22 of May 2016
The second Asian Shakespeare Association conference “All the World Is His Stage: Shakespeare Today” will take place on 1–3 Dec 2016, New Delhi, India.
Database "Russian Shakespeare"
Moscow University for the Humanities

The Cult of Shakespeare is a sociocultural phenomenon that can be defined as worship of Shakespeare and respect for him, as one of the greatest geniuses of humankind. It developed in several European countries in the 18th century, and eventually spread to a global scale.

The cult of Shakespeare reveals itself in publications, translations, staging and screening of Shakespeare’s works, a scrutiny of his life events and creative activity, his close environment and the whole époque defined as “Shakespearean” (in Shakespeare Studies); usage of his characters, plots, and texts in arts and design; outside artistic activities, such as politics and everyday life (Shakespearisation); the reflection of Shakespeare’s concept of human being, his world and art, his philosophy of history in the cultural thesaurus (Shakespearianism). Sometimes the worship of Shakespeare acquires sacral characteristics and takes forms of ritual and in certain communities becomes a marker to differentiate “friends” from “aliens”. Though, the cult of Shakespeare is not limited to this outer display of “Bardolatry”.

On the one hand, the phrase The cult of Shakespeare sounds and looks quite common; but, on the other hand, it bears a riddle, like all other things related to the famous English playwright and poet. The latter word is a key to the “Shakespeare issue”, as it implies a mystery. But the former element is no less important.

In French, the word “cult” bears a positive emotional tint. English people consider this French borrowing as rather negative. In Russian dictionaries it bears little connotation, if any. No wonder that two clashing illustrations accompany this very entry — the “cult of personality” and the “cult of reason”. Any native Russian speaker will certainly notice that “cult” in these two cases lies on the opposite sides of the emotional range. A completely neutral comprehension of this word is possible, though. Evidently, the cult of Shakespeare belongs among dubious cases.

But this word assumes some coloring (either negative or positive) in certain professional spheres, such as philology and art criticism. Thus, a term (which must be interpreted as a single notion) turns into a concept. This statement is inaccurate: though much literary scholarship, both Russian and foreign, uses it in their work (e.g., Peter Davidhazi), it has not acquired the status of a term yet. It can be attributed to the common vocabulary of philologists and art critics, rather than to the terminological set of philology and criticism.

If we accept the cult of Shakespeare as a “philological concept”, we are inevitably bound to clarify the notion of concept as such. We can take the exhaustive research of Academician Yu.S. Stepanov as a guideline, which lead to his outstanding publication called Constants: The Thesaurus of Russian Culture. A concept, in Stepanov’s definition, is a “cultural cluster in the human mind; a vehicle for culture to get into the human mentality. On the other hand, a concept is a vehicle for an individual (an ordinary, common individual, not a “creator of cultural values”) to enter into culture and in some cases to influence it. (…) In contrast to notions proper (…), concepts are not only conceived, they are experienced. They become a result of emotions, sympathy and antipathy, sometimes even clashes. Concept is the central point of culture in person’s mental world”. An important clarification follows: “In cultural studies, the term concept is used when we abstract ourselves from cultural substance and concentrate only on structure…” These thoughts are valuable for the author, as he deals with the definition of culture through concepts: “Culture is a combination of concepts and their interrelations conveyed through different lines (first of all through evolutionary semiotic lines, as well as through paradigms, styles, isoglottic lines, ranks, constants, etc.); it is necessary to remember that there are neither “purely spiritual”, nor “purely material” lines: a temple is connected to the concept of ”sacred”; crafts are connected to quite a number of various concepts; social institutions form their own lines as they are not literally spiritual concepts, etc., the lines formed are conceptualized areas, where words and objects come together and become synonyms; this is one of the most specific manifestations of this property in spiritual culture”. Constants assume a separate place in the general system of terms, characterizing conceptualized area: “Constant in culture is a concept that exists eternally or at least for a very long period of time”.

This and some other statements in Academician Yu.S. Stepanov’s work become fundamental in working out a theoretical approach to the cult of Shakespeare. This combination of two notions can acquire a different meaning, as each of them presents a notion-image “centaur”, a concept (and even a constant) of Russian and world (or at least Western) culture. And this culture must undergo the procedure, suggested by Yu.S. Stepanov, of disclosure of historical layers according to the principle which can be defined (based on the ideas of this scholar) as “actualization scale”. This combination itself can be defined by a limited number of researchers in arts and artists as a concept of the level of constants; it can also acquire a different meaning if we give it the rank of a term. The word “concept” (non-scholarly usage) does not conceal a concept in itself, but provides a term for some common aspect of such words as love, faith, home, motherland, etc., and the sound combinations in them evokes in one’s mind some images which are vaguely differentiated and visualized, and at the same time experienced emotionally. Though the concepts themselves are hard to define, the term concept can easily become an object of systematic and logical operations that enable us to make sufficient progress in the definition of this phenomenon. The same approach can be applied to define the cult of Shakespeare. Though this historical phenomenon is quite amorphous, hard to characterize and acquires various forms, the term cult of Shakespeare may facilitate our understanding of the notion, provided it is integrated within a conceptual framework.

These ideas completely fit the thesaurus approach to the study of world culture, intensively developing at present. We consider a thesaurus as a characteristic of culture image in its subjective acquisition, where the subject can range from an individual to humankind. The principal role in a thesaurus belongs to what contains the notion of own (one’s own culture), while alien remains subordinate. When we speak about the expansion of a thesaurus, we mean assimilation, that is, turning alien into own.

If we proceed from the thesaurus approach, the cult of Shakespeare turns into a term to denote quite a significant thesaurus constant of European and Russian cultures.

As a culture constant, the cult of Shakespeare has to be differentiated from two relatively independent branches of philology: Shakespearean studies and the Shakespeare problem. Both of the branches are definitely related to this Cult, but they denote a new stage, when Europeans turned from worshiping Shakespeare to profound study (though this did not exclude an emotional component, characteristic of concept acquisition (especially in the Shakespeare problem debates). Layers of this cultural constant should be characterized in both historical (from birth to flourishing, and to later transformations) and spatial terms. This results in separation of Shakespearisation (applied mostly to the Western-European tradition) from Shakespearianism (applied mostly to the Russian tradition).

Shakespeare’s legacy has been scrutinized in all aspects by now, and he is certainly one of the best-studied writers of the world. Academic research, articles, biographies, artistic alterations, stage and screen versions are annually presented to the public. This phenomenon is commonly called the Shakespeare industry, and it cultivates and promotes everything connected to the British genius in his home country and abroad.

Shakespearean Studies emerged as a separate branch of philology. Its starting point is usually traced back to the poem of Ben Johnson (1573–1637), a friend of Shakespeare and another outstanding Elizabethan playwright, prefacing the First Folio published in 1623.

The first biography of Shakespeare by Nicholas Rowe (1674–1718) appeared in 1709, as an introduction to the playwright’s first Collected Works to be published in the 18th century. This biography contained carefully collected data about the great writer, though later, much of it did not prove to be reliable. While in England, Voltaire came across Shakespeare’s works and became his first promoter in France. Unconsciously he laid the foundation for, and initiated the cult of Shakespeare, which seized Europe and eventually other parts of the world in the second half of the century. However hard he later tried to confront this cult by calling Shakespeare a “barbarian” who knew nothing about the laws of art, Voltaire failed to undermine the general passion for the English playwright. Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) and Samuel Johnson’s introduction to Shakespeare’s Collected Works (1765) contain a response to the coming critique from Voltaire: Shakespeare is a genius who sets the laws of art himself, his works are so true to life that it justifies his violation of rules. The first attempt to give a psychological interpretation of Shakespeare’s characters was made in An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff by Maurice Morgann (1777).

In the 19th century, a romantic interpretation of Shakespeare’s legacy emerged (F. Schlegel, G.W.F. Hegel, S.T. Coleridge, F. Stendhal, V. Hugo, F. Guizot, etc). The playwright is treated as a pure type of genius (in Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare), as the banner of Romanticism in fight against Classicism (Racine et Shakespeare by F. Stendhal, 1823–1825; Preface to Cromwell by V. Hugo, 1827). Romanticists’ works enjoy international fame (Pushkin had a copy of a French translation of L. Tieck’s Shakespeare et ses Contemporains among his books).

For most prominent European cultures, especially Germany and France, this process of falling in love with Shakespeare’s dramas resulted in gradual Shakespearisation of their national literature. The cult of Shakespeare became an important distinguishing feature of German culture.

German pre-romantic dramatic artists “die Stuermer”, who proclaimed the cult of Shakespeare and carried his name on their banners, include G.E. Lessing, G.W. Gestenberg, I.G. Hamann, J.G. Herder, J.W. Goethe, J.M.R. Lentz, J.A. Leisewitz, F.M. Klinger, J.F. Schiller, brothers A.W. and F. Schlegel, L. Tieck, etc.

J.W. Goethe’s essay On Shakespeare Day (1771) and J.G. Herder’s book Shakespeare (1771, published in 1773) became fundamental engines of appreciating Shakespeare’s creative activity. Both Herder, who introduced Shakespeare to Goethe, and Goethe himself reject the classicist aesthetic system as a tool for Shakespeare’s genius evaluation; they refuse to measure “his beauty by the degree of his deviation from the norms”. While establishing his attitude to Shakespeare, Goethe writes: “Without a minute of hesitation I denied theatre that was suppressed by rules”, making it clear that it is necessary to employ a new system of aesthetic values to objectively assess Shakespeare’s genius. Herder and Goethe were the first to talk about the world of Shakespeare associating the famous playwright with a creator of a whole Universe. They juxtaposed the mechanized structure of the French tragedy to the synthesis of Shakespeare. They claimed that pieces of art turn into real life when Shakespeare touches them: “It’s not a poet! It’s a creator! It’s a history of the Universe!” “What else can embrace more nature than Shakespeare’s characters?”

While considering Shakespeare’s philosophy and his thought generation, Goethe tends to leave alone the Enlightenment concept of good and evil: “Everything the noble philosophers say about the Universe can be related to Shakespeare: everything that we call evil is nothing else but the reverse side of the good, that is… necessary for it to exist…”. In his turn, Herder praises Shakespeare as a historian. According to Herder, time, place and the environment provide his stories with “stability, duration and real existence”. The greatest mastery of Shakespeare lies in the fact, that “when he was considering the events of his drama, when he was revolving them in his mind, every time there arose circumstances of place and time”.

Herder’s ideas were developed by Goethe in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796), where he suggested one of the deepest interpretation of the tragedy Hamlet and its main character. In their works Herder and Goethe established the cult of Shakespeare as an international phenomenon.

Though Germany bore priority in this respect, such examples of Shakespeare heritage assimilation occur in other non-English authors’ works, as late French classicists and romantics: Voltaire, J.F. Eno, P.-L. de Belloy, L.-S. Mercier, V. Hugo, A. de Vigny, A. Dumas.

Pre-romantic European literature of the 18th century paved the way for the romantic cult of Shakespeare in Russia in the early 19th century. Such Russian writers as A.S. Pushkin, W.K. Küchelbecker, A.S. Griboyedov, O.M. Somov took Shakespeare as a model to create a genuine national literature based on folk characters. Thus, A.S. Griboyedov’s experiences in the Caucasus gave way to a romantic tragedy in Shakespearian style. Unfortunately, all manuscripts were lost except for two scenes and a plot summary of Georgian Night, but from these we can see his deep understanding of how foreign artistic heritage can be integrated into the national tradition.

The plot of the tragedy was evoked by a story from Georgian life which the Russian writer and diplomat was very familiar with. As a stylistic device, the author chose Shakespearian fantasy to enhance its impact on the audience. Offended by the Governor, the Nurse curses her master and evokes evil spirits, Ali, in a mountainous ravine. She begs them to take cruel revenge on the Governor. Like the witches from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, Ali “float in the mist at the mountains’ feet”, “evening couples” tread “in a round dance before the mournful and virgin Moon rises. A young Russian man falls in love with the Princess and abducts her, the Governor who is the Princess’ father chases them. The evil spirits and the Nurse’s whim make him put a bullet through his daughter’s heart, while shooting at the seducer.

A.S. Pushkin was and still remains the most prominent Russian expert in Shakespeare. Following the Decembrists, Pushkin set himself a goal, to create a national literature in Russia, and he had more success than anybody else did. The poet’s Shakespearianism did not appear just due to the literary fashion, his literary passion turned into deep realization of the genius’ spiritual revelation. Pushkin’s affection with Shakespeare grew from a literary concept into his world vision. Under Shakespeare’s influence, Pushkin developed his mature attitude to history and people. Pushkin considers Shakespeare a romantic, as by genuine romanticism he understood the form of art that complied with the spirit of the century and was bound to the people. Pushkin tends to develop Shakespeare’s artistic system, applying it to contemporary goals. He considers objectivity, truthfulness of characters and a precise reflection of the period to be the main features of Shakespearian manner of writing. “In the manner of our Father Shakespeare” Pushkin created his tragedy Boris Godunov (1825) and adopted Shakespeare’s objectivity while depicting the time and characters. This adaptation strategy of Shakespeare’s ideas in Boris Godunov was later employed in Russian drama, especially historical plays. Pushkin’s work set an example for the group of writers known as “Lyubomudry”, such as M.P. Pogodin (Marfa, Novgorod Posadnik’s Wife, 1830) and A.S. Khomyakov (False Dmitry, 1833). Pogodin set off the autocracy against the people and made the latter the main character.

Shakespeare and his characters are repeatedly mentioned in Pushkin’s manuscripts in 1826–1836 (Populism In Literature, 1826; in his drafts for Extracts From Letters, Thoughts and Remarks, 1827; There Comes A Time In A Mature Literature, 1828; in his sketch for On W. Scott’s Novels, 1829–1830; in his sketches for the article’s plan On Popular Drama and Marfa, The Posadnik’s Wife, 1830; in Pushkin’s newspaper article published without his signature in “Literaturnaya Gazeta” on February 25, 1830; in his commentary to A Scene From Shakespeare’s Tragedy Romeo and Juliet in P.A. Pletnyov’s Translation”, in numerous letters to friends, in his battle with critics around the poem Poltava; in his essay on Shylock, Angelo and Falstaff, which is one of the articles united under the title Table-Talk). They are so prominent and valuable in their literary and critical aspects, that researches expected the poet to have been preparing to write a “treatise on Shakespeare”.

Shakespeare’s impact on Pushkin’s creative activity is evident in many of his works. The image of Brutus in the poem The Dagger (1821) is associated with the character in Shakespeare’s drama Julius Caesar. Othello’s tortures of jealousy had been experienced by Pushkin’s ancestor Abram Gannibal (The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, 1827–1829). Shakespearean allusions appear at the end of the poem Recollection (1828). In the poem To a Kalmuck Girl (1829), Shakespeare is ironically introduced as a part of an obtrusive literary fashion (“You do not prattle French, … do not marvel Cinq-Mars, or fancy Shakespeare a little…”). The creator of Macbeth, the author of a book of sonnets is mentioned in Pushkin’s Sonnet (1830), and later in the poem I Don’t Appreciate Those Loud Rights Highly (1836) the poet quotes Hamlet’s famous exclamation: “Words, words, words”. Shakespearean reminiscences are present in the selection of a topic for poetic improvisation in Egyptian Nights (1835), in The Covetous Knight, in the use of tautological rhymes in The Stone Guest, in the way he treats some topics and characters in The Station Warden, in Mozart and Salieri, in Mermaid. In the drafts for his unfinished play Scenes from Chivalrous Times (1835) the name of the merchant Martyn was changed into Caliban, the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is associated with rank ignorance and anti-intellectuality.

Finally, instead of translating Shakespeare’s play Measure For Measure Pushkin unexpectedly creates his dramatic poem Angelo. Some critics said that in this poetic tournament he surpassed the greatest of all playwrights.

This affection for Shakespeare stimulated popularity of the English language in Russia. Pushkin was joined in the study of English by Küchelbecker, Vyazemsky, Griboyedov, Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, and many others beginning in the mid-1820s. English literature comes into fashion and becomes one of the most important sources of artistic inspiration for Russian writers. Concurrency of this growing interest to the British playwright with improvement of the Russian theory of translation became an important factor for the establishment of the cult of Shakespeare on the Russian soil. Pushkin’s “teacher” Vasily Zhukovsky apparently planned to translate Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, another predecessor, Nikolay Karamzin, made an authentic prose translation of Julius Caesar back in 1787. Beside them, Pushkin’s close friends in the lyceum, Anton Delvig and Wilhelm Küchelbecker were engaged in translation. Same processes were going on in other national literatures. The cult of Shakespeare promoted many progressive ideas and initiatives. Pushkin model of Shakespearianism becomes an essential feature of Russian culture in the first half of the 19th century. One of its specifics was compliance of Shakespearianism with Western European Shakespearisation. Thus, translations of Shakespeare, his images and plots were directly utilized with references to the source.

In the second half of the 19th century Russian culture continued to develop Pushkin model of Shakespearianism. Music, inspired by Pushkin’s example, proved to be quite significant, the most vivid piece being Boris Godunov by M.P. Musorgsky. I.S. Turgenev, the author of A Prince Hamlet of the Shigrov District, King Lear of the Steppes, etc., based his work on the Pushkin model, but in his article Hamlet and Don Quixote turned to a new one. Hamlet’s character is juxtaposed to Russian intelligentsia, but this time without an overwhelming excitement. Shakespearian central character, his intellect and inclination to meditate are perceived as obstacles for contemporary Russian intelligentsia’s development. The famous article by L.N. Tolstoy On Shakespeare and Drama (1903–1904) will later become a climax of divergence from the cult of Shakespeare. In the article, the famous Russian writer dethrones the English playwright, so as to set his own perspective of realistic reflection of life and to create a realistic character in literature. But what was criticized by Tolstoy was only the surface part of Shakespeare’s heritage — his characters, plots, the diction of Shakespeare’s works, i.e. everything that can be referred to as a process in the sphere of Shakespearisation. Unconsciously in his works Tolstoy creates one of the highest embodiments of Russian Shakespearianism, which reflected itself in a large-scale world outlook, historical concept, Shakespearian strategy of artistic thought, i.e. everything that is bound to belong to Shakespearianism as a world vision. This interpretation eliminates a lot of discrepancies in the attempt to support the humble opinion that Tolstoy, who spent a lot of time to scrutinize Shakespeare, failed to learn his lessons due to some incomprehensible reasons.

However, Shakespearianism, as a Russian form of the cult of Shakespeare continued its development in the second half of the 19th century. It was not a pure Pushkin model now. It was a new post-Pushkin one, to which we can refer A.N. Ostrovsky’s plays, music by composers from The Mighty Handful group up to the turn of the centuries, paintings by The Itinerants, and other phenomena. This post-Pushkin model of Shakespearianism, which preserved some features of the cult of Shakespeare, was most vividly represented by F.M. Dostoyevsky.

F.M. Dostoyevsky ranked Shakespeare as a world-wide genius and speaker for humankind. He likened Shakespeare to a prophet who came to “reveal the mystery of the human spirit to us”. Dostoyevsky was amazed by Shakespeare. Since his adolescence he scrutinized his works and knew many passages from his plays and sonnets by heart. Shakespeare became for him a symbol of poetry, and embodiment of refined art, a touchstone of spirituality. Dostoyevsky’s characters curse and swear by Shakespeare’s name. Dostoyevsky appropriated Shakespeare’s artistic innovations and his anthropological beliefs. Dostoyevsky’s characters carry a mark of his artistic interpretation of Shakespeare’s characters. Othello, Hamlet, Prince Harry, and especially vicious Falstaff attracted him more than others.

The cult of Shakespeare is preserved in the 20th century as well, mainly in European culture. Shakespeare’s characters are interpreted in a peculiar way in modern literature, and this interpretation is close to literary analysis. Hamlet in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince (1973) can be an example of such interpretation. But all this is going on in the environment of well-established Shakespearean studies.

The reverse side of the cult of Shakespeare resulted in critique, and even rejection of his artistic discoveries. G.B. Shaw as a young man criticized Shakespeare but that was more like one of Shavian numerous paradoxes.

Among a lot of other results of the cult of Shakespeare formation, it is important to mention many pieces of music based on Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The variety of music genres is great. The creations of the Great Bard gave birth to choral and solo ballads, cantatas, operas, theater and ballet music, concert overtures, symphony poems, musicals, etc.

In different periods many composers turned to Shakespeare: Englishmen Henry Purcell (1659–1695), Thomas Augustine Arne (1710–1778), Henry Rowley Bishop (1786–1855); Germans Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847), Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Carl Orff (born as Karl Heinrich Maria) (1895–1982); Austrians Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Franz Peter Schubert (1797–1828); Frenchmen Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) and Charles-François Gounod (1818–1893); an Italian Romantic composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813–1901), a Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), Finn Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), Swiss American Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), Russian composers А.А. Alyabyev (1787–1851), М.А. Balakirev (1836(1837)–1910), P.I. Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), S.S. Prokofyev (1891–1953), D.B. Kabalevsky (1904–1987), D.D. Shostakovich (1906–1975), and many others.

H. Berlioz described his impressions from Shakespeare in his youth in the following way:

“Shakespeare rushed into my heart unexpectedly, striking me like a lightning. This flash was an eye-opener that revealed the heaven of art for me, illuminating the very distant parts of it. I captured the grandeur, the beauty, the dramatic reality in their true sense. At the same time I understood the absurdity of Shakespeare’s image spread in France by Voltaire…

After the performance of Hamlet I was quite shocked by what I had just experienced, I swore not to expose myself to the flames of Shakespeare’s genius.

The next day Romeo and Juliet was announced. I had a pass to the orchestra. But I was afraid that the doorkeeper, having been specially instructed, would make the admission stricter, so I decided, to be on the safe side, to rush into the booking office and buy a ticket in the stalls right after I had seen the billboard. That turned to be an irrevocable decision of my life”.

The cult of Shakespeare was also reflected in visual arts. Illustrations, portraits of the playwright and characters of his works still appear today. Cinema and, later, television gave a new push to the development of the cult of Shakespeare. Screen versions of his works are numerous, and they gather audiences of millions.

The cult of Shakespeare will also be maintained thanks to the Internet, where you can find his works translated into numerous languages. For public at large this ensures simplicity of search and accessibility.

Unlike in the 17th–19th centuries, Shakespeare has been included into university and school curriculum. His works are closely studied by top managers, politicians, professionals in PR, sociology, psychology, etc. These are quite modern traits of the cult of Shakespeare, to be fully displayed in the nearest future.

Vl. A. Lukov,
N. V. Zakharov


See also: