Shakespeare And The French, A Long And Tempestuous Relationship

A new bilingual edition of Shakespeare's complete works has turned new attention to the English playwright's lasting (but not always appreciated) influence on French literature.

Bard, bread and beret
Bard, bread and beret
John E. Jackson

LAUSANNE â€" Celebrated by some, detested by others, William Shakespeare has long served as a point of reference for the French literary world.

Voltaire (1694-1778), stuck as he was in the ways of classical literature, found Shakespeare's works to be "grotesque" and "contrary to good taste." But he also admitted that the English playwright was, at times, "sublime."

Voltaire's mixed feelings are emblematic of a relationship â€" between Shakespeare and his later French counterparts â€" that was always more than a bit complicated. "He was a savage … with some imagination," Voltaire wrote in a letter in 1765.

Shakespeare's posthumous influence helped free early romanticism and then romanticism from the classical straightjacket of classicism, as acknowledged in 19th-century essays by Stendhal (1783-1842) and later Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Why? Because Shakespeare broke all the rules of French classical theater. That’s also, of course, why others loathed him.

Paris' Shakespeare And Company library â€" Photo: jimmyweee

Hugo hailed Shakespeare as the forefather of "drama," by which he meant the mix of theatrical genres that he himself embraced. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was also a student of Shakespeare. "The real need of my heart, profound as an abyss / Is you, Lady Macbeth, soul so potent in crime / The dream of Aeschylus, born in the land of storms," he wrote in his poem L’Idéal. Fellow poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) wrote about another Shakespeare character, Hamlet, remarking on his tentativeness and failure to translate potential into achievement.

Shakespeare, in short, has served for the past two centuries as "the Other" who accompanies and speaks to the soul of French literary consciousness.

Lost in translation?

But beyond the issue of Shakespeare's relationship to France, there's also the still-relevant question of how to translate his work to French.

In the 17th century, François de Malherbe (1555-1628), a poet, and Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), a critic and poet, led a call for purifying and simplifying the French language. The changes that resulted had a significant impact on translation, in some ways complicating the task.

Shakespeare's language was rich and abundant and is also much closer in certain regards to Villon (1431-1463) or Rabelais (1483 or 1494-1553) â€" who lived and wrote before the "language purification" of Malherbe and Boileau â€" than to Corneille (1606-1684) or Racine (1639-1699). Molière (1622-1673), had he not written for Louis XIV, might have paved a new way of writing. But he did depend on Versailles. Also, he didn't speak English, so probably never heard of Shakespeare.

In the 18th century, translations were, in fact, adaptations, and a lot of major changes were sometimes introduced, as seen in versions by Pierre-Antoine de La Place (1707-1793) or Pierre Letourneur (1737-1788). The same things happened in England, where theater directors were free to change whatever they wanted to change. For many years, for example, Cordelia didn't die at the end of King Lear, as she does in the original text, but survived in order to marry Edgar. In 1750, the scandal of her death had become unacceptable for an audience shocked by the representation of the tragedy.

Pléiade edition of Shakespeare's complete works

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to translating Shakespeare is the incredible mix of genres the Bard used. He respected conventions only in the loosest of ways, reinventing literature to match his genius. He took so many liberties that he was able to juxtapose crude and ethereal expressions. He mingled lyricism with sententious style. He would go from prose to verse and from verse to prose, with no explanation.

That is why, all these centuries later, the recently published "Pléiade" edition of Shakespeare's complete works is such good news. The new, bilingual edition, translated by Jean-Michel Déprats with help from Gisèle Venet, is an outstanding accomplishment and a welcome contribution.

But does this mean that French-speaking readers finally get the Shakespeare they deserve and waited so long for? Maybe not â€" for at least two reasons: First, there were already several good translations of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Works by Pierre Jean Jouve (1887-1976), Jules Supervielle (1884-1960), André du Bouchet (1924-2001) or the recently deceased Yves Bonnefoy (1924-2016) come to mind.

The second reason is that there can be no "ultimate" Shakespeare, neither in French nor in any other language, not even in English. Shakespeare is meant to be reinvented, and will always be. Shakespeare is ahead of us, and not behind us. That's why he's such a titan.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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