Unser Shakespeare: Germans' mad obsession with the Bard

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Emma Anderson - [email protected]
Unser Shakespeare: Germans' mad obsession with the Bard
A statue of William Shakespeare in Weimar, Thuringia. Photo: DPA

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the great Bard’s death, The Local looks into Germany's perhaps surprising obsession with Shakespeare.


Saturday marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare with celebrations already underway across the British Isles and beyond.

His works have been translated into dozens of languages for readers around the world, including some of his first and biggest international fans in Germany.

But why are Germans such big Shakespeare geeks?

"This question is not so easy to answer," writes the German Shakespeare Society on their website. 

“On the one hand, they like the extraordinary linguistic quality and the intellectual profundity of Shakespeare’s works, which since the end of the 18th Century have been taken in by the ‘nation of poets and thinkers’, and helped Shakespeare to be considered the third German classical author (next to Goethe and Schiller).”

So how did England’s national bard end up among Germans’ top pick of poets? The Local takes a look at some of the ways he’s become so beloved in Deutschland.

1. The first full translation of Shakespearean plays was into German

Christoph Martin Wieland's translation of Shakespeare's works. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

The Dutch and French were also quite early and big fans of Shakespeare's work, but it was Christoph Martin Wieland who first produced complete translations of Shakespeare's plays, churning out 22 German versions between 1762 and 1766, according to the MIT Global Shakespeare Video and Performance Archive.

Many other Germans would follow in his footsteps to translate the works for German readers, like August Wilhelm Schlegel, who once called the Bard "ganz unser" - entirely ours.

2. Goethe was one of Shakespeare’s biggest fans

A portrait of Goethe by Georg Melchior Kraus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Germans really started taking a liking to Shakespeare in the 18th century, especially with the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) dramatist movement, which sought to overthrow rationalism with free expression of emotions.

Among them was Germany's beloved Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who in his early twenties described his first experience with Shakespeare as a sort of literary awakening.

Goethe even once declared a national "Shakespeare Day" for Germany.

"The first page of his I read put me in his debt for a lifetime," a 22-year-old Goethe told friends in Frankfurt in 1771, more than 100 years after the English playwright was long gone.

"Once I had read an entire play, I stood there like a blind man given the gift of sight by some miraculous healing touch." 

3. The world’s first academic fan club for Shakespeare was German

Photo: DPA

The German Shakespeare Society was founded in 1864 in Weimar, where Goethe had lived and worked for decades, becoming the first in the world of its kind. The group now has around 2,000 members and holds annual conferences.

And these Shakespeare buffs even erected a statue of the bard in Weimar in 1904 (pictured above) for the 40th anniversary of their group, honouring the Englishman in a similar fashion there as the German greats Goethe and Schiller. 

4. The Globe once declared ‘Shakespeare is German’

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Photo: Maschinenjunge/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2010, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London held a special season of events called Shakespeare is German, including readings, lectures, film screenings and other cultural events dedicated to Germany’s special fondness for ole Bill.

International German film star Sebastian Koch even showed up to do some readings.

5. Germany puts on more Shakespeare plays than England

A rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Weimar. Photo: DPA

Yes, you read that correctly.

Even the Globe Theatre has admitted that each year in Deutschland, there are "more Shakespeare plays performed than in England".
There are a number of Shakespearean acting troupes across the country who regularly perform, including the Shakespeare Company Berlin, and the Bremer Shakespeare Company (which is celebrating a week of Shakespeare for the 400th anniversary).
6. Berlin once had its own Globe Theatre - and then auctioned it on eBay
The set used in the film Anonymous at Babelsberg studios, Potsdam. Photo: DPA.
For his 2011 historical drama Anonymous, which questioned whether Shakespeare actually penned his own works, German-born director Roland Emmerich needed an appropriate backdrop. So he constructed an ambitious €500,000-replica of the original London Globe Theatre in the heart of Germany's version of Hollywood - Babelsberg studios, Potsdam.
Once the film was complete, he decided to hand the set over to the Shakespeare Company Berlin.
But when the troupe was unable to pay for the set to be removed from Babelsberg and negotiations with the city fell through, they decided to sell the Globe off on eBay at a starting price of €1.
Successful bidders would also have had to pay for the removal costs of about €50,000.
This offer didn't get any solid takers, so eventually director Emmerich decided to take the set back and deal with its removal, according to newspaper Postdamer Neueste Nachrichten.
But there's also a Globe Theatre in Neuss in western Germany where citizens celebrate an annual Shakespeare Festival, as well as another replica in Schwäbisch Hall, in Baden-Württemburg.
And the Berlin troupe has not given up on its dream of having a Shakespearean theatre of their own, still advertising plans and asking for donations to build such a Globe on the Spree River.



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