What was it that made Shakespeare such a catalyst in continental European culture and theatre? The default position is that we already know: we know the stories of neoclassical curiosity and romantic inspiration, of Shakespeare wild-child genius, the exotic import contributing to secular nation-formation through a large-scale vernacular text. Naturally, all the scholarly editorial work was done in England, first in the Folio of 1623, and then, steadily, if not without acrimony, by a sequence of editors from Rowe, through Pope to consolidation in the Johnson-Steevens received edition. On the continent, particularly in central Europe, that text, those texts, provided a repertoire on which cultural and political theatrical inspiration as well as nationally unifying written linguistic standards could be erected. In France, they ordered these things differently: beginning from universalist arguments about classical correctness (which Johnson himself acknowledged and questioned), the received story is one of resistance, domestication and absorption.
From the earliest moment, so runs the tale, Voltaire called attention to Shakespeare, corrected and improved; people listened, and continued to attend to Shakespeare even after Voltaire changed his mind. It remains an idée reçue in French opinion that the history of what counts in French reception of Shakespeare turns on Voltaire's definition of the importance of correctness, forgetting that the Thunderer would have had no need to fulminate had he been winning – something Voltaire's detractors were not slow to notice. The trouble is that this story is only just right enough to convince. It is not the whole story; it is a polemic which owes its life to Voltaire's supporters, as well as to the creation of a loyal opposition – not to Shakespeare, but to an anti-anti-Shakespeare. Elevating the position advocated by late Voltaire guarantees a hegemonic authoritarianism which gave the Romantic proponents of a kind of anti-anti-Shakespeare a banner and rallying cry. As often within a politics of cultural reaction, ‘Exotic’ or ‘Oppositional Shakespeare’ proposed a default position of its own: revolutionary, anti-authoritarian (State, Church, Academy) and popular. So France created, partly following the arguments of Pope and Johnson, a philosophically idealist binary and, as with all binaries, the first term hardened the second with the necessary exclusion of third terms or other possibilities. One way of addressing the problem is called ‘Ducis’, author of the first great continental stage successes, whose adaptations had multiple advantages, not least by inspiring disdain, thus spurring on other translators or adapters to do better. Or, at least, better about what they saw, or thought they saw, or wanted to see. Universalist arguments depend upon what appear to be the axioms of reality; the difficulties of attacking fundamental assumptions need not be underlined. Not incidentally, the extent to which many arguments about Shakespeare, like similar arguments about ‘romance’, contribute to the prestige of ‘nations’ has only in recent decades come under scrutiny.