the fresh music of the monologue still echoes in the opening verses which Hamlet and Ophelia exchange. The bitter and disorderly beauty of the monologue in which Hamlet’s perplexities crowd and overtake each other and remain unsolved recalls the sudden chords, abruptly cut off, tried out on the organ before the opening of a requiem.

No wonder that the monologue heralds the beginning of the cruel denouement. It precedes it as the funeral service precedes the burial. The way is opened for whatever is inevitable, and whatever follows is washes, redeemed and lent majesty not only by the spoken thoughts but by the ardor and purity of the tears which ring in it.

Romeo and Juliet.

If such was the importance of rhythm in Hamlet, we might expect it to be greater still in Romeo and Juliet. Where, if not in a drama of first love, should harmony and measure have free play. But Shakespeare puts them to an unexpected use. He shows us that lyricism is not what we imagined it to be. He composes no arias, no duets. His intuition leads him by a different path.

Music plays a negative role in Romeo and Juliet. It is on the side of the forces which are hostile to the lovers, the forces of worldly hypocrisy and of the hustle of daily life.

Until he meets Juliet, Romeo is full of his imaginary passion for Rosalind, who never appears on the stage. His romantic pose is in the current fashion of his time. It drives him straight out on solitary walks at night and he makes up for lost sleep by day, shaded by closed shutters from the sun. All the time that this is going on, in the first scenes of the play, he speaks unnaturally in rhymed verse, melodiously declaiming his high-falutin nonsense in the affected drawing room manner of his day. But from the moment he sees Juliet at the ball and stops dead in front of her, not a trace is left of his tuneful mode of expression.

Compared to other feelings, love is an elemental cosmic force wearing a disguise of meekness. In itself, it is as simple and unconditional as consciousness and as death, as oxygen and uranium. It is not a state of mind, it is the foundation of the universe. Being thus basic and primordial, it is the equal of artistic creation. Its dignity is no less, and its expression has no need of art to polish it. The most that the artist can dream of is to overhear its voice, to catch its ever new, ever unprecedented language. Love has no need of euphony. Truth, not sound, dwells in its heart.

Like all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is written for the most part in blank verse, and it is in blank verse that the hero and heroine address each other. But the measure is never stressed, it is never obvious. There is no declamation. The form never asserts itself at the expense of the infinitely discreet content. This is poetry at its best, and like all such poetry, it has the freshness and simplicity of prose. Romeo and Juliet speak in half tones, their conversation is guarded, interrupted, secret. It has the very sound of high emotion and mortal danger overhead at night.

The only noisy and emphatically rhythmic scenes are those in crowded rooms and streets. Out in the street, where the blood of Montagues and Capulets is shed, ring the daggers of the quarrelling clans. Cooks quarrel and clatter knives in the kitchen as they cook the endless dinners. And to the din of butchery and cooking, as to the brassy beat of a noisy band, the quiet tragedy of feeling develops, spoken for the most part in the soundless whispers of conspirators.


The division of the plays into acts and scenes was not made by Shakespeare, but later, by his editors. Nevertheless, it was not forced on them: they lent themselves to it easily by virtue of inward structure.

The original texts, printed without a break, nevertheless stood out by a rigor of construction and development which is rare in our time.

This applies particularly to the thematic development usually contained in the middle of the drama, that is to say in the third and some parts of the second and fourth acts. This section is, as it were, the box which holds the mainspring of the mechanism.

At the beginning and conclusion of his plays Shakespeare freely improvises the details and, with as light a heart, disposes of the loose ends. The swiftly changing scenes are full of life, they are drawn from nature with the utmost freedom and with a staggering wealth of imagination.

But he denies himself this freedom in the middle section, where the threads have been tied up and must begin to be unraveled; here Shakespeare shows himself to be the child and slave of his age. His third acts are riveted to the mechanics of the plot in a measure unknown to the dramatic art of later centuries, though it was from him that it learned its honesty and daring. They are ruled by too blind a faith in the power of logic and in the real existence of ethical abstractions. The lively portraits drawn at the beginning, with their convincing light and shade, are replaced by personified virtues and vices. The sequence of actions and events ceases to be natural and has the suspect timing of tidiness of rational deductions, as syllogisms in an argument.

When Shakespeare was a child, moralities constructed in accordance with the formal rules of Medieval Scholasticism were still shown on the English provincial stage. He may well have seen them, and his old-fashioned industry in working out his plot  may have been a remnant of the past which had fascinated him in his childhood.

Four-fifths of his writings are made up of his beginnings and endings. This is the part that made the audience laugh and cry; it is on this that his fame is based, and it accounts for all the talk about his truthfulness to life in opposition to the deadly soullessness of neo-classicism.

But a thing may be rightly observed, yet wrongly explained. One often hears extravagant praise of the “mousetrap” in Hamlet or of the iron necessity in the development of this or that passion or in the consequences of this or that crime in Shakespeare. Such admiration starts from false pretenses. It is not the mousetrap that deserves to be admired, but Shakespeare’s genius which shows itself even where his writing is artificial. What should cause wonder is that the third acts, which are often devitalized and contrived, do not circumvent his greatness. He survives, not because of, but in spite of them.

For all the passion and the genius concentrated in Othello, and for all its popularity on the stage, what has been said above applies in considerable measure to this play.

Here we have the dazzling quays of Venice, Brabantio’s house, the arsenal; the extraordinary night session of the Senate, and Othello’s account of the gradual beginnings of his and Desdemona’s feeling for each other. Then the storm at sea off the coast of Cyprus and the drunken brawl at night on the ramparts. And before the end, the famous scene of Desdemona preparing for the night, in which the still more famous “Willow,” song is sung, tragically natural before the dreadful illumination of the finale.

But what happens in between? With a few turns of the key, Iago winds up like an alarm clock the suspicions of his victim, and the course of jealousy, obvious and labored, unwinds, creaking and shuddering like a rusty mechanism. It will be said that such is the nature of jealousy or that such is the tribute paid to the convention of the stage with its insistence on excessive clarity. It may be so. But the damage would be less if the tribute were paid by an artist of less genius and less consistency. In our time, another aspect of the play has a topical interest.

Can it be an accident that the hero is Black, while all that he holds dear in life is White? What is the significance of this choice of colors? Does it mean only that all peoples have an equal right to human dignity? Shakespeare’s thought went much farther.

The concept of the equality of peoples did not exist in his time. What did exist was an equal and wider notion of their equal opportunities. Shakespeare was not interested in what a man had been at birth, but in the point he had reached, in what he had changed into, in what he had become. In Shakespeare's view, Othello, who was black, was a human being and a Christian who lived in historic times, and this interested him the more because living side by side with Othello was Iago, who was White, and who was an unconverted, Pre-Historical animal.

Antony and Cleopatra.

There are tragedies in Shakespeare, such as Macbeth and Lear which create their own worlds, unique of their kind. There are comedies which belong to the realm of pure fantasy and are the cradle of romanticism. There are chronicles of English history, songs in praise of England sung by the greatest of her sons; some part of the events described in them had their counterpart in the circumstances of his time and so his attitude to them could not be sober and dispassionate.

Thus, in spite of the realism in which his work is steeped, it would be vain to look to any of these plays for objectivity. We do, however, find it in his dramas of Roman life.

Julius Caesar was not written only for the sake of poetry and love of art, and still less was Antony and Cleopatra. Both are the fruit of his study of plain everyday life. This study is pursued with passion by every representational artist. It was this pursuit which led to the naturalistic novel of the nineteenth century and which accounts for the even more convincing charm of Flaubert, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.

But why should Shakespeare seek the inspiration for his realism in such remote antiquity as Rome? The answer -- and there is nothing in it to surprise us -- is that just because the subject was remote it allowed Shakespeare to call things by their name. He could say whatever seemed good to him about politics, ethics, or any other thing he chose. He was dealing with an alien and distant world, a world which had long since ceased to exist and which was closed, accounted for, and passive. What desire could it arouse? He wished to portray it.

Antony and Cleopatra is the story of a rake and a temptress. In describing them as they burn up their lives, Shakespeare uses the tones of mystery fitting to a genuine bacchanalia in the Classical sense.

Historians have written that neither Antony nor Cleopatra (nor his companions in his feasts, nor the courtiers who were in her confidence) expected any good to come of the debauchery which they had promoted to the status of a ritual. Foreseeing the end, they spoke of themselves, long before it came, as immortal suicides and promised to die together.

This indeed is the conclusion of the tragedy. At the decisive moment, death is the draughtsman who lends the story the connecting outline which it had so far lacked. Against the background of campaigns, fires, treason, and defeats, we take leave on two separate occasions of the two principle characters. In the fourth act, the hero stabs himself, and the heroine commits suicide in the fifth.

The Audience.

Shakespeare’s chronicles of English history abound in hints at the topical events of his day. There were no newspapers: to hear the news (as G. B. Harrison notes in his England in Shakespeare’s Day) people gathered in taverns and in theaters. Drama spoke in hints. Nor is it surprising that the common people understood them since they concerned facts which were close to everyone.

The political open secret of the time was the difficulties of the war with Spain, started with enthusiasm, but which had soon become a bore. For fifteen years, it had been waged by land and sea, off the coast of Portugal and in the Netherlands and in Ireland.

Falstaff’s parodies of martial speeches amused the simple, peaceable public, which plainly understood what was meant, and laughed still more heartily at his recruiting scene (where the recruits bribe their way out) because they knew the truth of it by experience.

A great deal more astonishing is another example of the intelligence of the contemporary audience.

The works of Shakespeare, as of all Elizabethans, are full of appeals to history and ancient literature and full of mythological examples and names. To understand them nowadays, even reference book in hand, one needs to be a Classical scholar; yet we are told that the average Londoner of those days caught these flickering allusions in mid-air and digested them without the least trouble. How are we to believe this?

The explanation is that the school curriculum was very different from ours. A knowledge of Latin, which is now taken for a sign of higher education, was then the lowest step of learning, just as Church Slavonic used to be in Russia. In the primary, so-called grammar schools -- and Shakespeare went to one of them -- Latin was the spoken language and, according to the historian Trevelyan, the schoolboys were not allowed to use English even in their games. Those London apprentices and shop assistants who could read and write were just as much at home with Fortune, Heracles, and Niobe as a modern schoolboy with internal combustion and the elements of electricity.

Shakespeare was born in time to find a well established, century-old way of life still in being. His age was a festive period in English history. By the end of the next reign, the balance of things had already been upset.

Authenticity of Shakespeare’s Authorship.

Shakespeare’s work is a whole and he is everywhere true to himself. He is recognizable by his vocabulary. Certain of his characters appear under different names in play after play and he sings the same song over and over to different tunes. His habit of repeating and paraphrasing himself is particularly noticeable in Hamlet.

In a scene with Horatio, Hamlet tells him that he is a man and cannot be played upon like a pipe.

A few pages further on he asks Guildenstern, in the same allegorical sense, whether he would like to play the pipe.

In the first players monologue about the cruelty of Fortune in allowing Priam to be killed, the gods are urged to punish her by breaking her on her wheel, the symbol of her power, and flinging the pieces down from heaven to Tartarus. A few pages further on Rosencrantz, speaking to the King, compares a monarch’s power to a wheel fixed on a mount which, if its foundations are shaken, destroys everything on its way as it hurtles down.

Juliet takes the dagger from dead Romeo’s side and stabs herself with the words, “This is thy sheath.” A few lines further on her father uses the same words about the dagger resting in Juliet’s breast instead of in the sheath on Romeo’s belt. And so on, almost at every step. What does this mean?

Translating Shakespeare is a task which takes time and effort. Once it is undertaken, it is best to divide into sections long enough for the work not to get stale and to complete one section each day. In thus daily progressing through the text, the translator finds himself reliving the circumstances of the author. Day by day he reproduces his actions and he is drawn into some of his secrets, not in theory, but practically, by experience.

Stumbling on such repetitions as I have mentioned and realizing how close together they are, he cannot help asking himself in surprise: “Who and in what conditions would remember so little of what he had put down only a few days earlier?”
Then, with a tangible certainty which is not given to the biographer or the scholar, the translator becomes aware of the personality of Shakespeare and of his genius. In twenty years, Shakespeare wrote thirty-six plays, not to speak of his poems and sonnets. Forced to write two plays a year on average, he had no time to revise and, constantly forgetting what he had written the day before, he repeated himself in this hurry.

At this point, the absurdity of the Baconian theory becomes more striking than ever. What need was there to replace the simple and in no way improbable account of Shakespeare’s life by a tangle of mysterious substitutions and their alleged discoveries?

Is it conceivable that Rutland, Bacon, or Southampton should have disguised himself so unsuccessfully; that, using a cipher or a faked identity, he should have hidden from Elizabeth and her time only to reveal himself so carelessly to later generations? What cunning, what ulterior purpose can be imagined in the mind of this highly reckless man who undoubtedly existed, who is not ashamed of slips of the pen, and who, yawning with fatigue in the face of history, remembered less of his own work than any high school pupil knows of it today? His strength shows itself in his weakness.

There is another puzzling thing. Why is it that ungifted people are so passionately interested in those who are great? They have their own conception of the artist, a conception which is idle, agreeable, and false. They start by assuming that Shakespeare was a genius in the way that they understand genius; they apply their yardstick to him and he fails to measure up to it.

His life, they find, was too obscure and workaday for his fame. He had no library of his own and his signature at the bottom of his will is a scrawl. It strikes them as suspicious that a man who knew the soil, the crops, the animals, and all the hours of the day and night as simple people knew them should also have been at home with law, history, diplomacy, and the ways and habits of courtiers. And so they are astonished, amazed, forgetting that so great an artist must inevitably sum up everything human in himself.

King Henry IV.

The period of Shakespeare’s life about which there can be least doubt is his youth.

I am thinking of the time when he had just come to London as an unknown young provincial from Stratford. Probably, he stayed for a while in the suburbs, further from the center of town than a cabby would take his fare. Probably, out there, there was a sort of Yamskie village. With travelers to and from London stopping on their way, the place must have had something of the bustling life of a modern railway station; there were probably lakes, woods, market gardens, stagecoach inns, booths, and amusement parks in the neighborhood. There may have been theaters. Smart people from London came to have a good time.

It was a world which had something about it of the Tverskie-Yamski of the middle of the last century when, on the outskirts of Moscow, beyond the river -- surrounded by the nine muses and by lofty theories, troikas, publicans, gypsy choirs, and educated merchants who patronized the arts -- lived and struggled the most distinguished Russian heirs of the young man from Stratford, Apollon Grigoriev and Ostrovsky.

The young man had no definite occupation but an unusually brilliant star. His belief in it had brought him to the capital. He did not yet know his future role, but his sense of life told him that he would play it unbelievably well.

Whatever he took up had been done before him: people had composed verses and plays, acted, obliged the visiting gentry, and tried as hard as they could to make their way in the world. But whatever this young man took up, he felt it was such an astonishing upsurge of strength that it was clearly best for him to break with all established habits and do everything in his own way.

Before him, only what was artificial and remote from life had been regarded as art. The artificiality was obligatory, and it was a convenient cloak for spiritual impotence and for inability to draw. But Shakespeare had so good an eye and so sure a hand that it was clearly to his advantage to upset the existing convention.

He realized how much he would gain if, instead of staying at the usual distance from life, he walked up to it -- not on stilts but on his own legs -- and, measuring himself against it, forced it to look down first before his stubbornly unblinking stare.

There was a company of actors, writers, and their patrons who went from pub to pub, baited strangers, and consistently risked their necks by laughing at everything in the world. The most reckless of them, who yet remained unharmed (he got away with everything), the least moderate and the most sober (drink never went to his head), the one who raised the loudest laugh and who was yet the most reserved, was this gloomy youth who was already striding into the future in his seven-league boots.

Perhaps there really was a fat Falstaff who went about with these young people. Or perhaps Shakespeare invented him later as an embodiment of that time.

It was not only as a gay memory that it became dear to him: this was the time which saw the birth of Shakespeare’s realism. It was not in the solitude of his study that he conceived it but in the early hours in an unmade room in an inn, a room as charged with life as a gun is with powder. Shakespeare’s realism is not the profundity of a reformed rake or the hackneyed “wisdom” of later experience. That which is most earnest, grave, tragic, and essential in his art arose out of his consciousness of success and strength in those wild early days of desperate fooling, inventiveness, and hourly mortal danger.

King Lear.

The productions of King Lear are always too noisy. There is the willful, obstinate old man, there are the gatherings in the echoing palace hall, shouts, orders, and afterwards curses and sobs of despair merging with the rolls of thunder and the noises of the wind. But, in fact, the only stormy thing in the play is the tempest at night, while the people, huddled in the tent and terrified, speak in whispers.

Lear is as quiet as Romeo, and for the same reason. In Romeo it is the love of lovers which is persecuted and in hiding; in Lear it is filial love and, more widely, the love of one’s neighbor, the love of truth.

Only the criminals in Lear wield the notions of duty and honor; they alone are sensible and eloquent, and logic and reason assist them in their frauds, cruelties, and murders. All the decent people are either silent to the point of being indistinguishable from  each other or make obscure and contradictory statements which lead to misunderstandings. The positive heroes are the fools, the madmen, the dying, and the vanquished.

Such is the content of a play written in the language of the Old Testament prophet and situated in a legendary epoch of Pre-Christian barbarism.

Comedy and Tragedy in Shakespeare.

There is no pure comedy or tragedy in Shakespeare. His style is between the two and made up of both; it is thus closer to the true face of life than either; for in life, too, horrors and delights are mixed. This has been accounted to him as a merit by all English critics, from Samuel Johnson to T.S. Eliot.

To Shakespeare, the difference between tragedy and comedy was not merely the difference between the lofty and the commonplace, the ideal and the real. He used them rather as the major and minor keys in music. In arranging his material he employed poetry and prose and the transitions from one to the other as variations in music.

These transitions are the chief characteristic of his dramatic art; they are at the very heart of his stagecraft and they convey that hidden rhythm of though and mood which I referred to in my note on Hamlet.

All his dramas are made up of swiftly alternating scenes of tragedy and tomfoolery. One aspect of this method is particularly marked.

At the edge of Ophelia’s grave the audience is made to laugh at the philosophizing of the grave diggers. At the moment when Juliet’s corpse is carried out, the boy from the servant’s hall giggles at the musicians who have been invited to the wedding, and the musicians bargain with the nurse who is trying to get rid of them. Cleopatra’s suicide is preceded by the appearance of a half-wit Egyptian snake charmer with his absurd reflections on the uselessness of reptiles -- almost as in Maeterlinck or in Leonid Andreyev!

Shakespeare was the father and the prophet of realism. His influence on Pushkin, Victor Hugo, and other poets is well known. He was studied by the German Romantics. One of the Schlegels translated him into German and the other drew on him for his theory of Romantic irony. Goethe, as the Symbolist author of Faust, was his descendant. Finally, to keep only to the essentials, as a dramatist he is the predecessor of Chekhov and Ibsen.

It is in this same spirit, which he transmitted to his heirs, that he makes vulgar mediocrity snort and rush in on the funereal solemnity of his finales.

Its irruption makes the theory of death, already inaccessibly remote from us, withdraw still further. The respectful distance we keep between ourselves and the threshold of what is lofty and frightening grows a little longer still. No situation as seen by the artist or the thinker is final; every position is the last but one. It is as if Shakespeare were afraid lest the audience should believe too firmly in the seemingly unconditional finality of his denouements. By breaking up the rhythm at the end he reestablishes infinity. In keeping with the character of modern art and in contrast to the fatalism of the ancient world, he dissolves the mortal, temporal quality of the individual sign in its immortal, universal significance.


Macbeth might well be called Crime and Punishment. All the time I was translating it, I was haunted by its likeness to Dostoevsky’s novel.

Planning the murder of Banquo, Macbeth tells his hired murderers:

Your spirits shine through you. Within this hour at most
I will advise you where to plant yourselves,
Acquaint you with the perfect spy o’ the time,
The moment on’t; for ‘t must be done tonight,
And something from the palace…

A little further on, in the third scene of the third act, the murderers, lying in ambush for Banquo, watch the guests arriving through the park.

Then t’is he; the rest
That are within the note of expectation
Already are in the court.

His horses go about.

Almost a mile: but he does usually--
So all men do -- from hence to the palace gate
Make it their walk…

Murder is a desperate, dangerous business. Everything must be thought out, every possibility must be foreseen. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky endow their heroes with their own foresight and imagination, their own capacities in timeliness, detail, and precision. Both the novel and the play have the sharp heightened realism of detection and of detective fiction; the cautious wariness of the policeman who looks over his shoulder as often as the criminal himself.

Neither Macbeth or Raskolnikov is a born criminal or a villain by nature. They are turned into criminals by faulty rationalizations, by deductions from false premises.

In one case, the impetus is given by the prophecy of the witches who set the vanity of Macbeth ablaze. In the other, it comes from the extreme nihilistic proposition that, if there is no God, everything is allowed, and therefore a murder is in no way different from any other human act.

Of the two, Macbeth feels particularly safe from retribution. Who could threaten him? A forest walking across a plain? A man not born of woman? -- Such things don’t exist, they are blatant absurdities. And what, in any case, has he to fear from justice once he has seized kingly power and become the only source of law? It all seems so clear and logical! What could be more simple and obvious? And so the crimes follow in quick succession -- many crimes over a long time -- until the forest suddenly moves and sets out on its way and an avenger comes who is not born of woman.

Incidentally, about Lady Macbeth -- coolness and will power are not her predominant qualities. I think that what is strongest in her is something more generally feminine. She is one of those active, insistent wives, a woman who is her husband’s helper, his support, for whom her husband’s interests are her own and who takes his plans on faith once and for all. She neither discusses them nor judges nor selects among them. To reason, to doubt, to make plans -- that’s her husband’s business, its his lookout. She’s his executive, more resolute and consistent than he is himself. Miscalculating her strength, she assumes the excessive burden and is destroyed, not by conscience, but by spiritual exhaustion, sadness, and fatigue.