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Helena Faucit: Shakespeare's Victorian Heroine

Gail Marshall
Affiliation:
Leeds University
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Summary

Any artistic production inevitably involves an act of translation, a transference of a form, commodity, or idea across a boundary, be that boundary one of time, space, language, or cultural medium. Shakespeare and his works are among the most durable and flexible of translated media, and seem unlikely to be easily exhausted. Particularly interesting are the ways in which ‘Shakespeare’ operates both as an enabling medium and as an object who is himself translated. Within the economy of translation, the facilitating medium is a common point of reference, a shared experience which first makes conceivable the possibility and desirability of that exchange that is the end result of an act of cultural translation or transmission. That medium is far from being a necessarily passive part of the translation and, indeed, may itself be transformed, or at least refigured, by the generosity and expansiveness which characterize acts of the best form of cultural transmission. Shakespeare's work has become a form of common currency which facilitates exchanges of theatrical and cultural practice, and which is itself made anew in that act. Such is his status that he can enable the initial act of recognition, or will to recognize, upon the acceptance of which a translation vitally depends.

Two recent examples of the absorption of a Shakespearean reference into popular culture demonstrate how the playwright's fame may carry the life of the Victorian performer forward into a new century, and crucially into new media. The film, In the Bleak Midwinter (1995), one of Kenneth Branagh's numerous homages to Shakespeare, included an all-too-brief recognition of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving's 1888 production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre. John Sessions’ camp theatrical character appears dressed as Ellen Terry, in a costume and wig inspired by John Singer Sargent's portrait of Terry in that role. Richard Briers impersonates Irving's Macbeth. Thus, through the recognition engineered by Branagh, one who would himself carry on their tradition of popularizing Shakespeare, two of the most important performers of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century live on into the twentieth.

Similarly, in her novel Wise Children (1991), Angela Carter represents Terry's story through the familiar medium of Shakespearean references.

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Chapter
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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 297 - 314
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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